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|Amiri Baraka (1934-2014) - also called Imamu Amiri Baraka - original name until 1968 Everett LeRoi Jones|
American dramatist, poet and novelist, who explored the experience and anger of African-Americans. Baraka's writings were his weapon against racism and later a means to advocate scientific socialism. Having been converted to the Kewaida sect of the Muslim faith, he assumed the name Imamu Amiri Baraka.
"I am soul in the world: in
Amiri Baraka was born Everett Leroy Jones in Newark, New
Jersey, where his father,
worked as a postman and lift operator. Baraka's mother, the former Anna
Russ, was a social
worker. "I think black people who had jobs, as my parents did, could be
considered middle-class, but certainly not middle-class compared to
what America is," he once commented. ('A
Conversation between Imamu and Theodore R. Hudson,' in Conversations with Amiri Baraka,
edited by Charlie Reilly, 1994, p. 71)
Baraka graduated in 1951 from Barringer High School in Newark. He studied on a scholarship at Rutgers, Columbia, and Howard Universities, leaving without a degree, and at the New School for Social Research. His major fields of study were philosophy and religion. After dropping out from university, Baraka served three years as a gunner in the U.S. Air Force, which he described as "the Error Farce." During this period he read voraciously. Because of his alleged Communist sympathies, Baraka's received a dishohorable discharge by the Air Force. For a period he worked as a stock clerk at the famous Gotham Book Mart in New York on 47th Street and then resumed his studies of comparative literature at Columbia University.
In 1956 Baraka began his career as a writer, activist, and advocate of black culture and political power. Dissatisfied with existing publishing companies, he cofounded in 1958 Yugen magazine and Totem Press. Like many other Beat poets, he constantly sought new ways of communicating with his audience. In Harlem he established the Black Arts Repertory Theatre, which presented poetry readings, concerts, and produced a number of plays. The theatre was disbanded in 1966 and Baraka set up in Newark the Spirit House, a black community theatre (also known as the Heckalu Community Centre). Upon returning from his journey from post-revolutionary Cuba, he wrote in the essay 'Cuba Libre' (1960): "The rebels among us have become merely people like myself who grow beards and will not participate in politics. A bland revolt. . . . We are old people already. Even the vitality of our art is like bright flowers growing up through a rotting carcass." (Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual by Jerry Watts, 2001, p. 53) In 1968 Baraka founded the Black Community Development and Defense Organization. He also served as Secretary-General of the National Black Political Assembly and Chairman of the Congress of African People.
Baraka's first published work was a play, A Good Girl Is Hard to Find (1958). Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, a book of verse with personal and domestic poems, came out in 1961. The book was published in an underground series that included work by Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Several other collections followed, among them The Dead Lecturer (1964), Black Art (1966) and Black Magic (1969). His later collections include It's Nation Time (1970) Spirit Reach (1972), Hard Facts (1977), Am/Trak (1979), and Thoughts for You! (1984).
In 1964 Baraka had four of his plays produced: The
Toilet, The Baptism, The Slave and The Dutchman, which
received the Off Broadway award for the best American play of 1963-64.
It premiered on March 24th, 1964, at Cherry Lane Theater in Manhattan,
and was made into film in 1966, directed by Anthony Harvey, and
Shirley Knight and Al Freeman Junior.
With this and subsequent plays Baraka became the leading writer of militant black theater. The Dutchman uses the technique of Antonin Artaud's "Theater of Cruelty," making the audience face and examine their prejudices through violence of the dramatic action. Baraka depicted a confrontation between a sadistic white woman, Lula, and a naive black college student, Clay, in a subway car. The underground location of the drama is as mythical, or subconscious, as the title, which refers perhaps to the fate of the Flying Dutchman, doomed to sail forever – thus similar scenes are repeatedly acted throughout history. "What right do you have to be wearing a three-button suit and striped tie? Your grandfather was a slave, he didn't go to Harvard," says Lula. Clay represents an accommodationist, who tries to live and survive in a white controlled society, and he chooses not to murder his tormentor, only to be stabbed to death by her. At the play's end Lula makes an eye contact with another unsuspecting young black man.
"The Dutchman was also, in part, responsible for the growth of a genre of black literature known as the Black Arts movement. Younger black writers, including Don L. Lee (Haki Madhubuti), Ed Bullins, Sonia Sanchez, Marvin X, and Larry Neal, soon produced a torrent of black-themed works that sought to establish the artistic validity of African-American cultural idioms and that was often openly antiwhite. ... With The Dutchman Baraka opened the doors for black American writers to deal with a broad range of political, racial, and social themes." (from Chronology of Twentieth-Century History: Arts & Culture, Volume II, edited by Frank N. Magill, 1998, p. 1415)
Baraka's other plays include A Black Mass (1966), based on the Muslim myth of Yacub, The Death of Malcolm X (1969), The Motion of History (1977), which concluded with the transformation of white oppressors into Marxist co-workers. What Was the Relationship of the Lone Ranger to the Means of Production? (1978) presented a surrealistic episode using pop culture figures in which a murdering Capitalist exploiter (the Masked Man) provokes a violent worker revolt. In 1965 Baraka made his debut as a novelist with The System of Dante's Hell. It was loosely based on the themes of Dante's Inferno. Written in the same choppy style as his essays and poems from the 1960s, it gave the effect of a prose poem.
In 1965 Baraka divorced Hettie Cohen, his Jewish wife whom he had married in a Buddhist temple in New York in 1958. They had two daughters. In the late 1950s Baraka edited with his wife the Yugen magazine which published poetry – Hettie did the pasting up and collating on their Morton Street kitchen table. The magazine was an immediate hit. With the poet Diane di Prima, who helped them to publish the magazine, Baraka had a daughter together. They founded a mimeographed subscription newsletter, The Floating Bear, which published the work of many beat writers. Baraka and Diane were arrested in the late 1961 by the FBI for the so-called obscenity of the ninth issue of the newsletter; the case was dropped. After divorce, Hettie specialized in children's books dealing with black and Native American themes. She also helped run a community-based project for disadvantaged children and has published a volume of writing by women prisoners, More Out Than In (1992). Hettie Jones has depicted her life with LeRoi Jones in her book of memoir, How I Became Hettie Jones (1990).
Following his involvement with the Black Power movement, Baraka was criticized for not being with a woman his own color. In 1966 he married a black woman, Sylvia Robinson (later to be called Amina Baraka); they had five children. When the first printing of The Autobiography of Leroi Jones (1984) came out, she was furious that he paid more attention to his first wife than their life together and that he did not talk openly his betrayal of her and his many affairs. Publicly she has contradicted her husband especially in feminist issues.
Soon after the debut of Dutchman, he rejected his "slave name," Jones, for a new African identity, Imamu (Swahili, for spiritual leader) Amiri Baraka. "The man who buried Malcolm X," he recalled, "gave me the name Ameer Baraka. Later on I met Ron Karenga . . . who gave me the name Imamu and changed Ameer to Amiri." ('Introduction,' in Conversations with Amiri Baraka, edited by Charlie Reilly, 1994, p. x) With his own conversion to Marxism, Baraka dropped "Imamu" from his name as having "bourgeois nationalist" implications.
In 1967 Baraka helped organize a National Black Power Conference. The Cuban revolution had a great influence on Baraka. After the death of Patrice Lumumba, he participated in a demonstration and was arrested for the first of many times. During an urban riot Baraka was beaten and confined in a state penitentiary; the conviction was overturned in appellate court. Baraka's works became in the 1960s progressively more radical and involved with issues of racial and national identity. "We must eliminate the white man before we can draw a free breath on this planet," he once stated. ('Baraka, Amiri,' in American Writers by Elizabeth H. Oakes, 2004, p. 34) In his early poems Baraka dealt with such subjects as death, suicide and self-hatred, but his view took a new turn and he focused on the separation of the races and political activism.
After 1974 Baraka's political ideology underwent a change. He abandoned Black Nationalism and embraced Marxist Leninism, supporting the revolutionary overthrow of capitalist system, black or white. As an opponent of the middle-classes, Baraka criticized the likes of James Baldwin to be too "hip". The strength of his work was in its frankness and in the attempt to turn from a Western cultural background to a new black aesthetic, flowing from the alternative cultural movements of Africa and America.
Hard Facts (1976), a collection of Baraka's
Marxist-Leninist poetry, includes some of his
best-written work. In spite of all the political and
Baraka was a supporter of President Barack Obama, but following
the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime in Libya, he wrote in the poem 'The
New Invasion of Africa' (2011): "So it wd be this way / That they wd
get a negro / To bomb his own home / To join with the actual colonial /
Powers, Britain, France, add Poison Hillary / With Israeli and Saudi to
make certain / That revolution in Africa must have a stopper".
Baraka was a teacher at the New School for Social Research, New York (1961-64), a visiting professor at San Francisco State College (1966-67), Yale University, New Haven (1977-78), and George Washington University, Washington, D.C. (1978-79). He was an assistant professor (1980-82), an associate professor (1983-84), and from 1985 a professor of African Studies at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. The decision to deny him tenure at Rutgers University led to a student protest and takeover. Baraka retired in 2000, but continued read his poems in jazz sessions – as he did 40 years. In 2001 Baraka visited Finland where read poems at a jazz evening with Hamiet Bluiett (saxophone), Wilber Morris (bass), and Reggie Nicholson (drums). His first poetry record, Black Dada Nihilismus, Baraka made in 1964 with the New York Art Quartet. Baraka's lyrics were provocative in the true spirit of the Dadaist movement, born originally in France in the late 1910s: "nihilismus. Rape the white girls. Rape / their fathers. Cut the mothers' throats. / Black dada nihilismus, choke my friends /".
In the 1980s Baraka wrote two librettos, Money (1982, with George Gruntz, the director of the Zurich opera and orchestra), and Primitive World (1984, with D. Murray), in which the actors play musical instruments throughout the performance. His poems show an interest in music, and Baraka also wrote many books on the subject (Black Music in 1968, The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues in 1987). Already in Blues People (19639, Baraka had spoken music as the core of African American culture. In his short story, 'The Screamers' in Tales (1967), Baraka dealt with the galvanizing force of black music upon a black audience.
Like the 17th century English historian Thomas Fuller, Baraka argued that "Poetry is music". He saw that all language is basically rhythmic. "I firmly believe that the reason we respond so deeply to poetry and music is because they speak to a rhythm which lies at the very essnce of human existence." ('An Interview with Amiri Baraka: Charlie Reilly/1991,' in Conversations with Amiri Baraka, edited by Charlie Reilly, 1994, p. 249) In his youth Baraka practiced piano, trumpet and drums, but found that poetry was a more suitable form of expression for him. His home showed signs of music and African culture everywhere: photographs of the author with the saxophonist John Coltrane, piano which was bought when the singer Nina Simone who lived with the family for a few months, African sculptures, furniture, and textiles.
Baraka continued to write in the 1990s while also teaching at SUNY-Stony Brook. He edited many anthologies of African-American writing, and was honored with numerous fellowships, grants, and awards. His political frankness never became milder, as can be seen in General Hag's Skeezag (published in Black Thunder, 1992). 'Somebody Blew Up America' (2002) a Sept. 11 memorial poem, was labelled anti-Semitic. "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 Sharon stay away?" Baraka claimed that the poem was misinterpreted; it was actually anti-Zionist. He had already in 1980 published in the Village Voice an essay entitled 'Confessions of a Former Anti-Semite,' in which he explained that his stand resulted from false ideology. Nevertheless, New Jersey state lawmakers voted in July 2003 to eliminate the position of poet laureate altogether.
Baraka's sister Kimako (also known as Sondra Lee Jones), a dancer and actress, was stabbed to death
with a kitchen knife in January 1984 in her Manhattan Plaza apartment. Baraka wrote a bitter eulogy, which he
read at her memorial service:
"My sister was murdered to set an example of non-being for us, to
intimidate us. To say to us. get a real job. As slave, stop trying to
be. all she wanted, was to be in the theater. Was that so terrible that
you cdnit permit it, your aweful money gods?"
youngest child, who worked as a schoolteacher in Newark, was shot
to death along with her girlfriend in 2003.
The estranged husband of Shani’s half-sister was convicted of the
murders. "I just hope he spends the rest of his natural life in jail,"
Baraka stated. (The
New York Times, March 3, 2004)
Many of his writings have
remained unpublished, or were printed
small pamphlets. Baraka died of complications after surgery following a
long illness, on January 9, 2014, in Newark, New Jersey. He had
struggled with diabetes and other health problems.
For further reading: From LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka by T. Hudson (1973); The Renegade and the Mask by K.B. Benston (1976); Amiri Baraka / LeRoi Jones: The Question for a 'Populist Modernism' by W. Sollors (1978); Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. by K. Benston (1978); The Poetry and Politics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic by W.J. Harris (1985); How I Became Hettie Jones by Hettie Jones (1990); Amiri Baraka / LeRoi Jones by Bob Bernotas et al (1991); Conversations With Amiri Baraka, ed. by Charlie Reilly et al. (1994); Women of the Beat Generation by Brenda Knight (1996); Contemporary African American Theater by Nilgun Anadolu-Okur (1997); 'Amiri Baraka' by David Bakish, in Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 1, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); A Nation Within a Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black Power Politics by Komozi Woodard (1999); Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual by Jerry Watts (2001); The Aesthetics of Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka: The Rebel Poet by Maurice A. Lee (2004); The Shadow and the Act: Black Intellectual Practice, Jazz Improvisation, and Philosophical Pragmatism by Walton M. Muyumba (2009); 'Baraka, Amiri,' in Encyclopedia of the Black Arts Movement, edited by Verner D. Mitchell and Cynthia Davis (2019); A Black Arts Poetry Machine: Amiri Baraka and the Umbra Poets by David Grundy (2019); The Nation of Islam and Black Consciousness : the Works of Amiri Bakara, Sonia Sanchez, and Other Writers by Ammar Abduh Aqeeli (2019); Brick City Vanguard: Amiri Baraka, Black Music, Black Modernity by James Smethurst (2020)