Amiri Baraka, born in 1934, in Newark, New Jersey, USA, is the author of over 40 books of essays, poems, drama, and music history and criticism, a poet icon and revolutionary political activist who has recited poetry and lectured on cultural and political issues extensively in the USA, the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe.
With influences on his work ranging from musical orishas such as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Theophilus Monk, and Sun Ra to the Cuban Revolution, Malcolm X and world revolutionary movements, Baraka is renown as the founder of the Black Arts Movement in Harlem in the 1960s that became, though short-lived, the virtual blueprint for a new American theater aesthetics. The movement and his published and performance work, such as the signature study on African-American music, Blues People (1963) and the play Dutchman (1963) practically seeded “the cultural corollary to black nationalism” of that revolutionary American milieu.
Other titles range from Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1979), to The Music (1987), a fascinating collection of poems and monographs on Jazz and Blues authored by Baraka and his wife and poet Amina, and his boldly sortied essays, The Essence of Reparations (2003).
The Essence of Reparations is Baraka’s first published collection of essays in book form radically exploring what is sure to become a twenty-first century watershed movement of Black peoples to the interrelated issues of racism, national oppression, colonialism, neo-colonialism, self-determination and national and human liberation, which he has long been addressing creatively and critically. It has been said that Amiri Baraka is committed to social justice like no other American writer. He has taught at Yale, Columbia, and the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
Somebody Blew Up America & Other Poems is Baraka’s first collection of poems published in the Caribbean and includes the title poem that has headlined him in the media in ways rare to poets and authors. The recital of the poem “that mattered” engaged the poet warrior in a battle royal with the very governor of New Jersey and with a legion of detractors demanding his resignation as the state’s Poet Laureate because of Somebody Blew Up America’s provocatively poetic inquiry (in a few lines of the poem) about who knew beforehand about the New York City World Trade Center bombings in 2001.
The poem’s own detonation caused the author’s photo and words to be splashed across the pages of New York’s Amsterdam News and the New York Times and to be featured on CNN–to name a few US city, state and national and international media.
Baraka lives in Newark with his wife and author Amina Baraka; they have five children and head up the word-music ensemble, Blue Ark: The Word Ship and co-direct Kimako’s Blues People, the “artspace” housed in their theater basement for some fifteen years.
His awards and honors include an Obie, the American Academy of Arts & Letters award, the James Weldon Johnson Medal for contributions to the arts, Rockefeller Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts grants, Professor Emeritus at the State university of New York at Stony Brook, and the Poet Laureate of New Jersey.
* * * * *
Born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, on October 7, 1934, Amiri Baraka is today a beloved poet, an elder statesman of the African-American community. Presently, politicians in New Jersey are using legislation to remove him from the appointed position of Poet Laureate of New Jersey. He wrote a poem entitled “Somebody Blew Up America” and caused a rather hostile reaction by the Ant-Defamation League (ADL). This right-wing Zionist response is thus being supported by conservative New Jersey senators in order to court the Jewish vote.
Baraka’s 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. 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. In 1958 he married Hettie Cohen and began co-editing the avant-garde literary magazine Yugen with her. That year he also founded Totem Press, which first published works by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and others.
In 1961, Baraka published his first volume of poetry, entitled Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note. From 1961 to 1963 he was co-editor, with Diane Di Prima, of The Floating Bear, a literary newsletter. During this period Baraka began his growth in racial consciousness which was reflected in two plays, The Slave and The Toilet, both written in 1962.
The following year (1963), Baraka published the much respected Blues People: Negro Music in White America and also published and introduced an edited volume entitled, The Moderns: An Anthology of New Writing in America. On March 24, 1964, his controversial play Dutchman was produced at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York. His reputation as a playwright gained greater credibility when the Dutchman won an Obie Award (for “best off-Broadway play”) and was made into a film.
Baraka reached a crisis in his life in 1965 with the assassination of Malcolm X. His marriage also ended. He moved to Harlem and founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School. This group produced plays that emphasized a cultural blackness and directed toward consciousness raising of a black audience. Because of the lack of needed support this group soon dissolved. and Baraka moved back to Newark. In 1967 he married African-American poet Sylvia Robinson (now known as Amina Baraka). That year he also founded the Spirit House Players, which produced, among other works, two of Baraka’s plays against police brutality: Police and Arm Yrself or Harm Yrself.
In 1968, he co-edited with Larry Neal Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing and his play Home on the Range was performed as a benefit for the Black Panther Party. That same year (1968–the year of the nationwide rebellion that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.) he became a Muslim, changing his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka. (“Imamu” means “spiritual leader.”) He assumed leadership of his own black Muslim organization, named 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, and his play Slave Ship was widely reviewed. Baraka was a founder and chairman of the Congress of African People, a national Pan-Africanist organization with chapters in fifteen 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 adopted a Marxist Leninist philosophy and dropped the spiritual title “Imamu.” 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, and 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 numerous 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. 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.