Baraka, Amiri (Jones, LeRoi)

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Baraka, Amiri (Jones, LeRoi)

October 7, 1934


Amiri Baraka, born Everett LeRoi Jones in 1934, first gained fame as a poet and playwright in New York's Greenwich Village and subsequently became the most prominent and influential writer of the black arts movement. Throughout his career Baraka has been a controversial figure, noted for his caustic wit and fiery polemics. In his poems, plays, and essays, he has addressed painful issues, turning his frank commentary upon himself and the world regarding personal, social, and political relations. As a stylist, Baraka has been a major influence on African-American poetry and drama since 1960; as a public figure, he has epitomized the politically engaged black writer.

Raised in Newark, New Jersey, Baraka attended Howard University and served briefly in the U.S. Air Force, an episode that his autobiography describes as "Error/Farce." As Baraka explains, his subscriptions to Partisan Review and other literary magazines led authorities to suspect him of communist affiliations, and he was "undesirably discharged." He subsequently moved to Greenwich Village, where he met and married another young writer, Hettie Cohen. They had two daughters, Kellie and Lisa. Baraka, known as LeRoi Jones in this period, gained notoriety in the Village literary scene, frequently publishing, reading, and socializing alongside Diane di Prima, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and other Beat movement figures. He and Cohen edited Yugen, an avant-garde literary magazine, and his book Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961) established him as a major voice among the new poets.

During this period he published his celebrated essay "Cuba Libre," a new journalistic travelogue about visiting Cuba shortly after that country's 1959 revolution. This essay marked the beginning of his movement toward radical politics and away from his bohemian associates. His early political essays were eventually collected in Home (1966). Similarly, his book Blues People (1963) introduced his continuing interest in jazz as a key to African-American culture. Baraka's plays of this period, emotionally intense and quasi-autobiographical, culminate with Dutchman (1964), an Obie winner that remains his most famous and admired work. Dutchman explores the manic tension and doomed attraction between a black man and a white woman riding in the New York subway. Like The Slave (1965) and his second volume of poems, The Dead Lecturer (1965), this work reflects the racial anxieties that would soon estrange him from his white wife and Village friends.

After the assassination of Malcolm X on February 21, 1965, LeRoi Jones abandoned his family, moved to Harlem, and changed his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka (Blessed Priest and Warrior). Entering a period of intense black cultural nationalism, he directed the Black Arts Repertory Theater and School in Harlem while continuing to publish prolifically throughout the late 1960s. His important books of this period include Black Magic Poetry (1969), Four Black Revolutionary Plays (1969), Raise Race Rays Raze (1971), and Black Music (1968). Many of these works attack whites and assail Negro false consciousness, advocating an authentic black identity as the prerequisite to political liberation.

Amiri Baraka

"We want a nation of angels. The illuminated. We are trying to create in the same wilderness, against the same resistance. The fire is hot. Let it burn more brightly. Let it light up all creation."

black magic: sabotage, target study, black art; collected poetry, 19611967. indianapolis: bobbs-merrill, 1969.

In the 1970s Baraka renounced cultural nationalism, dropped "Imamu" from his name, and embraced what he called "Marxism/Leninism/Mao Tse Tung Thought." His subsequent writing has remained in a Marxist mode but with a strong African-American and third-world orientation. Some of these later works lapse into schematically pedantic social commentaries and crude, unimaginative polemics. At his best, however, in long poems such as "In the Tradition" and "Wailers," Baraka demonstrates his continuing brilliance, combining music, sports, and political struggle into a densely realized vision of African-American culture as a triumphant, complexly expressive tradition.

In August, 2001, Baraka was appointed poet laureate of New Jersey, an acknowledgement that was generally celebrated by the literary community. However, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Baraka published a long, apocalyptic, polemical poem called "Somebody Blew Up America," which incited fiery controversy, due to its political contentespecially its innuendoes that the Israeli government had foreknowledge of the attacks. Baraka was asked to resign his laureateship. He refused, and a year later, the New Jersey general assembly abolished the post. Regardless, Baraka remains unapologetically committed to his vision of the poet as activist and provocateur.

See also Black Arts Movement; Malcolm X

Bibliography

African-American Review, SummerFall, 2003. Special Baraka issue.

Baraka, Amiri. The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones. New York: Scribner, 1984.

Baraka, Amiri. Fiction of Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka. Edited by Amiri Baraka and William Harris. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2000.

Benston, Kimberly. Baraka: The Renegade and the Mask. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1976.

Hudson, Theodore. "From LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka: The Literary Works." Ph.D. diss., Howard University, Washington, D.C., 1971.

Sollors, Werner. Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a "Populist Modernism." New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.

Watts, Jerry Gafio. Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

david lionel smith (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

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