Born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, in 1934, Imamu Amiri Baraka was raised in the urban middle-class environment against which he has since rebelled. His father, Coyette (Coyt) LeRoi, was a postal employee, and his mother, Anna Lois Russ Jones, a social worker. Educated in the Newark public schools, Baraka began cartooning in junior high school and writing science fiction for the school publication in high school before graduating at the age of sixteen.
Although he had once considered the ministry as a career, Baraka accepted a science scholarship to Rutgers University. His experiences at Rutgers for one year, at Howard University where he did not complete his studies, and as an enlisted gunner in the Air Force (from 1954 to 1957) catalyzed his awareness of what he believed to be the illness of assimilation—that is, of black acquiescence and adaptation to white oppression. Consequently, after his discharge from the armed services, Baraka sought the supportive countercultural atmosphere of Greenwich Village in New York.
There, Baraka founded Totem Press and co-founded the avant-garde magazine Yugen with Hettie Cohen, a Jewish woman who would be his wife for seven years, from 1958 to 1965. In those years, he achieved recognition as a jazz and blues critic, worked as a poetry and small-press magazine editor, and took graduate courses in philosophy and comparative literature at Columbia University. Under the influence of such bohemian experimental poets as Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and William Carlos Williams (as well as Ezra Pound), Baraka established his early poetic voice with his first volume of poetry, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961). This collection reflected his resistance to the debilitating effects of white stereotyping and black assimilation, suggesting his eventual movement to a...
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