Poets And Poetry

Biography Amiri Baraka

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A seminal figure in the history of contemporary black literature, Amiri Baraka is the author of over forty published works of literature spanning a range of genres.

Baraka was born Everett LeRoi Jones on October 30, 1934 in Newark, New Jersey. His father, Coyette LeRoi Jones was a postal worker and lift operator and his mother, Anna Lois was a social worker. He dropped the Everett in 1952, becoming LeRoi Jones. He studied Philosophy and Religious Studies at Rutgers, Columbia and Howard universities, but dropped out before he completed his degree and joined the US Air Force in 1954. His forces career was cut short however when he was dishonorably discharged for violating his oath of duty. His commanding officer had received a letter accusing him of being a communist and Soviet letters were found to back up the claim. Baraka then moved to Greenwich Village where he was introduced to the Beat poets and his love of Jazz began to flourish. The Beat movement appealed to Baraka as the key players in the movement wrote about American alienation. The love of music had been instilled in him as a child, through his parents. In 1958, Baraka married Hettie Cohen and founded Totem Press, publishing works by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Baraka and his wife co-edited 'Yugen' Magazine and Floating Bear' literary newsletter. They had two children together.

It was a visit to Cuba in 1960 which aroused his interest in becoming a politically active artist, incorporating his political, spiritual and social beliefs into his writing. The following year, Prelude to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note' was published to critical acclaim. During the early 1960s, Baraka had established himself as a music critic and wrote for Downbeat, Metronome and The Jazz Review. This led to the publication of Blues People: Negro Music in White America' in 1963, an influential volume of jazz criticism.

'Dutchman', considered to be a masterpiece in drama was published in 1964. The play focuses upon the interracial encounter between Lula, a flirtatious attractive white woman and Clay, an intellectual, shy, well turned out young black man. For Dutchman', Baraka won an Obie Award for the best off-Broadway play and brought Baraka firmly into the public eye.

The assassination of Malcolm X in 1965 was another major turning point in Baraka's life. He divorced his Jewish wife, moved to Harlem and founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre and School. Disassociating himself from the white race, Baraka began to lead a separatist life and the following year, he married Sylvia Robinson. In 1967, Baraka converted to the Kewaida sect of the Muslim faith and changed his name from LeRoi Jones to Imamu Amiri Baraka (he later dropped the Imamu). Sylvia changed her name to Amina Baraka and they moved to Newark, New Jersey, Baraka's home town with their son and Amina's three daughters from a previous marriage. Baraka then became a lecturer and continued to write.

After the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, riots ensued and Baraka became involved and was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon and resisting arrest. He was later sentenced to three years imprisonment which was later overturned. Many reports say that he was severely beaten by police. In 1970, Baraka was a key player in the Newark Mayoral Election, supporting Kenneth Gibson by encouraging young African Americans to vote.

By 1974, Baraka's political ideology had evolved and he abandoned Black Nationalism in favor of a Marxist-Leninist approach. 'Hard Facts' published in 1976 reflected his political evolution and contains some of his best written work to date.

Baraka became a lecturer at SUNY Stony Brook in 1979 in the Africana Studies department and began to write his autobiography. In the early 1980s, he wrote two librettos, 'Money' in 1982 and 'Primitive World' in 1984. In 1987, Baraka and fellow authors Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison spoke at the commemoration ceremony for James Baldwin. He continued to write and win awards throughout the 80s and 90s and collaborated with The Roots on a song in 2002. Tragedy struck in 2003 when his daughter, Shani, 31, was murdered in New Jersey.
Baraka has generated much controversy throughout his career and many of his works have been accused of being sexist, anti Semitic and homophobic. He was criticized for his poem, Somebody Blew up America' a poem which highlighted ongoing racism in the United States and also suggested a conspiracy involving Israel and the US.

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?'

Because of this, he was accused once again of being anti-Semitic but Baraka refuted these claims, defining his position as an anti-Zionist. At the time of writing the poem, Baraka was New Jersey's Poet Laureate. Newark governor Jim McGreevy attempted to remove Baraka from the role of Poet Laureate, but was unsuccessful. However, by 2003, legislation had been passed to abolish the New Jersey Poet Laureate role.

Although Baraka retired from his teaching role in 1999, he continues to be an active and productive artist and intellectual. He lives with his wife, the poet Amina Baraka, in his home city of Newark.

More about this author: Sara Dennis

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