Amiri Baraka

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Amiri Baraka
Born: October 7, 1934
Newark, New Jersey
Occupation: Playwright, Poet, Activist

Amiri Baraka (born October 7, 1934) is an American writer of poetry, drama, essays and music criticism.


  • 1 Biography
    • 1.1 Early life
    • 1.2 1934 - 1965
    • 1.3 1966 - 1980
    • 1.4 1980 - today
  • 2 Controversy
  • 3 Works
  • 4 References
  • 5 External links


Early life

Baraka was born Everett LeRoy Jones in Newark, New Jersey. His father, Colt LeRoy Jones, worked as a postman and lift operator, and his mother, Anna Lois, was a social worker.[1][2][3][4] In 1952 he changed his name to LeRoi Jones. In 1967 he adopted the African name Imamu Ameer Baraka, which he later changed to Amiri Baraka.

1934 - 1965

Baraka studied philosophy and religious studies at Rutgers University, Columbia University and Howard University without obtaining a degree. In 1954 he joined the US Air Force reaching the rank of sergeant. After an anonymous letter to his commanding officer accusing him of being a communist led to the discovery of Soviet writings, Baraka was put on gardening duty and given a dishonorable discharge for violation of his oath of duty.

The same year he moved to Greenwich Village working initially in a warehouse for music records. From this period stems his interest in jazz. At the same time he came into contact with the incipient movement of Beat Poets that was going to have a powerful influence on his early poetry. In 1958, Jones founded Totem Press, which published such Beat icons as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. The same year he married Hettie Cohen and with her became joint editor of the Yugen literary magazine (until 1963).

In 1960 he went to Cuba, a visit that initiated his transformation into a politically active artist. In 1961 Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note was published, followed in 1963 by Blues People: Negro Music in White America - to this day one of the most influential volumes of jazz criticism, especially in regard to the then beginning Free Jazz movement. His play Dutchman premiered in 1964 and the same year he won an Obie Award for it. After the killing of Malcolm X he broke with the Beat Poets, left his wife and their two children and moved to Harlem because, at the time, he thought of himself as a black cultural nationalist. Hettie Cohen, later, in her autobiography How I Became Hettie Jones (1996), claimed that Baraka had mistreated her during the time of their marriage.

1966 - 1980

In 1966 Baraka married his second wife who later adopted the name Amina Baraka. In 1967 he became a lecturer at San Francisco State University. In 1968 he was arrested in Newark for illegally carrying a weapon and resisting arrest during riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King and sentenced to three years in prison. Shortly afterwards an appeal court threw out the sentence. The same year his second book of jazz criticism Black Music came out, a collection of previously published music journalism, including the seminal Apple Cores columns from Down Beat magazine. In 1970 he strongly supported Kenneth Gibson's candidacy for mayor of Newark; Gibson was elected the city's first Afro-American Mayor. In the late 1960s and early 1970s Baraka courted controversy by penning some strongly anti-Jewish poems and articles, similar to the then stance of the Nation of Islam.

Around 1974 Baraka distanced himself from Black nationalism and became a Marxist and a supporter of anti-imperialist third world liberation movements. In 1979 he became a lecturer at SUNY for the Africana Studies Department. The same year, after altercations with his wife, he was senteced to a short period of compulsory community service. Around this time he began writing his autobiography. In 1980 he denounced his former anti-semitic utterances, declaring himself an anti-zionist.

1980 - today

In 1984 Baraka became a full professor. In 1987, together with Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, he was a speaker at the commemoration ceremony for James Baldwin. In 1989 he won an American Book Award for his works as well as a Langston Hughes Award. In 1990 he co-authored the autobiography of Quincy Jones, and 1998 was a supporting actor in Warren Beatty's film Bulworth.


In 1965, Baraka wrote: "Most American white men are trained to be fags. For this reason it is no wonder their faces are weak and blank. … The average ofay [white person] thinks of the black man as potentially raping every white lady in sight. Which is true, in the sense that the black man should want to rob the white man of everything he has. But for most whites the guilt of the robbery is the guilt of rape. That is, they know in their deepest hearts that they should be robbed, and the white woman understands that only in the rape sequence is she likely to get cleanly, viciously popped.",[5]

Amiri Baraka was New Jersey’s Poet Laureate at the time of the September 11, 2001 attacks. He wrote a poem titled "Somebody Blew Up America" about the event. The poem was controversial and highly critical of the American government. The poem also contains lines claiming Israel's involvement in an alleged 9/11 conspiracy:

 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?
 Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion
 And cracking they sides at the notion

While the claims made in those lines were not original to Baraka, the source material upon which he relied (in particular, the stories of the 4,000 Israeli workers and the canceled trip by Ariel Sharon) has been largely discredited. Despite the debunking, Baraka currently stands by the claims made in the poem, which many critics consider to be representative of New Antisemitism[6], though Baraka and his defenders prefer to define his position as Anti-Zionism.

After publishing this poem Governor Jim McGreevey tried to remove Baraka from the post, only to discover that there was no legal way to do so. So he then abolished the NJ Poet Laureate title, Baraka no longer holds the position as Poet Laureate in New Jersey.


  • Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, poems, 1961
  • Blues Peple: Negro Music in White America, 1963
  • Dutchman and The Slave, drama, 1964
  • The System of Dante's Hell, novel, 1965
  • Home: Social Essays, 1965
  • Tales, 1967
  • Black Magic, poems, 1969
  • Four Black Revolutionary Plays, 1969
  • It's Nation Time, poems, 1970
  • Raise Race Rays Raize: Essays Since 1965, 1971
  • Hard Facts, poems, 1975
  • The Motion of History and Other Plays, 1978
  • Poetry for the Advanced, 1979
  • reggae or not!, 1981
  • Daggers and Javelins: Essays 1974-1979, 1984
  • The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, 1984
  • The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues, 1987
  • Transbluesency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, 1995
  • Wise, Why’s Y’s, essays, 1995
  • Funk Lore: New Poems, 1996.
  • Somebody Blew Up America, 2001
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  5. ^ Jerry Gafio Watts. Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual. NYU Press, 2001. pg 332
  6. ^ Anti-Defamation LeagueAMIRI BARAKA: IN HIS OWN WORDS
  • homepage of Amiri Baraka
  • Modern American Poetry Page: Amiri Baraka
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