Biography of Amiri Baraka

Poet, playwright, and activist Amiri Baraka
Poet Amiri Baraka speaks from the stage on the National Mall in Washington during African Liberation Day in 1976.

Karega Kofi Moyo/Getty Images

 

Amiri Baraka (born Everett Leroy Jones; October 7, 1934–January 9, 2014) was an award-winning playwright, poet, critic, educator, and activist. He played an influential role in the Black Arts Movement and served as poet laureate of his native New Jersey. His career spanned decades, though his legacy is not without controversy.

Fast Facts: Amiri Baraka

  • Occupation: Writer, playwright, poet, activist
  • Also Known As: Leroi Jones, Imamu Amear Baraka
  • Born: October 7, 1934 in Newark, New Jersey
  • Died: January 9, 2014 in Newark, New Jersey
  • Parents: Colt Leverette Jones and Anna Lois Russ Jones
  • Education: Rutgers University, Howard University
  • Key Publications: Dutchman, Blues People: Negro Music in White America, The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka
  • Spouse(s): Hettie Jones, Amina Baraka
  • Children: Ras Baraka, Kellie Jones, Lisa Jones, Shani Baraka, Amiri Baraka Jr., Obalaji Baraka, Ahi Baraka, Maria Jones, Dominique DiPrima
  • Notable Quote: “Art is whatever makes you proud to be human."

Early Years

Amiri Baraka was born in Newark, New Jersey to postal supervisor Colt Leverette Jones and social worker Anna Lois Jones. Growing up, Baraka played the drums, piano, and trumpet, and enjoyed poetry and jazz. He especially admired the musician Miles Davis. Baraka attended Barringer High School and won a scholarship to Rutgers University in 1951. A year later, he transferred to the historically black Howard University, where he studied subjects like philosophy and religion. At Howard, he began using the name LeRoi James but would later revert to his birth name, Jones. Expelled before graduating from Howard, Jones signed up for the US Air Force, which dishonorably discharged him after three years when communist writings were found in his possession.

Although he became a sergeant in the Air Force, Baraka found military service troubling. He called the experience “racist, degrading, and intellectually paralyzing.” But his time in the Air Force ultimately deepened his interest in poetry. He worked at the base library while stationed in Puerto Rico, which allowed him to devote himself to reading. He took a particular liking to the works of the Beat poets and began writing his own poetry.

After his discharge from the Air Force, he lived in Manhattan, taking classes at Columbia University and The New School for Social Research. He also became involved in Greenwich Village’s art scene and got to know poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, Gilbert Sorrentino, and Charles Olson.

Marriage and Poetry

As his interest in poetry deepened, Baraka met Hettie Cohen, a white Jewish woman who shared his passion for writing. The interracial couple married in 1958 against the wishes of Cohen's Parents, who cried at the news of the union. Together, the couple started Totem Press, which featured the writings of beat poets like Allen Ginsberg; they also launched Yugen literary magazine. Baraka edited and wrote criticism for the literary journal Kulchur as well.

While married to Cohen, with whom he had two daughters, Baraka began a romantic relationship with another woman writer, Diane di Prima. They edited a magazine called The Floating Bear and started the New York Poets Theater, along with others, in 1961. That year, Baraka’s first poetry book, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, debuted.

During this period, the writer became increasingly political. A trip to Cuba in 1960 led him to believe that he should use his art to fight oppression, so Baraka began to embrace black nationalism and support Cuban president Fidel Castro’s regime. In addition, his complicated personal life took a turn when he and Diane di Prima had a daughter, Dominique, in 1962. The next year saw the release of Baraka’s book Blues People: Negro Music in White America. In 1965, Baraka and Cohen divorced.

A New Identity

Using the name LeRoi Jones, Baraka wrote the play Dutchman, which premiered in 1964. The play chronicles a violent encounter between a white woman and a black man on the New York subway. It won the Obie Award for Best American Play and was later adapted for film.

The 1965 assassination of Malcolm X led Baraka to leave the mostly white Beat scene and move to the predominantly black neighborhood of Harlem. There, he opened the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School, which became a haven for black artists such as Sun Ra and Sonia Sanchez, and led other black artists to open similar venues. The rise of black-run art venues led to a movement known as the Black Arts Movement. He also criticized the Civil Rights Movement for embracing nonviolence and suggested in works such as his 1965 poem “Black Art" that violence was necessary to create a black world. Inspired by Malcolm’s death, he also penned the work "A Poem for Black Hearts" in 1965 and the novel The System of Dante’s Hell the same year. In 1967, he released the short-story collection Tales. Blackness and the use of violence to achieve liberation both factor into these works.

Baraka’s newfound militancy played a role in his divorce from his white wife, according to her memoir How I Became Hettie Jones. Baraka himself admitted as much in his 1980 Village Voice essay, “Confessions of a Former Anti-Semite." (He denied choosing the title for the essay.) He wrote, “As a Black man married to a white woman, I began to feel estranged from her … How could someone be married to the enemy?

Baraka's second wife, Sylvia Robinson, later known as Amina Baraka, was a black woman. They had a Yoruba marriage ceremony in 1967, the year Baraka published the poetry collection Black Magic. A year earlier, he published Home: Social Essays.

With Amina, Baraka returned to his native Newark, where they opened a theater and residence for artists called the Spirit House. He also headed to Los Angeles to meet with scholar and activist Ron Karenga (or Maulana Karenga), founder of the Kwanzaa holiday, which aims to reconnect black Americans to their African heritage. Instead of using the name LeRoi Jones, the poet took the name Imamu Amear Baraka. Imamu is a title meaning "spiritual leader" in Swahili, Amear means "prince," and Baraka essentially means a "divine blessing.” He ultimately went by Amiri Baraka.

In 1968, Baraka co-edited Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing and his play Home on the Range was staged to benefit the Black Panther party. He also chaired the Committee for Unified Newark, founded and chaired the Congress of African People, and was a chief organizer of the National Black Political Convention.

By the 1970s, Baraka began to champion the liberation of “third-world” peoples across the globe rather than black nationalism. He embraced a Marxist-Leninist philosophy and became a lecturer in 1979 in the Africana studies department of the State University of New York, Stony Brook, where he later became a professor. He was also a visiting professor at Columbia University and Rutgers University and taught at the New School, San Francisco State, University of Buffalo, and George Washington University.

In 1984, Baraka’s memoir, The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, was published. He went on to win the American Book Award in 1989 and the Langston Hughes Award. In 1998, he landed a role in the feature film "Bulworth," starring Warren Beatty.

Later Years

In 2002, Baraka received another honor when he became New Jersey’s poet laureate. But an anti-Semitism scandal ultimately drove him from the role. The controversy stemmed from a poem he wrote after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks called “Somebody Blew Up America?” In the poem, Baraka suggested that Israel had advanced warning of the attacks on the World Trade Center. The poem includes the lines:

Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion

And cracking they sides at the notion…

Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed

Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers

To stay home that day

Baraka said that the poem wasn’t anti-Semitic because it referenced Israel rather than Jews as a whole. The Anti-Defamation League argued that Baraka’s words were indeed anti-Semitic. The poet served as New Jersey’s poet laureate at the time, and then-Gov. Jim McGreevey attempted to oust him from the role. McGreevey (who would later resign as governor for unrelated reasons) couldn’t legally force Baraka to step down, so the state senate passed legislation to abolish the post altogether. When the law took effect on July 2, 2003, Baraka was no longer poet laureate.

Death

On Jan. 9, 2014, Amiri Baraka died at Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, where he had been a patient since December. Upon his death, Baraka had written more than 50 books in a wide range of genres. His funeral took place Jan. 18 at Newark Symphony Hall.

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