Amiri Baraka Biography
Amiri Baraka is not always an easy author to like—and that's just fine with him. Baraka has incited considerable controversy throughout his extensive career. The Obie Award-winning short play Dutchman exemplifies his highly charged writing style. The play portrays a young white woman who flirts with, debases, and ultimately murders a young black man on a subway train. The play ends with another black man getting on the train, hinting that the cycle will repeat itself. Baraka's thought and writing have been greatly influenced by Marxism and Black Nationalism, as well as other political movements. Though his radical views often meet with strong opposition, his confrontational works are credited with provoking discussion on complex issues.
Facts and Trivia
- Amiri Baraka was born Everett LeRoi Jones. He dropped the “Everett” in his early 20s and changed his name again in 1967 following the death of Malcolm X.
- As a young man, Jones/Baraka enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, only to be discharged when some of his writing was discovered and believed to have communist leanings.
- Though Baraka is known primarily for his controversial politics, he has also written extensively on jazz music, including the seminal text Blues People: Negro Music in White America.
- Baraka has frequently been accused of anti-Semitism, particularly in light of a poem he wrote, “Somebody Blew Up America,” which implicated Israel in the attacks of September 11. He has since defended that poem in an online essay titled “I Will Not Apologize, I Will Not Resign.”
- Baraka served as New Jersey’s poet laureate from 2002 to 2003. The position was eliminated by then-governor Jim McGreevey when he discovered that he could not simply fire Baraka.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 762
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 separatist philosophy.
Throughout his literary career, Baraka has served as a role model of his philosophy that art must lead to greater awareness and stimulate its audience to action. A small sampling of his activities from 1959 to 1967 includes the following: 1959, compiling and publishing a pro-Castro anthology; 1960, touring Cuba with other artists at Fidel Castro’s invitation; 1961, cofounding an experimental poetry group and magazine; 1963, seeing The Toilet, his first play, produced Off-Broadway and publishing Blues People, a book of music criticism; 1964, founding Black Arts Repertory Theatre and School; 1966, founding Spirit House, a black community theater with ongoing student workshops; and 1967, founding Jihad Publications for black nationalist writers.
Baraka’s nationalism was fostered by repeated arrests in which charges were dropped or, as in one case, a judge’s decision was reversed by the United States Supreme Court on appeal. At the same time, recognition of Baraka’s literary achievements was both national and international. The author was awarded a John Hay Whitney Foundation Fellowship for fiction and poetry in 1962, the Obie Award for best Off-Broadway play (Dutchman) in 1964, a Yoruba Academy Fellowship in 1965, a Guggenheim Fellowship for 1965-1966, and second prize at the Dakar International Arts Festival as well as a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1966. Certainly, the dichotomy between the positive responses of the literary community and the negative responses of the legal professions served to fuel his anti-assimilationist beliefs.
In 1965, his marriage was dissolved; in 1967, he married Sylvia Robinson, a black woman. The following year, LeRoi Jones became Imamu Amiri Baraka, thereby erasing his white heritage with Muslim and African words meaning “blessed poet/philosopher warrior”; his wife became Bibi Amina Baraka. For the next seven years, Baraka was to become increasingly active in nationalistic ventures and more fervid in his...
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denunciations of white society. He called for nonpacifistic black attitudes and even for mass exterminations of whites, white organizations, and white culture, so that blacks could create a totally independent country—in essence a black utopia. He endorsed black candidates in local elections, helped to found organizations for the protection and enhancement of black civil liberties and culture, and held high offices within both local and national activist groups.
Although he continues to be a fierce advocate of black rights, in 1974 Baraka dropped Imamu from his name in favor of the title “Chairman” when he adopted Marxism and socialistic beliefs. He also began to advocate a coalition of white and black proletariat against their middle-and upper-class oppressors. The need for a separate black state has been superseded by what Baraka perceives to be the capitalistic and imperialistic threat to the uninformed, disorganized masses. Consequently, Baraka in all of his writings shifted to a more didactic and less emotional function and content. What some critics have essentially termed rambling propaganda Baraka sees as rallying cries (predominantly to his black audience) for revolution.