|Birth Day:||October 7, 1934|
|Death Date:||January 9, 2014(2014-01-09) (aged 79)
Newark, New Jersey, U.S.
|Birth Place:||Newark, United States|
As per our current Database, Amiri Baraka died on January 9, 2014(2014-01-09) (aged 79)
Newark, New Jersey, U.S..
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He won a scholarship to Rutgers University in 1951 but transferred in 1952 to Howard University. His classes in philosophy and religious studies helped lay a foundation for his later writings. He subsequently studied at Columbia University and The New School without taking a degree.
In 1954, he joined the United States Air Force as a gunner, reaching the rank of sergeant. This was a decision he would come to regret. He once explained: "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." This experience was yet another that influenced Baraka's later work. His commanding officer received an anonymous letter accusing Baraka of being a communist. This led to the discovery of Soviet writings in Baraka's possession, his reassignment to gardening duty, and subsequently a dishonorable discharge for violation of his oath of duty. He later described his experience in the military as "racist, degrading, and intellectually paralyzing". While he was stationed in Puerto Rico, he worked at the base library, which allowed him ample reading time, and it was here that, inspired by Beat poets back in America, he began to write poetry.
The same year, he moved to Greenwich Village, working initially in a warehouse of music records. His interest in jazz evolved during this period. It was also during this time that he came in contact with the avant-garde Black Mountain poets and New York School poets. In 1958 he married Hettie Cohen, with whom he had two daughters, Kellie Jones (b. 1959) and Lisa Jones (b.1961). He and Hettie founded Totem Press, which published such Beat poets as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. In cooperation with Corinth, Totem published books by LeRoi Jones and Diane di Prima, Ron Loewinsohn, Michael McClure, Charles Olson, Paul Blackburn, Frank O'Hara, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Ed Dorn, Joel Oppenheimer and Gilbert Sorrentino and an anthology of four young female poets, Carol Berge, Barbara Moraff, Rochelle Owens, and Diane Wakoski. They also jointly founded a quarterly literary magazine, Yugen, which ran for eight issues (1958–62). Through a party that Baraka organized, Ginsberg was introduced to Langston Hughes while Ornette Coleman played saxophone.
Baraka visited Cuba in July 1960 with a Fair Play for Cuba Committee delegation and reported his impressions in his essay "Cuba Libre". There he encountered openly rebellious artists who declared him to be a "cowardly bourgeois individualist" more focused on building his reputation than trying to help those who were enduring oppression. This encounter led to a dramatic change in his writing and goals, causing him to become emphatic about supporting black nationalism.
Baraka also worked as editor and critic for the literary and arts journal Kulchur (1960–65). With Diane di Prima he edited the first twenty-five issues (1961–63) of their small magazine The Floating Bear. In October 1961, the U.S. Postal Service seized The Floating Bear #9; the FBI charged them for obscenity over William Burroughs' piece "Roosevelt after the Inauguration". In the autumn of 1961 he co-founded the New York Poets Theatre with di Prima, the choreographers Fred Herko and James Waring, and the actor Alan S. Marlowe. He had an extramarital affair with di Prima for several years; their daughter, Dominique di Prima, was born in June 1962.
In 1961 Baraka co-authored a "Declaration of Conscience" in support of Fidel Castro's regime. Baraka also was a member of the Umbra Poets Workshop of emerging Black Nationalist writers (Ishmael Reed and Lorenzo Thomas, among others) on the Lower East Side (1962–65).
His first book of poems, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, was published in 1961. Baraka's article "The Myth of a 'Negro Literature'" (1962) stated that "a Negro literature, to be a legitimate product of the Negro experience in America, must get at that experience in exactly the terms America has proposed for it in its most ruthless identity." He also stated in the same work that as an element of American culture, the Negro was entirely misunderstood by Americans. The reason for this misunderstanding and for the lack of black literature of merit was, according to Jones:
In 1963 Baraka (under the name LeRoi Jones) published Blues People: Negro Music in White America, his account of the development of black music from slavery to contemporary jazz. When the work was re-issued in 1999, Baraka wrote in the Introduction that he wished to show that "The music was the score, the actually expressed creative orchestration, reflection of Afro-American life ... That the music was explaining the history as the history was explaining the music. And that both were expressions of and reflections of the people." He argued that though the slaves had brought their musical traditions from Africa, the blues were an expression of what black people became in America: "The way I have come to think about it, blues could not exist if the African captives had not become American captives."
Baraka (under the name LeRoi Jones) wrote an acclaimed, controversial play titled Dutchman, in which a white woman accosts a black man on the New York City Subway. The play premiered in 1964 and received the Obie Award for Best American Play in the same year. A film of the play, directed by Anthony Harvey, was released in 1967. The play has been revived several times, including a 2013 production staged in the Russian and Turkish Bathhouse in the East Village, Manhattan.
After the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, Baraka changed his name from LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka. At this time, he also left his wife and their two children and moved to Harlem, where he founded the Black Arts Repertory/Theater School (BARTS) since the Black Arts Movement created a new visual representation of art. However, the Black Arts Repertory Theater School remained open for less than a year. In its short time BARTS attracted many well-known artists, including Sonia Sanchez, Sun Ra and Albert Ayler. The Black Arts Repertory Theater School's closure prompted conversation with many other black artists who wanted to create similar institutions. Consequently, there was a surge in the establishment of these institutions in many places across the United States. In December 1965 Baraka moved back to Newark after allegations surfaced that he was using federal antipoverty welfare funds for his theater.
In April 1965, Baraka's "A Poem for Black Hearts" was published as a direct response to Malcolm X's assassination, and it further exemplifies the poet's uses of poetry to generate anger and endorse rage against oppression. Like many of his poems, it showed no remorse in its use of raw emotion to convey its message. It was published in the September issue of Negro Digest and was one of the first responses to Malcolm's death to be exposed to the public. The poem is directed particularly at black men, and it scoldingly labels them "faggots" in order to challenge them to act and continue the fallen activist's fight against the white establishment.
Baraka's decision to leave Greenwich Village in 1965 was an outgrowth of his response to the debate about the future of black liberation.
In 1966, Baraka married his second wife, Sylvia Robinson, who later adopted the name Amina Baraka. The two would open a facility in Newark known as Spirit House, a combination playhouse and artists' residence. In 1967, he lectured at San Francisco State University. The year after, he was arrested in Newark for having allegedly carried an illegal weapon and resisting arrest during the 1967 Newark riots. He was subsequently sentenced to three years in prison. His poem “Black People,” published in the ‘’Evergreen Review’’ in December 1967, was read by the judge in court, including the memorable phrase: "All the stores will open if you say the magic words. The magic words are: "Up against the wall motherfucker this is a stick up!" Shortly afterward an appeals court reversed the sentence based on his defense by attorney Raymond A. Brown. He later joked that he was charged with holding "two revolvers and two poems".
In 1967, Baraka (still Leroi Jones) visited Maulana Karenga in Los Angeles and became an advocate of his philosophy of Kawaida, a multifaceted, categorized activist philosophy that produced the "Nguzo Saba," Kwanzaa, and an emphasis on African names. It was at this time that he adopted the name Imamu Amear Baraka. Imamu is a Swahili title for "spiritual leader", derived from the Arabic word Imam (إمام). According to Shaw, he dropped the honorific Imamu and eventually changed Amear (which means "Prince") to Amiri. Baraka means "blessing, in the sense of divine favor".
In 1970 he strongly supported Kenneth A. Gibson's candidacy for mayor of Newark; Gibson was elected as the city's first African-American mayor.
In 1974, Baraka distanced himself from Black nationalism and converted to Marxism-Leninism and became a supporter of third-world liberation movements.
In 1979, he became a lecturer in the State University of New York at Stony Brook's Africana Studies Department in the College of Arts and Sciences at the behest of faculty member Leslie Owens. Articles about Baraka appeared in the University's print media from Stony Brook Press, Blackworld, and other student campus publications. These articles included a page-one exposé of his positions in the inaugural issue of Stony Brook Press on October 25, 1979, discussing his protests "against what he perceived as racism in the Africana Studies Department, as evidenced by a dearth of tenured professors". Shortly thereafter, Baraka took a tenure-track assistant professorship at Stony Brook in 1980 to assist "the struggling Africana Studies Department"; in 1983, he was promoted to associate professor and earned tenure.
In June 1979 Baraka was arrested and jailed at Eighth Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Different accounts emerged around the arrest, yet all sides agree that Baraka and his wife, Amina, were in their car arguing over the cost of their children's shoes. The police version of events holds that they were called to the scene after a report of an assault in progress. They maintain that Baraka was striking his wife, and when they moved to intervene, he attacked them as well, whereupon they used the necessary force to subdue him. Amina's account contrasted with that of the police; she held a news conference the day after the arrest accusing the police of lying. A grand jury dismissed the assault charge, but the resisting arrest charge moved forward. In November 1979 after a seven-day trial, a criminal court jury found Baraka guilty of resisting arrest. A month later he was sentenced to 90 days at Rikers Island (the maximum he could have been sentenced to was one year). Amina declared that her husband was "a political prisoner". Baraka was released after a day in custody pending his appeal. At the time it was noted that if he was kept in prison, "he would be unable to attend a reception at the White House in honor of American poets." Baraka's appeal continued up to the State Supreme Court. During the process his lawyer William M. Kunstler told the press Baraka "feels it's the responsibility of the writers of America to support him across the board". Backing for his attempts to have the sentence cancelled or reduced came from "letters of support from elected officials, artists and teachers around the country". Amina Baraka continued to advocate for her husband and at one press conference stated, "Fascism is coming and soon the secret police will shoot our children down in the streets." In December 1981 Judge Benrard Fried ruled against Baraka and ordered him to report to Rikers Island to serve his sentence on weekends occurring between January 9, 1982, and November 6, 1982. The judge noted that having Baraka serve his 90 days on weekends would allow him to continue his teaching obligations at Stony Brook. Rather than serve his sentence at the prison, Baraka was allowed to serve his 48 consecutive weekends in a Harlem halfway house. While serving his sentence he wrote The Autobiography, tracing his life from birth to his conversion to socialism.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Baraka courted controversy by penning some strongly anti-Jewish poems and articles with a stance similar to the stance at that time of the Nation of Islam. Historian Melani McAlister points to an example of this writing: "In the case of Baraka, and in many of the pronouncements of the NOI [Nation of Islam], there is a profound difference, both qualitative and quantitative, in the ways that white ethnicities were targeted. For example, in one well-known poem, Black Arts [originally published in The Liberator January 1966], Baraka made offhand remarks about several groups, commenting in the violent rhetoric that was often typical of him, that ideal poems would 'knockoff ... dope selling wops' and suggesting that cops should be killed and have their 'tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland.' But as Baraka himself later admitted [in his piece I was an AntiSemite published by The Village Voice on December 20, 1980, vol. 1], he held a specific animosity for Jews, as was apparent in the different intensity and viciousness of his call in the same poem for 'dagger poems' to stab the 'slimy bellies of the ownerjews' and for poems that crack 'steel knuckles in a jewlady's mouth.'"
In 1980 Baraka published an essay in the Village Voice that was titled Confessions of a Former Anti-Semite. Baraka insisted that a Village Voice editor titled it and not himself. In the essay Baraka went over his life history, including his marriage to Hettie Cohen, who was Jewish. He stated that after the assassination of Malcolm X he found himself thinking, "As a Black man married to a white woman, I began to feel estranged from her ... How could someone be married to the enemy?" He eventually divorced Hettie and left her with their two bi-racial daughters. In the essay Baraka went on to say
During the 1982–83 academic year, Baraka was a visiting professor at Columbia University, where he taught a course entitled "Black Women and Their Fictions". After becoming a full professor of African Studies at Stony Brook in 1985, Baraka took an indefinite visiting appointment in Rutgers University's English department in 1988; over the next two years, he taught a number of courses in African American literature and music. Although Baraka sought a permanent, tenured appointment at the rank of full professor in early 1990 (in part due to the proximity between the University's campus in New Brunswick, New Jersey and his home in Newark), he did not attain the requisite two-thirds majority of the senior faculty in a contentious 9-8 vote that favored his appointment. Baraka would go on to collectively liken the committee to an "Ivy League Goebbels" while also characterizing the senior faculty as "powerful Klansmen," leading to a condemnation from department chair Barry Qualls. Thereafter, Baraka remained nominally affiliated with Stony Brook as professor emeritus of Africana Studies until his death. In 1987, together with Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, he was a speaker at the commemoration ceremony for James Baldwin.
In 1989 Baraka 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 in 1998 he was a supporting actor in Warren Beatty's film Bulworth. In 1996, Baraka contributed to the AIDS benefit album Offbeat: A Red Hot Soundtrip produced by the Red Hot Organization.
In July 2002, Baraka was named Poet Laureate of New Jersey by Governor Jim McGreevey. The position was to be for two years and came with a $10,000 stipend. Baraka held the post for a year, during which time he was mired in controversy, including substantial political pressure and public outrage demanding his resignation. During the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Stanhope, New Jersey, Baraka read his 2001 poem on the September 11th attacks "Somebody Blew Up America?", which was criticized for anti-Semitism and attacks on public figures. Because there was no mechanism in the law to remove Baraka from the post, the position of state poet laureate was officially abolished by the State Legislature and Governor McGreevey.
Baraka collaborated with hip-hop group The Roots on the song "Something in the Way of Things (In Town)" on their 2002 album Phrenology.
In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante included Amiri Baraka on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
In July 2002, ten months after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Baraka wrote a poem entitled "Somebody Blew Up America?" that was controversial and met with harsh criticism. The poem is highly critical of racism in America, and includes humorous depictions of public figures such as Trent Lott, Clarence Thomas, and Condoleezza Rice. It also contains lines claiming Israel's knowledge of the World Trade Center attacks:
After the poem's publication, then-governor Jim McGreevey tried to remove Baraka from the post of Poet Laureate of New Jersey, to which he had been appointed following Gerald Stern in July 2002. McGreevey learned that there was no legal way, according to the law authorizing and defining the position, to remove Baraka. On October 17, 2002, legislation to abolish the post was introduced in the State Senate and subsequently signed by Governor McGreevey, becoming effective July 2, 2003.
Carved in marble, this installation features excerpts from the works of several New Jersey poets (from Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, to contemporary poets Robert Pinsky and Renée Ashley) and was part of the renovation and reconstruction of the New Jersey Transit section of the station completed in 2002.
In 2003, Baraka's daughter Shani, aged 31, and her lesbian partner, Rayshon Homes, were murdered in the home of Shani's sister, Wanda Wilson Pasha, by Pasha's ex-husband, James Coleman. Prosecutors argued that Coleman shot Shani because she had helped her sister separate from her husband. A New Jersey jury found Coleman (also known as Ibn El-Amin Pasha) guilty of murdering Shani Baraka and Rayshon Holmes, and he was sentenced to 168 years in prison for the 2003 shooting.
Baraka served as the second Poet Laureate of New Jersey from July 2002 until the position was abolished on July 2, 2003. In response to the attempts to remove Baraka as the state's Poet Laureate, a nine-member advisory board named him the poet laureate of the Newark Public Schools in December 2002.
Baraka ceased being poet laureate when the law became effective. In response to legal action filed by Baraka, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that state officials were immune from such suits, and in November 2007 the Supreme Court of the United States refused to hear an appeal of the case.
In 2009, he was again asked about the quote, and placed it in a personal and political perspective:
His son, Ras J. Baraka (born 1970), is a politician and activist in Newark, who served as principal of Newark's Central High School, as an elected member of the Municipal Council of Newark (2002–06, 2010–present) representing the South Ward. Ras J. Baraka became Mayor of Newark on July 1, 2014. (See 2014 Newark mayoral election.)
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 before his death. The cause of death was not reported initially, but it is mentioned that Baraka had a long struggle with diabetes. Later reports indicated that he died from complications after a recent surgery. Baraka's funeral was held at Newark Symphony Hall on January 18, 2014.
Currently, Amiri Baraka is 88 years, 1 months and 23 days old. Amiri Baraka will celebrate 89th birthday on a Saturday 7th of October 2023.
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