Legendary activist poet-playwright Amiri Baraka dies at 79

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Baraka was born Everett LeRoy Jones, in 1934, a postal worker’s son who grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood in Newark and remembered his family’s passion for songs and storytelling. He showed early talents for sports and music and did well enough in high school to graduate with honors and receive a scholarship from Rutgers University.

Feeling out of place at Rutgers, he transferred to a leading Black college, Howard University. He hated it there (“Howard University shocked me into realizing how desperately sick the Negro could be,” he later wrote) and joined the Air Force, from which he was discharged for having too many books, among other transgressions. By 1958, he had settled in Greenwich Village, met Ginsberg and other Beats, married fellow writer Cohen and was editing an avant-garde journal, Yugen. He called himself LeRoi Jones.

He was never meant to write like other writers. In his “Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka,” published in 1984, he remembered himself as a young man, sitting on a bench, reading “one of the carefully put together exercises The New Yorker publishes constantly as high poetic art.”

And he was in tears.

“I realized that there was something in me so out, so unconnected with what this writer was and what this magazine was that what was in me that wanted to come out as poetry would never come out like that and be my poetry,” he wrote.

Baraka’s many works included the poetry collections “Black Magic” and “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note,” the plays “Slave Ship” and “Arm Yourself or Harm Yourself,” and a novel, “The System of Dante’s Hell.” Admittedly a hard man to work with, he wrote for numerous publishers and published some books himself.

“He opened tightly guarded doors for not only Blacks but poor whites as well and, of course, Native Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans,” the American Indian author Maurice Kenny wrote of him. “We’d all still be waiting for the invitation from The New Yorker without him. He taught us all how to claim it and take it.”

Baraka divorced Cohen in 1965 and a year later married Sylvia Robinson, whose name became Bibi Amina Baraka. He had seven children, two with his first wife and five with his second. A son, Ras Baraka, became a councilman in Newark. A daughter, Shani Baraka, was murdered in 2003 by the estranged husband of her sister, Wanda Pasha.

Amiri Baraka taught at Yale University and George Washington University and spent 20 years on the faculty of the State University of New York in Stonybrook. He received numerous grants and prizes, including a Guggenheim fellowship and a poetry award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Baraka was the subject of a 1983 documentary, “In Motion,” and holds a minor place in Hollywood history. In “Bulworth,” Warren Beatty’s 1998 satire about a senator’s break from the political establishment, Baraka plays a homeless poet who cheers on the title character.

“You got to be a spirit,” the poet tells him. “You got to sing — don’t be no ghost.”

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