Amiri Baraka

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Amiri Baraka
Amiri Baraka, Miami Book Fair International, 2007.jpg
Baraka at the Miami Book Fair International, 2007
BornEverett LeRoi Jones
(1934-10-07) October 7, 1934 (age 79)
Newark, New Jersey, U.S.
Pen nameLeRoi Jones, Imamu Amear Baraka[1]
OccupationActor, teacher, theater director/producer, writer, activist, poet
GenresPoetry, Drama
ChildrenKellie Jones, Lisa Jones, Dominque DiPrima, Maria Jones, Shani Baraka, Obalaji Baraka, Ras Baraka, Ahi Baraka, and Amiri Baraka
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Amiri Baraka
Amiri Baraka, Miami Book Fair International, 2007.jpg
Baraka at the Miami Book Fair International, 2007
BornEverett LeRoi Jones
(1934-10-07) October 7, 1934 (age 79)
Newark, New Jersey, U.S.
Pen nameLeRoi Jones, Imamu Amear Baraka[1]
OccupationActor, teacher, theater director/producer, writer, activist, poet
GenresPoetry, Drama
ChildrenKellie Jones, Lisa Jones, Dominque DiPrima, Maria Jones, Shani Baraka, Obalaji Baraka, Ras Baraka, Ahi Baraka, and Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka (born Everett LeRoi Jones October 7, 1934), formerly known as LeRoi Jones and Imamu Amear Baraka,[1] is an African-American writer of poetry, drama, fiction, essays and music criticism. He is the author of numerous books of poetry and has taught at a number of universities, including the State University of New York at Buffalo and the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He received the PEN Open Book Award formerly known as the Beyond Margins Award in 2008 for Tales of the Out and the Gone.[2]

Critical reception of Baraka's poetry and writing is a conflict of extremes. Critics within the African-American community compare him to James Baldwin and call Baraka one of the most respected and most widely published Black writers of his generation.[3] Baraka's brief tenure as Poet Laureate of New Jersey (2002–2003), which involved controversy over a public reading of his poem "Somebody Blew Up America?" and accusations of anti-Semitism, brought Baraka's work a barrage of negative attention from critics, politicians and the general public.[4][5] Other critics, most notably, Jerry Gafio Watts explains Baraka's expression of violence, misogyny, homophobia and racism as evidence of psychological projection to avoid personal positions or his past (i.e. homosexual relationships) that would undermine the "credibility of his militant voice."[6]


Early life (1934-65)[edit]

Baraka was born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, where he attended Barringer High School. His father, Coyt Leverette Jones, worked as a postal supervisor and lift operator. His mother, Anna Lois (née Russ), was a social worker. In 1967, he adopted the Muslim name Imamu Amear Baraka, which he later changed to Amiri Baraka.

He won a scholarship to Rutgers University in 1951, but a continuing sense of cultural dislocation prompted him to transfer in 1952 to Howard University, which he left without obtaining a degree. His major fields of study were philosophy and religion. Baraka subsequently studied at Columbia University and the New School for Social Research without obtaining a degree.

In 1954, he joined the US Air Force as a gunner, reaching the rank of sergeant. After an anonymous letter to his commanding officer accusing him of being a communist led to the discovery of Soviet writings, Baraka was put on gardening duty and given a dishonorable discharge for violation of his oath of duty.[citation needed]

The same year, he moved to Greenwich Village working initially in a warehouse for music records. His interest in jazz began during this period. At the same time he came into contact with avant-garde Beat Generation, Black Mountain poets and New York School poets. In 1958 he married Hettie Cohen and founded Totem Press, which published such Beat icons as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.[7] Their literary magazine Yugen lasted for eight issues (1958–62).[8] Baraka also worked as editor and critic for Kulchur (1960–65). With Diane DiPrima he edited the first twenty-five issues (1961–63) of their little magazine Floating Bear.[9]

Baraka visited Cuba in July 1960 with a Fair Play for Cuba Committee delegation and reported his impressions in his essay Cuba libre.[10] In 1961 Baraka co-authored a Declaration of Conscience in support of Fidel Castro's regime.[11] Baraka also was a member of the Umbra Poets Workshop of emerging Black Nationalist writers (Ishmael Reed, Lorenzo Thomas and many others) on the Lower East Side (1962–65). He had begun to be a politically active artist. In 1961 a first book of poems, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, was published. Baraka's 1962 work "The Myth of a 'Negro Literature'" stated that "a Negro literature, to be a legitimate product of the Negro experience in America, must get at that experience in exactly the terms America has proposed for it in its most ruthless identity." He also states in the same article that as an element of American culture, the Negro was entirely misunderstood by Americans. The reason for this misunderstanding and for the lack of black literature of merit was according to Jones:

In most cases the Negroes who found themselves in a position to pursue some art, especially the art of literature, have been members of the Negro middle class, a group that has always gone out of its way to cultivate any mediocrity, as long as that mediocrity was guaranteed to prove to America, and recently to the world at large, that they were not really who they were, i.e., Negroes.

As long as the black writer was obsessed with being an accepted, middle class, Baraka wrote, he would never be able to speak his mind, and that would always lead to failure. Baraka felt that America only made room for only white obfuscators, not black ones.[12]

In 1963, Baraka wrote Blues People: Negro Music in White America — to this day one of the most influential volumes of jazz criticism, especially in regard to the then beginning free jazz movement. His acclaimed controversial play Dutchman premiered in 1964 and received an Obie Award the same year.

After the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, Baraka left his wife and their two children and moved to Harlem. Now a "black cultural nationalist," he broke away from the predominantly white Beats and became very critical of the pacifist and integrationist Civil Rights movement. His revolutionary poetry now became more controversial.[13] A poem such as “Black Art” (1965), according to academic Werner Sollors from Harvard University, expressed his need to commit the violence required to “establish a Black World.”[14] "Black Art" quickly became the major poetic manifesto of the Black Arts Literary Movement and in it, Jones declaimed "we want poems that kill," which coincided with the rise of armed self-defense and slogans such as "Arm yourself or harm yourself" that promoted confrontation with the white power structure.[3] Rather than use poetry as an escapist mechanism, Baraka saw poetry as a weapon of action.[15] His poetry demanded violence against those he felt were responsible for an unjust society.


In 1966, Baraka married his second wife, Sylvia Robinson, who later adopted the name Amina Baraka.[16] In 1967, he lectured at San Francisco State University. The year after, he was arrested in Newark for having allegedly carried an illegal weapon and resisting arrest during the 1967 Newark riots, and was subsequently sentenced to three years in prison. Shortly afterward an appeals court reversed the sentence based on his defense by attorney, Raymond A. Brown.[17] Not long after the 1967 riots, Baraka generated controversy when he went on the radio with a Newark police captain and Anthony Imperiale, a notorious white racist, and the three of them blamed the riots on "white-led, so-called radical groups" and "Communists and the Trotskyite persons."[18] That same year his second book of jazz criticism, Black Music, came out, a collection of previously published music journalism, including the seminal Apple Cores columns from Down Beat magazine.

In 1967, Baraka (still Leroi Jones) visited Maulana Karenga in Los Angeles and became an advocate of his philosophy of Kawaida, a multifaceted, categorized activist philosophy that produced the "Nguzo Saba," Kwanzaa, and an emphasis on African names.[3] It was at this time that he adopted the name Imamu Amear Baraka.[1] Imamu is a Swahili title for "spiritual leader" in which is derived from Arabic word Imam (إمام). According to Shaw, he dropped the honorific Imamu and eventually changed Amear (which means "Prince") to Amiri.[1] Baraka means "blessing, in the sense of divine favor."[1] In 1970 he strongly supported Kenneth A. Gibson's candidacy for mayor of Newark; Gibson was elected the city's first Afro-American Mayor. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Baraka courted controversy by penning some strongly anti-Jewish poems and articles, similar to the stance at that time of the Nation of Islam.[citation needed]

Baraka's separation from the Black Arts Movement began because he saw certain black writers - capitulationists, as he called them - countering the Black Arts Movement that he created. He believed that the groundbreakers in the Black Arts Movement were doing something that was new, needed, useful, and black, and those who did not want to see a promotion of black expression were "appointed" to the scene to damage the movement.[12] Around 1974, Baraka distanced himself from Black nationalism and became a Marxist and a supporter of third-world liberation movements. In 1979 he became a lecturer in Stony Brook University's Africana Studies Department.[citation needed] The same year, after altercations with his wife, he was sentenced to a short period of compulsory community service. Around this time he began writing his autobiography. In 1980 he denounced his former anti-semitic utterances, declaring himself an anti-zionist.[citation needed]


Baraka addressing the Malcolm X Festival from the Black Dot Stage in San Antonio Park, Oakland, California while performing with Marcel Diallo and his Electric Church Band

During the 1982-83 academic year, Baraka was a visiting professor at Columbia University, where he taught a course entitled "Black Women and Their Fictions." In 1984 he became a full professor at Rutgers University, but was subsequently denied tenure.[19] In 1985, Baraka returned to Stony Brook, where he is currently professor emeritus of African Studies. In 1987, together with Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, he was a speaker at the commemoration ceremony for James Baldwin. In 1989 Baraka won an American Book Award for his works as well as a Langston Hughes Award. In 1990 he co-authored the autobiography of Quincy Jones, and 1998 was a supporting actor in Warren Beatty's film Bulworth. In 1996, Baraka contributed to the AIDS benefit album Offbeat: A Red Hot Soundtrip produced by the Red Hot Organization.

In July 2002, Baraka was named Poet Laureate of New Jersey by Governor Jim McGreevey. Baraka held the post for a year mired in controversy and after substantial political pressure and public outrage demanding his resignation. During the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Stanhope, New Jersey, Baraka read his 2001 poem on the September 11th attacks "Somebody Blew Up America?", which was criticized for anti-Semitism and attacks on public figures. Because there was no mechanism in the law to remove Baraka from the post, the position of state poet laureate was officially abolished by the State Legislature and Governor McGreevey.

Baraka collaborated with hip-hop group The Roots on the song "Something in the Way of Things (In Town)" on their 2002 album Phrenology.

In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante included Amiri Baraka on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.[20]

In 2003, Baraka's daughter Shani, aged 31, and her lesbian partner, Rayshon Homes, were murdered in the home of Shani's sister, Wanda Wilson Pasha, by Pasha's ex-husband, James Coleman.[21][22] Prosecutors argued that Coleman shot Shani because she had helped her sister separate from her husband.[23] A New Jersey jury found Coleman (also known as Ibn El-Amin Pasha) guilty of murdering Shani Baraka and Rayshon Holmes, and he was sentenced to 168 years in prison for the 2003 shooting.[24]


Baraka's writings (and the covers of his early notebooks with large images of erect penises, which were in open display in the Greenwich Village cafes where he sat) have generated controversy over the years, particularly his advocacy of rape and violence towards (at various times) women, gay people, white people, and Jews. Author Jerry Gafio Watts contends that Baraka's homophobia and misogyny stems from his efforts to conceal his own history of homosexual encounters. Watts writes that Baraka "knew that popular knowledge of his homosexuality would have undermined the credibility of his militant voice. By becoming publicly known as a hater of homosexuals, Jones tried to defuse any claims that might surface linking him with a homosexual past."[6] Critics of his work have alternately described such usage as ranging from being vernacular expressions of Black oppression to outright examples of the sexism, homophobia, antisemitism, and racism they perceive in his work.[25][26][27][28]

The following is from a 1965 essay:

Most American white men are trained to be fags. For this reason it is no wonder their faces are weak and blank.…The average ofay [white person] thinks of the black man as potentially raping every white lady in sight. Which is true, in the sense that the black man should want to rob the white man of everything he has. But for most whites the guilt of the robbery is the guilt of rape. That is, they know in their deepest hearts that they should be robbed, and the white woman understands that only in the rape sequence is she likely to get cleanly, viciously popped.[29]

In 2009, he was again asked about the quote, and placed it in a personal and political perspective:

Those quotes are from the essays in Home, a book written almost fifty years ago. The anger was part of the mindset created by, first, the assassination of John Kennedy, followed by the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, followed by the assassination of Malcolm X amidst the lynching, and national oppression. A few years later, the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. What changed my mind was that I became a Marxist, after recognizing classes within the Black community and the class struggle even after we had worked and struggled to elect the first Black Mayor of Newark, Kenneth Gibson.[30]

In July 2002, ten months after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Baraka wrote a poem entitled "Somebody Blew Up America?"[31] that was controversial and met with harsh criticism. The poem is highly critical of racism in America, and includes angry depictions of public figures such as Trent Lott, Clarence Thomas, and Condoleezza Rice. It also contains lines claiming Israel's involvement in the World Trade Center attacks:

Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?
Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion

And cracking they sides at the notion

Baraka has said that he believed Israelis and President George W. Bush had advance knowledge of the September 11 attacks,[32] citing what he described as information that had been reported in the American and Israeli press and on Jordanian television. He denies that the poem is antisemitic, and points to its accusation, which is directed against Israelis, rather than Jews as a people.[4][5] The Anti-Defamation League denounced the poem as antisemitic,[33] though Baraka and his defenders defined his position as Anti-Zionism.

After the poem's publication, Governor Jim McGreevey tried to remove Baraka from the post of Poet Laureate of New Jersey to which he had been appointed as the state's second poet laureate (following Gerald Stern) in July 2002. McGreevey learned that there no legal way to remove Baraka in the law authorizing and defining the position. On October 17, 2002, legislation was introduced in the State Senate to abolish the post which was subsequently signed by Governor McGreevey and effective July 2, 2003.[34] Baraka ceased being poet laureate when the law became effective. In response to legal action filed by Baraka, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that state officials were immune from such suits, and in November 2007 the Supreme Court of the United States refused to hear an appeal of the case.[35]

Honors and awards[edit]

Baraka served as the second Poet Laureate of New Jersey from July 2002 until the position was abolished on July 2, 2003. In response to the attempts to remove Baraka as the state's Poet Laureate, a nine-member advisory board named him the poet laureate of the Newark Public Schools in December 2002.[36]

Baraka has received honors from a number of prestigious foundations, including: fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, the Langston Hughes Award from the City College of New York, the Rockefeller Foundation Award for Drama, an induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Before Columbus Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award.[37]

A short excerpt from Amiri Baraka's poetry was selected to used for a permanent installation by artist Larry Kirkland in New York City's Pennsylvania Station.[38][39]

I have seen many suns
the endless succession of hours
piled upon each other

Carved in marble, this installation features excerpts from the works of several New Jersey poets (from Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, to contemporary poets Robert Pinsky and Renée Ashley) and was part of the renovation and reconstruction of the New Jersey Transit section of the station completed in 2002.[38]






Edited works[edit]

Film appearances[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Shaw, Lytle. Fieldworks: From Place to Site in Postwar Poetics. (Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 2013), 107.
  2. ^ "Open Book/Beyond Margins Award Winners". PEN American Center. Retrieved July 6, 2012. 
  3. ^ a b c Salaam, Kaluma. “Historical Overviews of The Black Arts Movement” in The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); see also Nelson, Cary (editor). Modern American Poetry: An Online Journal and Multimedia Companion to Anthology of Modern American Poetry(Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2002; Web edition: November 11, 2012).
  4. ^ a b Katherine Stevens, "Baraka refutes criticism. Controversial N.J. poet laureate denies accusations of racism", Yale Daily News (February 25, 2003)
  5. ^ a b Jeremy Pearce, "When poetry seems to matter", The New York Times (February 9, 2003)
  6. ^ a b Watts, Jerry Gafio. Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual (New York: New York University Press, 2001).
  7. ^ In cooperation with Corinth, Totem published books by LeRoi Jones and Diane DiPrima, Ron Loewinsohn, Michael McClure, Charles Olson, Paul Blackburn, Frank O'Hara, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Ed Dorn, Joel Oppenheimer and Gilbert Sorrentino. An anthology of four young woman poets featured Carol Berge, Barbara Moraff, Rochelle Owens, Diane Wakoski.
  8. ^ Birmingham, Jed. "Yugen", RealityStudio, April 30, 2006. Accessed January 18, 2010
  9. ^ Baraka, Amiri. Anthology of Modern American Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. 997. Print.
  10. ^ The Fair Play for Cuba Committee was brought to nation-wide attention through an April 1960 advertisement in the New York Times funded by Castro. FPCC's founder and first leader was CBS newsman Robert Taber. The FPCC fast had 7,000 members in 25 adult chapters and 40 student councils. The July trip included writers Julian Mayfield, Harold Cruse, historian John Henrik Clarke and militant NAACP leader Robert F. Williams. In December 1960, a 326-member-strong FPCC delegation visited the island. Cuba libre was first published in the Evergreen Review, Vol. 4, No. 15, November–December 1960.
  11. ^ The Declaration of Conscience was written and signed by Margaret Randall, Marc Schleifer (now a Jewish convert to Islam), Elaine de Kooning, Leroi Jones, Diane DiPrima, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Norman Mailer and published in the Monthly Review.
  12. ^ a b Martin, Reginald. “Historical Overviews of The Black Arts Movement” The Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States. New York: Oxford UP, 1995. Modern American Poetry: An Online Journal and Multimedia Companion to Anthology of Modern American Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson. Department of English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2002. Web. Nov 11, 2012.
  13. ^ Anthology of Modern American Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 997. Print.
  14. ^ Sollors, Werner. Amiri Baraka / LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a "Populist Modernism." Columbia University Press, 1978.
  15. ^ Harris, William J. The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic. University of Missouri Press, 1985.
  16. ^ See back cover of his book Funk Lore.
  17. ^ Berger, Joseph. "Raymond A. Brown, Civil Rights Lawyer, Dies at 94", The New York Times, October 11, 2009. Accessed October 12, 2009.
  18. ^ Ronald Porambo, No Cause for Indictment; An Autopsy of Newark, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.
  19. ^ Hanley, Robert. "Rutgers Students' Sit-In Turns Mellow", The New York Times, May 11, 1990.
  20. ^ Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.
  21. ^ Robert Hanley, "Daughter of Controversial Poet Is Killed at Her Sister's Home", New York Times (August 14, 2003)
  22. ^ Zook, Kristal Brent (2006). Black Women's Lives: Stories of Pain and Power. Nation Books. p. 44. ISBN 1-56025-790-3. 
  23. ^ Serrano, Ken. "Man again seeks to overturn conviction for murder of two women in Piscataway". Archived from the original on August 1, 2010. Retrieved August 20, 2010. 
  24. ^ "Metro Briefing: New Jersey: New Brunswick: Conviction In 2 Killings". The New York Times. July 12, 2005. Retrieved August 20, 2010. 
  25. ^ David L. Smith, "Amiri Baraka and the Black Arts of Black Art", boundary 2. Vol. 15, No. 1/2 (Autumn, 1986), pp. 235–254.
  26. ^ Charles H. Rowell, "An Interview With Henry Louis Gates, Jr", Callaloo. Vol. 14, No. 2 (Spring, 1991), pp. 444–463.
  27. ^ Marlon B. Ross, "Camping the Dirty Dozens: The Queer Resources of Black Nationalist Invective", Callaloo. Vol. 23, No. 1, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender: Literature and Culture (Winter, 2000), pp. 290–312.
  28. ^ Liukkonen, Petri (2008). "Amiri Baraka". Authors' Calendar. Retrieved December 2, 2010. 
  29. ^ Jerry Gafio Watts. Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual. NYU Press, 2001. p. 332.
  30. ^ Erskine, Sophie (4 June 2009). "Art is a Weapon in the Struggle of Ideas: Interviewing Amiri Baraka". 3:AM Magazine. Retrieved 2 December 2010. 
  31. ^ Amiri Baraka, online.
  32. ^ Amiri Baraka vs Connie Chung - CNN, October 2002.
  33. ^ Anti-Defamation League AMIRI BARAKA: IN HIS OWN WORDS
  34. ^ New Jersey State Legislature, Laws of the State of new Jersey, P.L.2003, c.123.
  35. ^ Via Associated Press. "Newark: Court Will Not Hear Poet’s Lawsuit", The New York Times, November 14, 2007. Accessed November 26, 2007.
  36. ^ Jacobs, Andrew. "Criticized Poet Is Named Laureate of Newark Schools", The New York Times, December 19, 2002. Accessed September 19, 2008. "A longtime Newark resident who was pivotal in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, Mr. Baraka has ignored calls from Gov. James E. McGreevey and others that he resign the post, which pays a stipend of $10,000."
  37. ^ Amiri Baraka.
  38. ^ a b New Jersey Transit. "Commissioner Fox Unveils New 7th Avenue Concourse at Penn Station N.Y.: Built For Today’s Crowds and Tomorrow’s Capacity Needs" (news release) (September 18, 2002). Retrieved July 6, 2013.
  39. ^ Strauss, Robert. "Ode to Joi(sey)" in The New York Times (April 27, 2003). Retrieved July 6, 2013.

External links[edit]

Reference sites[edit]

Pages dedicated to Amiri Baraka[edit]