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Amiri Baraka (born Everett LeRoi Jones; October 7, 1934 – January 9, 2014), formerly known as LeRoi Jones and Imamu Amear Baraka, was an African-American writer of poetry, drama, fiction, essays and music criticism. He was the author of numerous books of poetry and 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.
Baraka's career spanned nearly 50 years, and his themes range from black liberation to white racism. Some poems that are always associated with his name are "The Music: Reflection on Jazz and Blues", "The Book of Monk", and "New Music, New Poetry", works that draw on topics from the worlds of society, music, and literature. Baraka's poetry and writing have attracted both extreme praise and condemnation. Within the African-American community, some compare Baraka to James Baldwin and recognize him as one of the most respected and most widely published black writers of his generation. Others have said his work is an expression of violence, misogyny, homophobia and racism. Regardless of viewpoint, Baraka's plays, poetry, and essays have been defining texts for African-American culture.
Baraka's brief tenure as Poet Laureate of New Jersey (2002–03) involved controversy over a public reading of his poem "Somebody Blew Up America?", accusations of anti-semitism, and some negative attention from critics, and politicians.
Baraka was born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, where he attended Barringer High School. His father, Colt Leverette Jones, worked as a postal supervisor and lift operator. His mother, Anna Lois (née Russ), was a social worker.
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 graduated from in 1954 with a Bachelor of Arts in English. His classes in philosophy and religion helped lay a foundation for his later writings. 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. His commanding officer received an anonymous letter accusing Baraka of being a communist. This led to the discovery of Soviet writings in Baraka's possession, his reassignment to gardening duty and subsequently a dishonorable discharge for violation of his oath of duty. He later described his experience in the military as "racist, degrading, and intellectually paralyzing." While he was stationed in Puerto Rico, he worked at the base library which allowed him ample reading time and it was here that, inspired by Beat poets back in America, he began to write poetry.
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 Black Mountain poets and New York School poets. In 1958 he married Hettie Cohen, with whom he had two daughters, Kellie Jones (b. 1959) and Lisa Jones (b.1961). He and Hettie founded Totem Press, which published such Beat icons as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. They also jointly founded a quarterly literary magazine Yugen, which ran for eight issues (1958–62).
Baraka also worked as editor and critic for the literary and arts journal Kulchur (1960–65). With Diane di Prima he edited the first twenty-five issues (1961–63) of their little magazine The Floating Bear. In the autumn of 1961 he co-founded the New York Poets Theatre with di Prima, choreographers Fred Herko and James Waring, and actor Alan S. Marlowe. He had an extramarital affair with Diane di Prima for several years; their daughter, Dominique di Prima, was born in June 1962.
Baraka visited Cuba in July 1960 with a Fair Play for Cuba Committee delegation and reported his impressions in his essay "Cuba Libre". There he encountered openly rebellious artists who declared him to be a "cowardly bourgeois individualist" more focused on building his reputation than trying to help those who were enduring oppression. This encounter caused a dramatic change in his writing and goals, causing him to become emphatic about supporting black nationalism.
In 1961 Baraka co-authored a Declaration of Conscience in support of Fidel Castro's regime. Baraka also was a member of the Umbra Poets Workshop of emerging Black Nationalist writers (Ishmael Reed, and Lorenzo Thomas among others) on the Lower East Side (1962–65).
In 1961 a first book of poems, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, was published. Baraka's article "The Myth of a 'Negro Literature'" (1962) 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 work 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 black writers were obsessed with being an accepted middle class, Baraka wrote, they would never be able to speak their mind, and that would always lead to failure. Baraka felt that America only made room for white obfuscators, not black ones.
In 1963 Baraka (under the name Jones) published Blues People: Negro Music in White America, his account of the development of black music from slavery to contemporary jazz. When the work was re-issued in 1999, Baraka wrote in the Introduction that he wished to show: "The music was the score, the actually expressed creative orchestration, reflection of Afro-American life.... That the music was explaining the history as the history was explaining the music. And that both were expressions of and reflections of the people.
" Baraka argued that though the slaves had brought their musical traditions from Africa, the blues were an expression of what black people became in America: "The way I have come to think about it, blues could not exist if the African captives had not become American captives."
Baraka (under the name Jones) authored an acclaimed, controversial play Dutchman, in which a white woman accosts a black man on the New York subway. The play premiered in 1964 and received the Obie Award for Best American Play in the same year. A film of the play, directed by Anthony Harvey, was released in 1967. The play has been revived several times, including a 2013 production staged in the Russian and Turkish Bathhouse in the East Village, Manhattan.
After the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, Baraka left his wife and their two children and moved to Harlem. In Harlem, Baraka founded The Black Arts Repertory/Theater School since the Black Arts Movement created a new visual representation of art. However, Baraka moved back to Newark after allegations surfaced that he was using federal anti-poverty welfare to fund his theater.
Amiri Baraka died on January 9, 2014, at Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey, after being hospitalized in the facility's intensive care unit for one month prior to his death. The cause of death was not reported initially, but it is mentioned that Baraka had a long struggle with diabetes. Later reports indicated that he died from complications after a recent surgery. Baraka's funeral was held at Newark Symphony Hall on January 18, 2014.