Amiri Baraka, Polarizing Poet and Playwright, Dies at 79
By MARGALIT FOX
January 9, 2014
New York Times
The writer, 79, was one of the major forces in the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and ’70s.
Amiri Baraka, a poet and playwright of pulsating rage, whose long illumination of the black experience in America was called incandescent in some quarters and incendiary in others, died on Thursday in Newark. He was 79.
His death, at Beth Israel Medical Center, was confirmed by his son Ras Baraka, a member of the Newark Municipal Council. He did not specify a cause but said that Mr. Baraka had been hospitalized since Dec. 21.
Mr. Baraka was famous as one of the major forces in the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and ’70s, which sought to duplicate in fiction, poetry, drama and other mediums the aims of the black power movement in the political arena.
Among his best-known works are the poetry collections “The Dead Lecturer” and “Transbluesency: The Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, 1961-1995”; the play “Dutchman”; and “Blues People: Negro Music in White America,” a highly regarded historical survey.
Mr. Baraka, whose work was widely anthologized and who was heard often on the lecture circuit, was also long famous as a political firebrand. Here, too, critical opinion was divided: He was described variously as an indomitable champion of the disenfranchised, particularly in the racially charged political landscape of Newark, where he lived most of his life, or as a gadfly whose finest hour had come and gone by the end of the 1960s.
Mr. Baraka at home in Newark in 2007. He was a lecturer and poet whose words were celebrated by some, but considered hateful by others. Ruth Fremson/The New York Times.
In the series of alternating embraces and repudiations that would become an ideological hallmark, Mr. Baraka spent his early career as a beatnik, his middle years as a black nationalist and his later ones as a Marxist. His shifting stance was seen as either an accurate mirror of the changing times or an accurate barometer of his own quicksilver mien.
He came to renewed, unfavorable attention in 2002, when a poem he wrote about the Sept. 11 attacks, which contained lines widely seen as anti-Semitic, touched off a firestorm that resulted in the elimination of his post as New Jersey’s poet laureate.
Over six decades, Mr. Baraka’s writings — his work also included essays and music criticism — were periodically accused of being anti-Semitic, misogynist, homophobic, racist, isolationist and dangerously militant.
But his champions and detractors agreed that at his finest he was a powerful voice on the printed page, a riveting orator in person and an enduring presence on the international literary scene whom — whether one loved or hated him — it was seldom possible to ignore.
“Love is an evil word,” Mr. Baraka, writing as LeRoi Jones, the name by which he was first known professionally, said in an early poem, “In Memory of Radio.” It continues:
Turn it backwards/see, see what I mean?
An evol word. & besides
who understands it?
I certainly wouldn’t like to go out on that kind of limb.
Saturday mornings we listened to Red Lantern and; his undersea folk.
At 11, Let’s Pretend/& we did/and; I, the poet, still do. Thank God!
Among reviewers, there was no firm consensus on Mr. Baraka’s literary merit, and the mercurial nature of his work seems to guarantee that there can never be.
Writing in The Daily News of New York in 2002, Stanley Crouch described Mr. Baraka’s work since the late 1960s as “an incoherent mix of racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, black nationalism, anarchy and ad hominem attacks relying on comic book and horror film characters and images that he has used over and over and over.”
In contrast, the critic Arnold Rampersad placed Mr. Baraka in the pantheon of genre-changing African-American writers that includes Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston.
Everett Leroy Jones was born in Newark on Oct. 7, 1934. His father, Coyette, was a postal supervisor; his mother, the former Anna Russ, was a social worker. Growing up, young Leroy, as he was known, took piano, drum and trumpet lessons — a background that would inform his later work as a jazz writer — and also studied drawing and painting.
After studying briefly at Rutgers University in Newark, he entered Howard University. During this period, partly in homage to the African-American journalist Roi Ottley (1906-60), he changed the spelling of his name to LeRoi, with the emphasis on the second syllable.
Mr. Baraka on his way to court in Newark with second wife, Sylvia, left, in 1968. He had periodic brushes with the law throughout his adult life. Neal Boenzi/The New York Times
Though by all accounts a brilliant student, he came to regard the university’s emphasis on upward mobility for blacks as distastefully assimilationist — “an employment agency” where “they teach you to pretend to be white,” he later called it. Losing interest in his classes, he was expelled before graduating.
He joined the Air Force.
“It was the worst period of my life,” Mr. Baraka told Essence magazine in 1985. “I finally found out what it was like to be disconnected from family and friends. I found out what it was like to be under the direct jurisdiction of people who hated black people. I had never known that directly.”
To stave off loneliness and misery, he read widely and deeply, stocking the library on his base in Puerto Rico with books — philosophy, literary fiction, left-wing history — the likes of which it had almost certainly never seen.
After three years, he was dishonorably discharged: Some of his reading material had made the Air Force suspect that he was a Communist. The irony, he later said, was that he did become a Communist, but not until long afterward.
He moved to New York, where he took an editorial job on a music magazine, The Record Changer, and settled in Greenwich Village amid the heady atmosphere of the Beat poets.
He befriended their dean, Allen Ginsberg, to whom, in the puckish spirit of the times, he had written a letter on toilet paper reading, “Are you for real?” (“I’m for real, but I’m tired of being Allen Ginsberg,” came the reply, on what, its recipient would note with amusement, was “a better piece of toilet paper.”)
In 1958 LeRoi Jones married a colleague, Hettie Cohen. Together they founded a literary magazine, Yugen, which published his work and that of Mr. Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Jack Kerouac. With the poet Diane di Prima, he established and edited another literary magazine, The Floating Bear.
He also started a small publishing company, Totem Press, which in 1961 issued his first collection of verse, “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note.” In the volume’s title poem, he wrote:
Nobody sings anymore.
And then last night, I tiptoed up
To my daughter’s room and heard her
Talking to someone, and when I opened
The door, there was no one there ...
Only she on her knees, peeking into
Her own clasped hands.
Mr. Baraka with the poet Maya Angelou in 1991 in Harlem during an event at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Chester Higgins, Jr./The New York Times
His early poems were praised for their lyricism and for the immediacy of their language — throughout his career, he said, he wrote as much for the ear as for the eye.
Mr. Jones considered himself a largely apolitical writer at first: Like that of many Beats, his poetry was concerned more with introspection. But he was radicalized by traveling to Cuba in 1960, the year after Fidel Castro came to power, to attend an international conference featuring writers from an array of third world countries.
As a result, he later said, he came to believe that art and politics should be indissolubly linked.
His political awakening was soon manifest in his work. His first major book, “Blues People,” published in 1963, placed black music, from blues to free jazz, in a wider sociohistorical context.
Writing in The New York Times Book Review, the folklorist Vance Randolph said, “The book is full of fascinating anecdotes, many of them concerned with social and economic matters,” going on to commend its “personal warmth.”
Mr. Jones came to even greater prominence in 1964, when his one-act play “Dutchman” opened Off Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theater in the Village.
Experimental, allegorical and unabashedly angry, “Dutchman” was set aboard a New York City subway train. There, Lula, a young white woman, strikes up a conversation with Clay, a young middle-class black man. As the play unspools, she goads him, with apparent liberal righteousness, into releasing the anger that, as a black man, he must surely be harboring.
When Clay finally explodes, Lula stabs him to death as other riders passively look on. After disposing of his body with casual impunity, she sits back, smiles and, as another black man boards the train, makes pointed eye contact with him before the curtain falls.
“Dutchman” won the Obie Award, presented by The Village Voice to honor Off and Off Off Broadway productions, as the best American play of 1964.
Mr. Jones’s other early plays include “The Slave,” a violent, futuristic fable about an American race war, and “J-E-L-L-O,” a farcical reworking of Jack Benny’s television show in which Mr. Benny and his friends are assaulted and robbed by Rochester, his newly militant black valet.
For all the acclaim that followed “Dutchman,” Mr. Jones largely disdained his newfound celebrity, turning down the scriptwriting offers that poured in from Hollywood. (A film version of “Dutchman,” with a screenplay by Mr. Baraka and starring Shirley Knight and Al Freeman Jr., was released in 1967.)
He turned instead to academia, teaching at Columbia, Yale and elsewhere. At his death he was emeritus professor of Africana studies at Stony Brook University on Long Island, where he had taught since 1979.
Mr. Jones was further radicalized by the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965. Soon afterward, having come to believe that marriage to a white woman was ideologically untenable, he left his wife and their two daughters and moved to Harlem. (In 1990 his former wife would publish “How I Became Hettie Jones,” a memoir of their time together.)
In Harlem, Mr. Jones founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater, which staged many of his plays, and an associated theater school.
By the late ’60s, after the theater and school had folded, he had moved back to Newark, converted to Islam and adopted the Bantuized Arabic name Imamu (“spiritual leader”) Ameer (“prince”) Baraka (“blessed”), which he would later alter to Amiri Baraka.
Some critics felt that Mr. Baraka’s work from then on was the worse for his radicalism. In his 1970 essay collection “With Eye and Ear,” the poet and critic Kenneth Rexroth wrote that Mr. Baraka “has succumbed to the temptation to become a professional Race Man of the most irresponsible sort,” adding, “His loss to literature is more serious than any literary casualty of the Second War.”
By Mr. Baraka’s own later acknowledgment, his writings from this period contained elements of unvarnished anti-Semitism. In “For Tom Postell, Dead Black Poet,” published in his book “Black Magic: Collected Poetry, 1961-1967,” Mr. Baraka wrote: “Smile, jew. Dance, jew. Tell me you love me, jew,” continuing: “I got the extermination blues, jewboys. I got the hitler syndrome figured.”
In 1980 Mr. Baraka, who had by then renounced black nationalism as exclusionary and become, in his words, a “Marxist-Leninist-Maoist,” repudiated those views in an essay in The Village Voice titled “Confessions of a Former Anti-Semite.”
But the issue came sharply to the fore again in 2002. That September, shortly after he was appointed the New Jersey poet laureate, Mr. Baraka gave a public reading of “Somebody Blew Up America,” a poem he had written in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. In it, he suggested that Israel had prior knowledge of the attacks:
Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?
Mr. Baraka was roundly criticized, and New Jersey’s governor, James E. McGreevey, called on him to step down. He declined.
In 2003, after it was determined that the state Constitution had no provision for firing the poet laureate, the New Jersey General Assembly voted to abolish the position outright.
Mr. Baraka sued. In 2007, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that New Jersey officials were immune from his suit; later that year, the United States Supreme Court declined to review the case.
That court battle echoed Mr. Baraka’s periodic brushes with the law throughout his adult life. In 1967, he was found guilty of illegal weapons possession during the racially charged Newark riots that year; he later won a new trial, at which he was acquitted.
After divorcing his first wife, Mr. Baraka married Sylvia Robinson, a poet later known as Amina Baraka. In 1979, during an altercation with Ms. Baraka in New York, Mr. Baraka was arrested and charged with assault and resisting arrest. Sentenced to 48 weekends in a halfway house, he used the time to work on a memoir, “The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones,” published in 1984.
Mr. Baraka’s pugnacity was again in the news in 1990, when Rutgers, where he also taught, denied him tenure in its English department. In a widely reported public statement, he indicted unnamed members of the department as “Klansmen” and “Nazis.”
His ire over the years was scarcely reserved for whites. Calling them “backward,” he castigated a series of black mayors in Newark, where he continued to live, for what he saw as overly accommodationist policies, starting with Kenneth A. Gibson, the city’s first, who took office in 1970, and extending to Cory A. Booker, who held the office until he became a United States senator in October.
Mr. Baraka’s life was marked by great loss. In 1984 his sister, Sondra Lee Jones, who called herself Kimako Baraka, was stabbed to death in her New York apartment. In 2003 Shani Baraka, Mr. Baraka’s daughter with his second wife, was shot to death in Piscataway, N.J., along with her partner, Rayshon Holmes.
James Coleman, also known as Ibn El-Amin Pasha, the estranged husband of Shani’s half-sister, Wanda Wilson, was convicted of murdering Ms. Baraka and Ms. Holmes.
In addition to his wife and his son Ras, survivors include three other sons, Obalaji, Amiri Jr. and Ahi; four daughters, Dominique DiPrima, Lisa Jones Brown, Kellie Jones and Maria Jones; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Among Mr. Baraka’s many honors are the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Rockefeller Foundation Award for Drama and membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was seen in a small role as a homeless sage in Warren Beatty’s 1998 political satire, “Bulworth.”
Despite a half-century of accusations that he was a polarizing figure, Mr. Baraka described himself as an optimist, albeit one of a very particular sort.
“I’d say I’m a revolutionary optimist,” he told Newsday in 1990. “I believe that the good guys — the people — are going to win.”
Amiri Baraka Dead: Controversial Author And Activist Dies At 79
By HILLEL ITALIE
NEW YORK (AP) — Amiri Baraka, the militant man of letters and tireless agitator whose blues-based, fist-shaking poems, plays and criticism made him a provocative and groundbreaking force in American culture, has died. He was 79.
His booking agent, Celeste Bateman, told The Associated Press that Baraka, who had been hospitalized since last month, died Thursday at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center.
Perhaps no writer of the 1960s and '70s was more radical or polarizing than the former LeRoi Jones, and no one did more to extend the political debates of the civil rights era to the world of the arts. He inspired at least one generation of poets, playwrights and musicians, and his immersion in spoken word traditions and raw street language anticipated rap, hip-hop and slam poetry. The FBI feared him to the point of flattery, identifying Baraka as "the person who will probably emerge as the leader of the Pan-African movement in the United States."
Baraka transformed from the rare black to join the Beat caravan of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac to leader of the Black Arts Movement, an ally of the Black Power movement that rejected the liberal optimism of the early '60s and intensified a divide over how and whether the black artist should take on social issues. Scorning art for art's sake and the pursuit of black-white unity, Baraka was part of a philosophy that called for the teaching of black art and history and producing works that bluntly called for revolution.
"We want 'poems that kill,'" Baraka wrote in his landmark "Black Art," a manifesto published in 1965, the year he helped found the Black Arts Movement. "Assassin poems. Poems that shoot guns/Poems that wrestle cops into alleys/and take their weapons leaving them dead/with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland."
He was as eclectic as he was prolific: His influences ranged from Ray Bradbury and Mao Zedong to Ginsberg and John Coltrane. Baraka wrote poems, short stories, novels, essays, plays, musical and cultural criticism and jazz operas. His 1963 book, "Blues People," has been called the first major history of black music to be written by an African-American. A line from his poem "Black People!" — "Up against the wall mother f-----" — became a counterculture slogan for everyone from student protesters to the rock band Jefferson Airplane. A 2002 poem he wrote alleging that some Israelis had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks led to widespread outrage.
Decades earlier, Baraka had declared himself a black nationalist out to "break the deathly grip of the White Eyes," then a Marxist-Leninist out to destroy imperialists of all colors. No matter his name or ideology, he was committed to "struggle, change, struggle, unity, change, movement."
"All of the oaths I swore were sincere reflections of what I felt — what I thought I knew and understood," he wrote in a 1990 essay. "But those beliefs change, and the work shows this, too."
He was denounced by critics as buffoonish, homophobic, anti-Semitic, a demagogue. He was called by others a genius, a prophet, the Malcolm X of literature. Eldridge Cleaver hailed him as the bard of the "funky facts." Ishmael Reed credited the Black Arts Movement for encouraging artists of all backgrounds and enabling the rise of multiculturalism. The scholar Arnold Rampersad placed him alongside Frederick Douglass and Richard Wright in the pantheon of black cultural influences.
"From Amiri Baraka, I learned that all art is political, although I don't write political plays," the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist August Wilson once said.
First published in the 1950s, Baraka crashed the literary party in 1964, at the Cherry Lane Theater in Greenwich Village, when "Dutchman" opened and made instant history at the height of the civil rights movement. Baraka's play was a one-act showdown between a middle class black man, Clay, and a sexually daring white woman, Lula, ending in a brawl of murderous taunts and confessions.
"Charlie Parker. All the hip white boys scream for Bird," Clay says. "And they sit there talking about the tortured genius of Charlie Parker. Bird would've not played a note of music if he just walked up to East 67th Street and killed the first 10 white people he saw. Not a note!"
Less than a year after the March on Washington, Baraka pronounced the dream dead, a delusion. The war of words commenced. The Village Voice gave it an Obie award for the top off-Broadway show. Norman Mailer called it the "best play in America." Jean-Luc Godard lifted some dialogue for his film "Masculin Feminine." New York Times critic Howard Taubman was impressed, and, apparently, terrified.
"If this is the way the Negroes really feel about the white world around them, there's more rancor buried in the breasts of colored conformists than anyone can imagine," Taubman wrote in his review.
When Philip Roth, writing for The New York Review of Books, criticized the character development in "Dutchman," the playwright answered: "Sir, it is not my fault that you are so feeble-minded you refuse to see any Negro as a man, but rather as the narrow product of your own sterile response."
Baraka was still LeRoi Jones when he wrote "Dutchman." But the Cuban revolution, the assassination in 1965 of Malcolm X and the Newark riots of 1967, when the poet was jailed and photographed looking dazed and bloodied, radicalized him. Jones left his white wife (Hettie Cohen), cut off his white friends and moved from Greenwich Village to Harlem. He renamed himself Imamu Ameer Baraka, "spiritual leader blessed prince," and dismissed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a "brainwashed Negro." He helped organize the 1972 National Black Political Convention and founded the Congress of African People. He also founded community groups in Harlem and Newark, the hometown to which he eventually returned.
The revolution, Baraka believed, would be set to music. In "Blues People," he traced the role of blues and jazz as forces of nonconformity in American culture from slavery days to the present. In essays and interviews, he supported such jazz artists as Sun Ra, Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp, chastised Sly and the Family Stone for including whites in the band and scorned the Beatles as "a group of middle-class white boys who need a haircut and male hormones." He welcomed rap as "mass-based poetry," but worried that corporate power was turning performers away from the mission of "struggle and democracy and political consciousness."
The Black Arts Movement was essentially over by the mid-1970s, and Baraka distanced himself from some of his harsher comments — about Dr. King, about gays and about whites in general. But he kept making news. In the early 1990s, as Spike Lee was filming a biography of Malcolm X, Baraka ridiculed the director as "a petit bourgeois Negro" unworthy of his subject. In 2002, respected enough to be named New Jersey's poet laureate, he shocked again with "Somebody Blew Up America," a Sept. 11 poem with a jarring twist.
"Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed," read a line from the poem. "Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers to stay home that day?"
Then-Gov. James E. McGreevey and others demanded his resignation. Baraka refused, denying that "Somebody Blew Up" was anti-Semitic (the poem also attacks Hitler and the Holocaust) and condemning the "dishonest, consciously distorted and insulting non-interpretation of my poem." Discovering he couldn't be fired, the state eliminated the position altogether, in 2003.
Baraka was born Everett LeRoy Jones in 1934, a postal worker's son who grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood in Newark and remembered his family's passion for songs and storytelling. He showed early talents for sports and music and did well enough in high school to graduate with honors and receive a scholarship from Rutgers University.
Feeling out of place at Rutgers, he transferred to a leading black college, Howard University. He hated it there ("Howard University shocked me into realizing how desperately sick the Negro could be," he later wrote) and joined the Air Force, from which he was discharged for having too many books, among other transgressions. By 1958, he had settled in Greenwich Village, met Ginsberg and other Beats, married fellow writer Cohen and was editing an avant-garde journal, Yugen. He called himself LeRoi Jones.
He was never meant to write like other writers. In his "Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka," published in 1984, he remembered himself as a young man, sitting on a bench, reading "one of the carefully put together exercises The New Yorker publishes constantly as high poetic art."
And he was in tears.
"I realized that there was something in me so out, so unconnected with what this writer was and what this magazine was that what was in me that wanted to come out as poetry would never come out like that and be my poetry," he wrote.
Baraka's many works included the poetry collections "Black Magic" and "Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note," the plays "Slave Ship" and "Arm Yourself or Harm Yourself," and a novel, "The System of Dante's Hell." Admittedly a hard man to work with, he wrote for numerous publishers and published some books himself.
"He opened tightly guarded doors for not only Blacks but poor whites as well and, of course, Native Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans," the American Indian author Maurice Kenny wrote of him. "We'd all still be waiting for the invitation from The New Yorker without him. He taught us all how to claim it and take it."
Baraka divorced Cohen in 1965 and a year later married Sylvia Robinson, whose name became Bibi Amina Baraka. He had seven children, two with his first wife and five with his second. A son, Ras Baraka, became a councilman in Newark and is running for mayor of that city. A daughter, Shani Baraka, was murdered in 2003 by the estranged husband of her sister, Wanda Pasha.
Amiri Baraka taught at Yale University and George Washington University and spent 20 years on the faculty of the State University of New York in Stonybrook. He received numerous grants and prizes, including a Guggenheim fellowship and a poetry award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Baraka was the subject of a 1983 documentary, "In Motion," and holds a minor place in Hollywood history. In "Bulworth," Warren Beatty's 1998 satire about a senator's break from the political establishment, Baraka plays a homeless poet who cheers on the title character.
"You got to be a spirit," the poet tells him. "You got to sing — don't be no ghost."
Amiri Baraka, former N.J. poet laureate and prolific author, dead at 79
By David Giambusso
The NJ Star-Ledger
on January 09, 2014
NEWARK — Amiri Baraka, the longtime activist and former poet laureate of New Jersey died today, officials confirmed. He was 79 years old.
Baraka was placed in intensive care at Beth Israel Medical Center last month for an unknown reason, but a spokesman for his son's mayoral campaign said his condition was improving late in December.
Newark Mayor Luis Quintana said Baraka will be sorely missed.
"I went to visit him at the hospital about two weeks ago," Quintana said by phone. "He was more than poet he was a leader in his own right. He's going to be missed and our condolences go out to his family today."
Quintana recalled Baraka's role in the 1969 Black and Puerto Rican convention, a landmark political meeting that resulted in the election of Ken Gibson, Newark's first black mayor.
"We're going to remember him always for his contributions to Newark, New Jersey and America," Quintana said. "In this time of pain, the citizens of Newark and I are with him."
Baraka had long struggled with diabetes, but it was not immediately clear what the cause of death was.
A Newark native and resident formerly known as Leroi Jones, Amiri Baraka has published dozens of poems, essays and works of non-fiction. In 1963 Amiri Baraka wrote "Blues People," an in-depth history of music from the time of slavery throughout the various incarnations of blues and jazz, with integrated social commentary. The book's 50th anniversary was recently celebrated during an event at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.
In 1964, Baraka published the book of poetry, "Dead Lecturer" that marked a significant transition in his career. Also written under the name Leroi Jones, the book featured more traditional poems but also laid the groundwork for the more radical, experimental work that would come to define his later career.
Poet Amiri Baraka reads a poem about Sarah Vaughan Author Amiri Baraka, who turns 75 next week, reads his poetry at Skippers Pub in Newark. The poem entitled, "The Lullabye of Avon Avenue" is about American jazz singer and Newarker, Sarah Vaughan. Starting tomorrow, several commemorative events are planned in the city to examine his career as an artist and activist. (Video by Noah K. Murray / The Star-Ledger)
"He was able to put music into the work, even reading the work," said Maria Maziotti Gillan, a poet and the director of the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College. "Mostly he was able to capture an audience when he spoke. He was a able to capture an audience through his poetry but also through what he had to say."
Kenneth Gibson, Newwark's first African American mayor said Baraka was the spiritual leader that helped enfranchise Newark's black and Hispanic community in the city's
"He was really a man ahead of his time in many ways," Gibson said by phone. "He was a spiritual leader of the group that we put together to develop the black and Puerto Rican convention."
Gibson and Baraka were close allies when Gibson was elected mayor in 1970 but Gibson said governance was not something Baraka took to easily.
"He was much more artistic than political and that was his nature," Gibson said. "But I never lost respect for him and he never lost respect for me."
Gibson said despite his outspoken nature, Baraka "kept a lot of things internal," but added, "He was a visionary. A visionary is sometimes misunderstood and sometimes they are understood, but he was in a class by himself."
Former Newark Mayor and U.S. Senator Cory Booker, who's own father died in October expressed his condolences.
"Having lost a father recently, I know how painful this time can be," Booker said in a statement. "My thoughts and prayers are with his children and the whole Baraka family after their loss.”
North Ward power broker Stephen Adubato Sr. also offered condolences to the Baraka family in statement.
"He and I go back a long way to our days as students at Barringer High School and later when we joined forces to elect Ken Gibson," Adubato said. "While he is known around the world as a poet, author and intellectual, he will also be remembered in Newark for his contributions as a community activist who was a strong and articulate advocate of his beliefs."
Baraka was the state's second poet laureate for a short time in 2002 and 2003.
In 2002, Gov. James E. McGreevey called for Baraka’s resignation as New Jersey’s Poet Laureate after a Jewish group condemned “Somebody Blew Up America.” The poem, written shortly after 9/11, included a passage claiming thousands of Israelis knew there was going to be an attack and stayed home from work — an Internet rumor not based in fact.
In typical fashion, Baraka defended his free speech and wrote an essay entitled, “I will not apologize, I will not resign.”
Newark City Council President Mildred Crump, a longtime friend of the Baraka family, said the world lost one of its pre-eminent literary figures today.
“Not only has New Jersey, but the United States of America, has lost a great human being. He was a legend in his own lifetime," Crump said. "It is such a loss, such a great loss."
Crump said Baraka's condition had been improving, and he was breathing on his own when she last visited him on Sunday. The Baraka family has been lining Beth Israel Medical Center for weeks, according to Crump.
“He fought a good fight. I was there the first night he went into the hospital," Crump said. "I was there when he was breathing on his own, I was there Sunday."
Crump said her first association with Baraka came in the 1970s, when he led the charge to build Kawaida Towers, a planned 100-acre housing project that was meant to embody the Black Power movement that Amiri had long been a champion of.
"That's when he became my hero," Crump said.
Editor's note: This breaking news story will be updated throughout the evening.
Star-Ledger Staff Writer James Queally contributed to this report.
BOOKS, AUTHORS AND ALL THINGS BOOKISH
Amiri Baraka captured an outsider's anger, giving it beauty
Amiri Baraka in 2002. The writer and activist died Thursday at age 79. (Bebeto Matthews / Associated Press / October 17, 2002)
By Hector Tobar
January 9, 2014
Los Angeles Times
Once you had met him, the poet Amiri Baraka was a tough man to forget.
I saw Baraka read once, here in Los Angeles, at the Beyond Baroque literary center in Venice, circa 1990. He was already white-haired and white-bearded then, and he cut a not-especially-happy-to-there pose as he stood behind the lectern, reciting some of his newer work.
When he had finished, an enthusiastic member of the audience yelled out the names of some of his poems from the 1960s and '70s. I don’t remember which ones, but perhaps it was one like “An Agony. As Now,” written when he lived in New York, haunting jazz clubs, and when his goatee did not hold a hint of gray.
That poem begins with the writer in an existential crisis: “I am inside someone/who hates me. I look/out from his eyes. Smell/what fouled tunes come in/ to his breath. Love his/wretched women.” And it ends with the writer trying to fight his way out of it: “It burns the thing/inside it. And that thing/screams.”
A certain kind of American reader loved Baraka for capturing an outsider’s anger, and giving it form and voice and beauty. Even his name was a kind of poem: The former LeRoi Jones took a name that meant “blessed prince” in Swahili. His fans that night wanted Baraka to be that poet again. But Baraka didn’t like to think of himself as a performer. He looked up at us from over the tops of his glasses and gave us all an irritated look.
“I’m not reading any of those poems tonight,” he said, and that was that.
Baraka’s life carried him across a variety of American literary and social movements: from The Beats to Black Nationalism to Marxism. He “joined” each movement when it was still a dangerous and edgy thing to do, and floated away from each movement when it became more settled and mainstream. In his later years, he seemed to embrace being irascible and provocative for its own sake, as with the poem he wrote (as poet laureate of New Jersey, no less) following the 9/11 attacks. It repeated the canard that “4,000 Israeli workers” had stayed away from the World Trade Center towers because they had been forewarned of the attack.
I liked that Baraka wouldn’t cater to his audience that night at Beyond Baroque. But I wouldn’t have minded at all if he’d acquiesced and read some of those older poems too, because they joined together his anger with his humanity, compassion and love of language. His political statements, by contrast, had all the subtlety of pornography, with ample use of fascist and Third Reich analogies.
At Rutgers in the 1990s, he compared his academic foes to Goebbels. But his poetry could be magic, and called forth magic often, as in the beautiful manifesto of Ka’Ba.
“We have been captured,/and we labor to make our getaway, into/the ancient image; into a new/Correspondence with ourselves/and our Black family. We need magic/now we need the spells, to raise up/return, destroy, and create. What will be/the sacred word?”
By Matt Schudel
January 9, 2014
Amiri Baraka, one of the most influential African American writers of his generation, who courted controversy as a poet, playwright and provocateur and who was a primary intellectual architect of the Black Arts movement of the 1960s, died Jan. 9 at a hospital in Newark. He was 79.
Newark Mayor Luis Quintana and other public officials confirmed the death. The cause was not reported, but Mr. Baraka had been hospitalized in intensive care since December.
Mr. Baraka began writing in the 1950s under his original name, LeRoi Jones, as a poet and jazz critic on the fringes of Beat Movement in Greenwich Village. He later became a disciple of Malcolm X and an advocate of a militant black separatist movement built around African American cultural traditions, racial pride and defiance.
He courted controversy throughout his life, first with confrontational plays in the 1960s, including “Dutchman” and “The Toilet,” that portrayed racial misunderstanding and violent encounters in explicit language.
Closely identified with the rising black nationalist movement of the 1960s, he later moderated his views and became an avowed Marxist. Yet he remained an unrepentant and polarizing symbol of radical indignation.
“We want poems that kill,” he wrote in “Black Art,” an influential 1965 poem that helped define the Black Arts movement. “Assassin poems. Poems that shoot guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys ... setting fire and death to whities ... ”
In a 1984 review of Mr. Baraka’s “The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones” in The Washington Post, novelist John Edgar Wideman summed up his protean place in American culture: “Savior, clown, artist who’d sold out to demagoguery, hero, menace.”
As much as anyone, Mr. Baraka helped define a modern, militant sense of self-identity and empowerment among African Americans seeking to break free of white cultural and social norms. The title of his 1967 one-act play became a catchphrase of the time: “Arm Yourself or Harm Yourself.”
In 1965, he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre in Harlem, N.Y.,. which received funding from the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity. When OEO Director R. Sargent Shriver Jr. tried to visit the cultural center, Mr. Baraka barred him at the door.
“I don’t see anything wrong with hating white people,” Mr. Baraka told U.S. News & World Report at the time. “Harlem must be taken from the beast and gain its sovereignty as a black nation.”
Mr. Baraka’s forthright use of black vernacular, slang and profanity in an improvisatory style became an influence on later writers, hip-hop musicians and playwrights.
Arnold Rampersad, the biographer and literary critic, once wrote that Mr. Baraka’s bold writings, coupled with his vibrant social activism, made him one of the most historically significant figures in African American life, alongside Frederick Douglass, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison.
“More than any other black poet,” Rampersad wrote, “he taught younger black poets of the generation past how to respond poetically to their lived experience, rather than to depend as artists on embalmed reputations and outmoded rhetorical strategies derived from a culture often substantially different from their own.”
Mr. Baraka’s detractors considered him a reckless agitator whose inflammatory rhetoric contained elements of anti-Semitism and misogyny and constituted a reverse form of hate speech.
In 2002, cultural critic Stanley Crouch ridiculed Mr. Baraka’s writing as “an incoherent mix of racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, black nationalism, anarchy and ad hominem attacks relying on comic book and horror film characters and images that he has used over and over and over.”
In later years, Mr. Baraka continued to issue incendiary pronouncements, including the poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” written soon after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In the poem, he maintained that Israeli and U.S. leaders had advance knowledge of the attacks. After reciting a litany of wrongs committed against the poor and powerless, Mr. Baraka wrote:
“Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed / Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers / To stay home that day / Why did [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon stay away?”
The passage was widely condemned as anti-Semitic and factually untrue and led to a public outcry to have Mr. Baraka fired from his $10,000-a-year position as poet laureate of New Jersey.
“I will not apologize, I will not resign,” Mr. Baraka said.
The state’s governor at the time, James McGreevey, discovered that he didn’t have the authority to dismiss Mr. Baraka. The legislature eventually passed a measure to abolish the post of poet laureate. His lawsuit against state officials was ultimately turned down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a wry moment of self-promotion, Mr. Baraka said, “No poet laureate has ever made poetry this famous.”
Everett LeRoy Jones was born Oct. 7, 1934, in Newark. His father worked for the post office, and his mother was a social worker.
He attended Rutgers University in New Jersey and Howard University without getting a degree and began to go by LeRoi Jones. He then served in the Air Force, which he found an alienating experience, marked by racial prejudice and conformity to rules he could not abide.
By the mid-1950s, he landed in Greenwich Village, where he befriended poet Allen Ginsberg, a fellow Newark native, and other writers of the Beat Movement. He soon gained a following for his own poetry and writings on jazz.
After writing several volumes of poetry, Mr. Baraka published “Blues People: Negro Music in White America” (1963), which placed black musical traditions in the broader social context of African American life.
In 1964, he wrote several short plays, most notably “Dutchman,” that challenged accepted views of black-white relations. In “Dutchman,” which won an Obie award for best off-Broadway play, a bohemian white woman and a well-dressed black man have an encounter on a subway that ends in violence.
After the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, Mr. Baraka said he “began to focus on my own identity.” He divorced his first wife, Hettie Cohen, with whom he had two children, moved to Harlem and later to Newark. In the late 1960s, he adopted the name Amiri Baraka.
Mr. Baraka became a tenured professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and taught at many other colleges, including George Washington University.
In 1980, he published an essay in the Village Voice in 1980, “Confessions of a Former Anti-Semite,” in which he renounced the overt anti-Semitism of some of his writings from the 1960s.
But he hardly retired from the cultural battlefield. He quarreled with prominent black mayors of Newark, including Kenneth Gibson and Cory Booker, and in the early 1990s had a well-publicized dispute with director Spike Lee, then making a film about the life of Malcolm X. He feared the effort would be tainted by the money and tastes of Hollywood.
“Who appointed Baraka chairman of the African American arts committee?” Lee retorted. “Nobody tells him what poems and plays to write, so why is he trying to tell me what kind of film to make?”
Mr. Baraka’s survivors include his wife of 47 years, Sylvia Robinson, who later changed her name to Amina Baraka; two daughters from his first marriage and four children from his second, including Newark city council member Ras Baraka.
Amiri Baraka’s daughter Shani and her companion were killed in 2003; the ex-husband of Shani’s sister was later convicted of the murders.
Mr. Baraka’s writings became more fragmented over the years, but he earned good reviews with his collected poems, “Transbluency,” in 1995 and with his 1984 autobiography. In that book, he described his early life and seemed to come to reluctant terms with the world around him.
“I realized,” he wrote, “that the U.S. was my home. As painful and complicated as that was.”