Baraka was born in Newark in 1934. He attended Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, and Howard University in Washington, D.C. In 1958 he founded Yugen magazine and Totem Press. From 1961 to 1964 Baraka worked as an instructor at New York's New School for Social Research. In 1964 he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater. He has since taught at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the University of Buffalo, Columbia University, George Washington University, and San Francisco University, and has served as director of the community theater Spirit House in Newark.
In 1961 Baraka published his first book of poetry, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note. His second book, The Dead Lecturer, was published in 1964. However, he did not achieve fame until the publication of his play Dutchman in 1964, which received the Obie Award for the best Off-Broadway play of the season. The shocking honesty of Baraka's treatment of racial conflict in this and later plays became the hallmark of his work.
In 1966 Baraka's play The Slave won second prize in the drama category at the First World Festival of Dramatic Arts in Dakar, Senegal. Baraka's other published plays include The Toilet (1964); The Baptism (1966); The System of Dante's Hell (1965); Four Black Revolutionary Plays (1969); J-E-L-L-O (1970); and The Motion of History and Other Plays (1978).
He edited, with Larry Neal, Black Fire: An Anthology of AfroAmerican Writing (1968) and Afrikan Congress: A Documentary of the First Modern Pan-African Congress (1972). His works of nonfiction include Home: Social Essays (1966), It's Nation Time; Kawaida Studies: The New Nationalism; A Black Value System, and Strategy and Tactics of a Pan Afrikan Nationalist Party; and Funk Love (1984-1995). More recently, he published Somebody Blew Up America; and Other Poems (2003) and Tales of the Out and the Gone (2006).
In July 2002 Baraka was named Poet Laureate of New Jersey, nine months after the attack on the World Trade Center. A poem he wrote entitled “Somebody Blew Up America” was so controversial it resulted in an effort by state officials to remove Baraka from his post. In 2003, since Baraka could not be removed, the position was abolished.
Baraka has received numerous awards and honors inclusive of the the Obie and the PEN/ Faulkner Award as well as prizes from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment of the Arts, and the Rockefeller Foundation.
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