Amiri Baraka, 79, poet, playwright, activist

Amiri Baraka
Amiri Baraka
Posted: January 11, 2014

Amiri Baraka, 79, the poet, New Jersey state poet laureate, playwright, music critic, and activist whose career spanned the Beat generation, the civil rights upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, and many social and poetic controversies since, died Thursday, Jan. 9, at Beth Israel Medical Center in his hometown of Newark, N.J., of complications after surgery. He had long battled diabetes and attendant circulatory problems.

Sonia Sanchez, the first poet laureate of Philadelphia and a longtime friend of Mr. Baraka's, said by phone that "you don't want to believe this, because of the history and her-story of this man, his impact on our literature and our country. He has meant so much."

Born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark in 1934, he attended various universities but did not receive a degree. He was radicalized early: When he joined the Air Force in 1954, he was dishonorably discharged after Marxist writings were found in his possession. Soon he was living in Greenwich Village, absorbing all the poetry and jazz he could. From the start, his work showed intellectual breadth, iconoclasm, and a love of experiment. One of the few black faces among the Beat poets, he ran a press with his first wife, Hettie Cohen, which published such Beats as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

Whatever the direction was, he went the other way. He traveled to Cuba in 1960 and wrote in support of the Castro regime. Public notice grew with his 1961 volume, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, and frequent essays in the intellectual and counterculture press.

In 1963, he published Blues People: Negro Music in White America, an influential study of blues, jazz, and other black musics, and how they shaped the identity and culture of Americans of African ancestry. It was one of the first studies of its kind, and it remains one of the best.

His alienation from mainstream culture grew with the 1960s. His marriage began to suffer. In 1964, his play Dutchman ran at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York. It was and still is a shocking, uncompromising study of black/white and male/female tension.

Sanchez said: "I went to the opening night, and I remember we went to the reception afterward, and we were waiting for the reviews. And then the notices came out, and we jumped up and down and hugged each other." Dutchman won an Obie that year for best American play.

After the assassination of Malcolm X, LeRoi Jones divorced his wife and moved to Harlem. In 1966, he married the writer Sylvia Robinson. The next year he adopted a Swahili-based name, Imamu Amear Baraka, later modified to Amiri Baraka, in sympathy with black nationalist and separatist politics. Robinson changed her name to Amina Baraka. In the late 1960s, Amiri Baraka espoused violence as social change. He wanted, he wrote, "Poems that shoot guns/Poems that wrestle cops into alleys/and take their weapons leaving them dead."

In 1970, he worked to help Newark elect Kenneth Gibson as its first black mayor. Mr. Baraka taught, read, and demonstrated around the country throughout the decade. With his rhythmic, often declamatory reading style, he is sometimes credited as a forebear of rap, hip-hop, and slam poetry. Late in the decade, he alienated some black activists and artists, claiming they had become too closely wed to middle-class white culture.

In 2002, then-Gov. Jim McGreevey tabbed Mr. Baraka as the second poet laureate of New Jersey. But at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival that year, he read "Who Blew Up America?," a poem written after the 9/11 terror attacks. Some readers thought Mr. Baraka, sometimes accused of anti-Semitism, claimed some Israelis knew beforehand of the attacks. In the attendant outrage, the Legislature drafted a law in July 2003 to abolish the post, and McGreevey signed it.

Mr. Baraka won many awards, including a National Book Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts award. Sanchez stressed that this poet, often seen as angry and provocative, "always loved his country. Because you're harsh doesn't mean you don't believe. When you love a place, sometimes you have to say, 'Hey, here's a slap, but here's a kiss, too.' "


jt@phillynews.com

215-854-4406 @jtimpane

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