A Long and Influential Career

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Amiri Baraka (born Everett LeRoi Jones) is a leading African American poet who has also written essays, short stories, a novel, a major study of American jazz, plays, a musical drama, and an autobiography. He has founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater-School, edited seminal anthologies and journals of avant-garde and African American writing, received major scholarly fellowships and awards, taught at several major American universities, and been an influential political and cultural leader in the African American community. Baraka’s life, achievements, and writing have reflected—and have often helped determine—the evolution of African American thought in the last half of the twentieth century and beyond. The philosophical and political developments in Baraka’s thinking have resulted in four distinct poetical periods: a 1950’s and 1960’s involvement with the Greenwich Village Beat scene, an early 1960’s quest for personal identity and community, a phase connected with Black Nationalism and the Black Arts movement, and a Marxist-Leninist period.

Everett LeRoi Jones was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1934. His father was a postal worker; his mother was a college dropout who became a social worker. Graduated with honors from Barringer High School in 1951, Jones first attended Rutgers University on scholarship and transferred to Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1952, only to be expelled in 1954 for failing grades. He immediately joined the U.S. Air Force, attaining the rank of sergeant, but he was discharged “undesirably” in 1957 for having sent some of his poems to purportedly communist publications. Upon his release, Jones moved to Greenwich Village; became friends with such avant-garde poets as Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, and Charles Olson; and married Hettie Cohen, with whom he edited a literary journal.