Poet, music critic, essayist, playwright, and political activist Amiri Baraka, one of the most controversial figures in 20th-century American literature, has died at age 79.
Born in 1934 as Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, Baraka attended Rutgers University, Howard University, and New York’s New School before joining the Air Force in 1954, where he received a dishonorable discharge amid accusations of being a communist. He then moved to Greenwich Village where he met several Beat Generation and New York School poets and cultivated his interest in jazz music.
In 1958, Baraka founded Totem Press and the literary magazine Yugen with his future wife, Hettie Cohen. Baraka worked as an editor and critic for Kulchur magazine from 1960 to 1965 and published a literary newsletter called The Floating Bear during that time. In 1963, he published his seminal Blues People: Negro Music In White America, and the following year, his allegorical play Dutchmen won the Obie for Best American Play. The play also has the distinction of being one of the final creative works to carry the name LeRoi Jones as its writer.
Baraka’s political activism began to appear in his output in 1961 following a 1960 visit to Cuba with the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, where he channeled his experiences into the essay “Cuba Libre” and co-wrote a Declaration Of Conscience paper in support of Fidel Castro.
Following the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X, Jones moved from Manhattan’s Lower West Side to Harlem, founded the Black Arts Movement—which was considered to be the artistic counterpart to the Black Power Movement—and eventually adopted the name Amiri Baraka. Baraka eventually distanced himself from his own literary movement as well as the concept of black nationalism in later years, due to the influx of what he called “capitulationists.” For the next several decades, Baraka distinguished himself as a man of letters and political thinker by creating three more plays, writing more than two dozen volumes of poetry and non-fiction, editing a series of anthologies, and appearing in close to 30 films. He even collaborated with The Roots on the track “Something In The Way Of Things (In Town),” which appears on the band’s 2002 album Phrenology.
After coming under fire for his post-9/11 poem, “Somebody Blew Up America?,” in 2002, Baraka’s brief stint as the Poet Laureate of New Jersey came to an end when the position was abolished in the middle of his term.
Trying to discern Baraka’s cultural and literary legacy is complicated, as he has been hailed simultaneously as a pioneer, an outspoken critic of injustice, a proponent of revolution, and a trailblazer for young artists and other movements. Yet, he’s also been derided for misogyny and homophobia in his work. Perhaps it’s best to let the artist and his work speak for themselves.