African American Poet, playwright, fiction writer, political activist.

Born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, on October 7, 1934. His father, Colt LeRoy Jones, was a postal supervisor; Anna Lois Jones, his mother, was a social worker. He attended Rutgers University for two years, then transferred to Howard University, where in 1954 he earned his B.A. in English. According to my father, who was a junior at Rutgers during Baraka's freshman year, Baraka began changing his name even then. A running joke between the two of them was:

Dad: Hey little brother, what's your name today?
Baraka: *scowl*, laughter It's _______.

He served in the Air Force from 1954 until 1957, then moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There he joined a loose circle of Greenwich Village artists, musicians, and writers which included Sonia Sanchez. The following year he married Hettie Cohen, a white woman. Together, they began avant-garde literary magazine "Yugen." That year he also founded Totem Press, which first published works by Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Hettie later went on to become a poet in her own right. But, it took her awhile to crawl out from under Baraka's shadow.

His first volume of poetry, Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note, was published in 1961. This volume is Baraka at his most insightful, crafted and with tender moments, "in particular his mastery of the avant-garde poetics of William Carlos William and Charles Olson(1)"From 1961 to 1963 he and Diane Di Prima co-edited The Floating Bear. Diane Di Prima is another female poet overshadowed by the frenzy of her male counterpoints.

His increasing self-awareness, especially as it relates to the condition of being Black in the 50's and 60's entrenched him in "radical" Black political movements. As a result, his relationship with Hettie suffered.

His growing awareness of the relationship between art and politics is reflected in two plays, The Slave and The Toilet, both written in 1962. In 1963 he published Blues People: Negro Music in White America, which he wrote, and The Moderns: An Anthology of New Writing in America, which he edited and introduced. His reputation as a playwright was established with the production of Dutchman at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York on March 24, 1964. The controversial play subsequently won an Obie Award (for "best off-Broadway play") and was made into a film.

By this point in his career, he had become a poet deeply connected to and allied with Black Power movements. He divorced Hettie rather than be viewed as a traitor or hypocrite in 1965, following the assassination of Malcolm X. He moved to Harlem, where he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School. The company produced plays intended for a black audiences. It dissolved in a few months. He moved back to Newark. He married poet Sylvia Robinson/Amina Baraka - yet another talented female poet overshadowed by Baraka. He founded the Spirit House Players, which produced, among other works, two of Baraka's plays which took a stand against police brutality: Police and Arm Yrself or Harm Yrself.

In 1968, he and Larry Neal co-edited Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing. His play Home on the Range was performed as a benefit for the Black Panther Party. He became a Muslim, changing his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka. ("Imamu" means "spiritual leader.") He would later drop Imamu in 1974, as was his habit. He founded and lead his own black Muslim organization, Kawaida. From 1968 to 1975, Baraka was chairman of the Committee for Unified Newark, a black united front organization. In 1969 , his Great Goodness of Life became part of the successful "Black Quartet" off-Broadway. His play Slave Ship was widely reviewed, thereby insuring his placement in the canon. Baraka was a founder and chairman of the Congress of African People, a national Pan-Africanist organization with chapters in 15 cities, and he was one of the chief organizers of the National Black Political Convention, which convened in Gary, Indiana, in 1972 to organize a more unified political stance for African-Americans.

In 1974 Baraka became enamored with Marxist Leninist philosophy. In 1983, he and Amina Baraka edited Confirmation: An Anthology of African-American Women, which won an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. In 1987 they published The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues. The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka was published in 1984.

Amiri Baraka's literary prizes and honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Rockefeller Foundation Award for Drama, the Langston Hughes Award from The City College of New York, and a lifetime achievement award from the Before Columbus Foundation.

He has taught poetry at the New School for Social Research in New York, literature at the University of Buffalo, and drama at Columbia University. He has also taught at San Francisco State University, Yale University and George Washington University. Throughout the entire time, he continued to lambast and greatly denounce a system in which he was now part. The genious of Baraka is that he is constantly thinking and redefining himself. Always caught in a paradox of fluid identity where he struggles to match his personal behavior with his political theory. This is most evidenced by new work which has a more spirtual almost funk influenced tone. (A Gathering Of Tribes, Issue 8, Available at: http://www.tribes.org/issue8/index.html)

Since 1985 he has been a professor of Africana Studies at the State University of New York in Stony Brook. He is co-director, with his wife, of Kimako's Blues People, a community arts space. Amiri and Amina Baraka live in Newark, New Jersey.

The daughter he had with Hettie Jones, Lisa Jones is also a writer. Her book Bulletproof Diva is excellent reading material on biracial identity. Some of the essays in the book were written while she worked for The Village Voice.

Please see: Amiri Baraka Bibliography which lists published works, and a sample of web resources including audio and video clips.

(1) Michael S. Harper, The Vintage Book Of African American Poetry, Vintage Books (2000)

Editors note:

Amiri Baraka died on January 9, 2014, at Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey, after being hospitalized in the facility's intensive care unit for one month prior to his death. The cause of death was not reported initially, but it is mentioned that Baraka had a long struggle with diabetes.

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.