Amiri Baraka (originally LeRoi Jones), through poetry, essays, plays, fiction, and music criticism, has worked at institution building, at bridging the gap between the arts and the people, and at using the arts as catalysts to awaken black cultural pride. Baraka came to national prominence in the 1960s through his award-winning drama, his poetry, and his demonstration of fierce leadership in and passionate commitment to political change for African American people. Along with several other prominent figures, his philosophy and his polemical poetry have been credited with being primary shapers of the period known as either the Black Arts Movement or Black Aesthetics, associated with black cultural nationalism and the political revolution of the 1960s. This emphasis on the revolutionary and propagandistic potential of the literary arts was intended to fuel or to complement the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Baraka was born to Coyette LeRoy and Anna Lois Russ Jones in Newark, New Jersey, in 1934. Baraka had recast his name “LeRoy” to the French spelling “LeRoi” during his high school years. Baraka was raised in a lower-middle-class family that included his maternal grandparents. He attended Rutgers University in 1951 on a science scholarship but then transferred to Howard University in 1952 and became an English major and philosophy minor. Baraka left Howard University in 1954 and spent nearly three years in the U.S. Air Force, stationed in Puerto Rico.
In 1958, he settled in New York City, where he found the East Village section of the city congenial and its predominantly white bohemian community supportive of his initial poetic impulses. He worked for Record Changer magazine and took graduate courses in comparative literature at Columbia University. In October 1958, he married Hettie Cohen, a young Jewish coworker at the magazine. Together they had two daughters. With her, he published and edited Yugen, a “little” literary magazine that brought Baraka in close contact with contemporary white Beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Robert Creeley, and Charles Olsen. This literary community influenced Baraka's early poetry, especially through its emphasis on self-awareness.
His first volume of poetry, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, consisted of poems composed between 1957 and 1961. Several of the poems reflected Baraka's disenchantment with what he perceived as the seduction of the African American middle class by white values. Baraka references popular culture from the comics, radio, and Hollywood. He nostalgically and ironically mourns the passing of the ideals they once offered. The images that convey the loss are vividly barren, and many of them use strong sexual images, a general characteristic of Baraka's poetry. The last poem in the volume, titled “Notes for a Speech,” is significant in view of Baraka's eventual metamorphosis from questioning his identity to affirming his blackness.
In 1960 Baraka was part of a delegation of artists and scholars, through which he traveled to Cuba to commemorate Fidel Castro's coup of 1954. The political impact of the event awakened Baraka's own dormant political inclinations and the fervor of revolution in Cuba's youth ignited his own social consciousness. The emergence of Third World nations in Africa in the early 1960s and the beginnings of the civil rights movement at home were other events that weighed in on Baraka's conclusions.
The Dead Lecturer, Baraka's second volume of poetry, continued to document the poet's developing artistic and political identity but also suggested an ongoing dialogue with the first collection. Baraka's developing artistic identity was enhanced through the research and writing of Blues People, essays that Baraka worked on simultaneously with writing The Dead Lecturer poems. This artistic identity found an outlet through numerous references to music and its African American cultural traditions.
The changes in Baraka's artistic identity were reflected in his personal life. By fall 1965, he had left his Jewish wife and their children, along with his village friends, and moved to Harlem. The poems of Black Magic, a collection drawn from Sabotage (1961–1963), Target Study (1963–1965), and Black Art (1965–1967), reflected this period of metamorphosis in the poet's life and his embracing of Black Nationalism, although he wrote more drama than poetry between 1965 and 1970. Black Magic showed Baraka's complete withdrawal from white society and included two of his most anthologized and most widely discussed poems, “Black People” and “Black Art.” The latter poem, in demanding that art should fuel political and violent action, had the language and incendiary tone that would become characteristic of the militant poetry of the decade. While “Black Art” is representative of the models of Black Aesthetics poetry that challenged passivity and aimed to energize a black nation, it was criticized for its anti-Semitic references.
Still another catalyst for Baraka's altering identity in 1967 was his year as a visiting professor at San Francisco State College, as the thrust toward Black Nationalism was well underway on the West Coast and offered him another model for personal and political potential. Later that year, he had relocated from Harlem to Newark and remarried. His second wife, Sylvia, an African American woman, was an actress, painter, and dancer. In 1968, he affirmed his identity through the name Imamu Amiri Baraka. However, he would continue with slight recastings of himself in the years to come. In 1974, Baraka dropped Imamu, a Muslim spiritual title. Sylvia, too, recast herself as “Bibi Amina.” Baraka and Bibi Amina had five children. During the Newark Riot of 1967, Baraka was beaten by the police and arrested for illegal possession of firearms. Baraka was convicted of a misdemeanor and imprisoned, but the conviction was overthrown during appeal.
In Harlem, Baraka had established the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School, which became a model for black theaters in other cities, and in Newark, he continued this work by opening Spirit House, a black repertory theater and cultural center, and continued writing poetry. In 1974 he underwent yet another political transformation by deemphasizing Black Nationalism and became a socialist through accepting Marxist-Leninist thought. In this identity, capitalism was the greatest enemy of black people.
Baraka has continued to advocate social change and to use his art and voice as primary instruments to that end. He has also turned his talents to the service of poetry through editing anthologies of poetry. His status as a revered revolutionary poet and speaker in African American literary circles has remained constant well into the present. Moreover, he has also appeared as himself in multiple films, as recently as 2009. However, he has also generated much controversy through his poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” which was about the September 11, 2001, attacks, which he wrote as Poet Laureate of New Jersey in 2001. Critics alleged that this poem was anti-Semitic, given its allegation of Israeli involvement in the attacks. In 2003, he published Somebody Blew Up America and Other Poems.
In 2003, Baraka also published The Essence of Reparations, a collection of essays on the issue of reparations. In 2005, Baraka published The Book of Monk, followed by Tales of the Out & the Gone in 2006. Baraka continues his political activism through his writings and public speaking.
Black Arts Movement (BAM)
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