Leroi Jones

Amiri Baraka
Miami Book Fair International, 2007
Born Everett LeRoi Jones
(1934-10-07) October 7, 1934 (age 79)
Newark, New Jersey, U.S.
Pen name LeRoi Jones, Imamu Amear Baraka[1]
Occupation Actor, teacher, theater director/producer, writer, activist, poet
Nationality American
Period 1961–present
Genres Poetry, Drama
Children Kellie Jones, Lisa Jones, Dominque DiPrima, Maria Jones, Shani Baraka, Obalaji Baraka, Ras Baraka, Ahi Baraka, and Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka (born Everett LeRoi Jones October 7, 1934), formerly known as LeRoi Jones and Imamu Amear Baraka,[1] is an African-American writer of poetry, drama, fiction, essays, and music criticism. He is the author of numerous books of poetry and has taught at a number of universities, including the State University of New York at Buffalo and the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He received the PEN Open Book Award formerly known as the Beyond Margins Award in 2008 for Tales of the Out and the Gone.[2]

Critical reception of Baraka's poetry and writing is a conflict of extremes. Critics within the African-American community compare him to James Baldwin and call Baraka one of the most respected and most widely published Black writers of his generation.[3] Baraka's brief tenure as Poet Laureate of New Jersey (2002–2003), which involved controversy over a public reading of his poem "Somebody Blew Up America?" and accusations of anti-Semitism, brought Baraka's work a barrage of negative attention from critics, politicians and the general public.[4][5] Other critics, most notably, Jerry Gafio Watts explains Baraka's expression of violence, misogyny, homophobia and racism as evidence of psychological projection to avoid personal positions or his past (i.e. homosexual relationships) that would undermine the "credibility of his militant voice."[6]

Biography

Early life (1934-65)

Baraka was born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, where he attended Barringer High School. His father, Coyt Leverette Jones, worked as a postal supervisor and lift operator. His mother, Anna Lois (née Russ), was a social worker. In 1967, he adopted the Muslim name Imamu Amear Baraka, which he later changed to Amiri Baraka.

He won a scholarship to Rutgers University in 1951, but a continuing sense of cultural dislocation prompted him to transfer in 1952 to Howard University, which he left without obtaining a degree. His major fields of study were philosophy and religion. Baraka subsequently studied at Columbia University and the New School for Social Research without obtaining a degree.

In 1954, he joined the US Air Force as a gunner, reaching the rank of sergeant. After an anonymous letter to his commanding officer accusing him of being a communist led to the discovery of Soviet writings, Baraka was put on gardening duty and given a dishonorable discharge for violation of his oath of duty.

The same year, he moved to Greenwich Village working initially in a warehouse for music records. His interest in jazz began during this period. At the same time he came into contact with avant-garde Beat Generation, Black Mountain poets and New York School poets. In 1958 he married Hettie Cohen and founded Totem Press, which published such Beat icons as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.[7] Their literary magazine Yugen lasted for eight issues (1958–62).[8] Baraka also worked as editor and critic for Kulchur (1960–65). With Diane DiPrima he edited the first twenty-five issues (1961–63) of their little magazine Floating Bear.[9]

Baraka visited Cuba in July 1960 with a Fair Play for Cuba Committee delegation and reported his impressions in his essay Cuba libre.[10] In 1961 Baraka co-authored a Declaration of Conscience in support of Fidel Castro's regime.[11] Baraka also was a member of the Umbra Poets Workshop of emerging Black Nationalist writers (Ishmael Reed, Lorenzo Thomas and many others) on the Lower East Side (1962–65). He had begun to be a politically active artist. In 1961 a first book of poems, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, was published. Baraka's 1962 work "The Myth of a 'Negro Literature'" 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 states in the same article 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: Template:Cquote As long as the black writer was obsessed with being an accepted, middle class, Baraka wrote, he would never be able to speak his mind, and that would always lead to failure. Baraka felt that America only made room for only white obfuscators, not black ones.[12]

In 1963, Baraka wrote Blues People: Negro Music in White America — to this day one of the most influential volumes of jazz criticism, especially in regard to the then beginning free jazz movement. His acclaimed controversial play Dutchman premiered in 1964 and received an Obie Award the same year.

After the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, Baraka left his wife and their two children and moved to Harlem. Now a "black cultural nationalist," he broke away from the predominantly white Beats and became very critical of the pacifist and integrationist Civil Rights movement. His revolutionary poetry now became more controversial.[13] A poem such as “Black Art” (1965), according to academic Werner Sollors from Harvard University, expressed his need to commit the violence required to “establish a Black World.”[14] "Black Art" quickly became the major poetic manifesto of the Black Arts Literary Movement and in it, Jones declaimed "we want poems that kill," which coincided with the rise of armed self-defense and slogans such as "Arm yourself or harm yourself" that promoted confrontation with the white power structure.[3] Rather than use poetry as an escapist mechanism, Baraka saw poetry as a weapon of action.[15] His poetry demanded violence against those he felt were responsible for an unjust society.

1966–1980

In 1966, Baraka married his second wife, Sylvia Robinson, who later adopted the name Amina Baraka.[16] 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, and was subsequently sentenced to three years in prison. Shortly afterward an appeals court reversed the sentence based on his defense by attorney, Raymond A. Brown.[17] Not long after the 1967 riots, Baraka generated controversy when he went on the radio with a Newark police captain and Anthony Imperiale, a notorious white racist, and the three of them blamed the riots on "white-led, so-called radical groups" and "Communists and the Trotskyite persons."[18] That same year his second book of jazz criticism, Black Music, came out, a collection of previously published music journalism, including the seminal Apple Cores columns from Down Beat magazine.

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.[3] It was at this time that he adopted the name Imamu Amear Baraka.[1] Imamu is a Swahili title for "spiritual leader" in which is derived from Arabic word Imam (إمام). According to Shaw, he dropped the honorific Imamu and eventually changed Amear (which means "Prince") to Amiri.[1] Baraka means "blessing, in the sense of divine favor."[1] In 1970 he strongly supported Kenneth A. Gibson's candidacy for mayor of Newark; Gibson was elected the city's first Afro-American Mayor. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Baraka courted controversy by penning some strongly anti-Jewish poems and articles, similar to the stance at that time of the Nation of Islam.

Baraka's separation from the Black Arts Movement began because he saw certain black writers - capitulationists, as he called them - countering the Black Arts Movement that he created. He believed that the groundbreakers in the Black Arts Movement were doing something that was new, needed, useful, and black, and those who did not want to see a promotion of black expression were "appointed" to the scene to damage the movement.[12] Around 1974, Baraka distanced himself from Black nationalism and became a Marxist and a supporter of third-world liberation movements. In 1979 he became a lecturer in Stony Brook University's Africana Studies Department. The same year, after altercations with his wife, he was sentenced to a short period of compulsory community service. Around this time he began writing his autobiography. In 1980 he denounced his former anti-semitic utterances, declaring himself an anti-zionist.

1980–present

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." In 1984 he became a full professor at Rutgers University, but was subsequently denied tenure.[19] In 1985, Baraka returned to Stony Brook, where he is currently professor emeritus of African Studies. 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 1998 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. Baraka held the post for a year mired in controversy and after 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.[20]

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.[21][22] Prosecutors argued that Coleman shot Shani because she had helped her sister separate from her husband.[23] A New Jersey jury found Coleman (also known as Ibn El-Amin Pasha) guilty of murdering Shani Baraka and Rayshon Holmes, and sentenced him to 168 years in prison for the 2003 shooting.[24]

Controversies

Baraka's writings (and the covers of his early notebooks with large images of erect penises, which were in open display in the Greenwich Village cafes where he sat) have generated controversy over the years, particularly his advocacy of rape and violence towards (at various times) women, gay people, white people, and Jews. Author Jerry Gafio Watts contends that Baraka's homophobia and misogyny stems from his efforts to conceal his own history of homosexual encounters. Watts writes that Baraka "knew that popular knowledge of his homosexuality would have undermined the credibility of his militant voice. By becoming publicly known as a hater of homosexuals, Jones tried to defuse any claims that might surface linking him with a homosexual past."[6] Critics of his work have alternately described such usage as ranging from being vernacular expressions of Black oppression to outright examples of the sexism, homophobia, antisemitism, and racism they perceive in his work.[25][26][27][28]

The following is from a 1965 essay:

Most American white men are trained to be fags. For this reason it is no wonder their faces are weak and blank.…The average ofay [white person] thinks of the black man as potentially raping every white lady in sight. Which is true, in the sense that the black man should want to rob the white man of everything he has. But for most whites the guilt of the robbery is the guilt of rape. That is, they know in their deepest hearts that they should be robbed, and the white woman understands that only in the rape sequence is she likely to get cleanly, viciously popped.[29]

In 2009, he was again asked about the quote, and placed it in a personal and political perspective:

Those quotes are from the essays in Home, a book written almost fifty years ago. The anger was part of the mindset created by, first, the assassination of John Kennedy, followed by the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, followed by the assassination of Malcolm X amidst the lynching, and national oppression. A few years later, the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. What changed my mind was that I became a Marxist, after recognizing classes within the Black community and the class struggle even after we had worked and struggled to elect the first Black Mayor of Newark, Kenneth Gibson.[30]

In July 2002, ten months after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Baraka wrote a poem entitled "Somebody Blew Up America?"[31] that was controversial and met with harsh criticism. The poem is highly critical of racism in America, and includes angry depictions of public figures such as Trent Lott, Clarence Thomas, and Condoleezza Rice. It also contains lines claiming Israel's involvement in the World Trade Center attacks:

Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?
[...]
Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion

And cracking they sides at the notion

Baraka has said that he believed Israelis and President George W. Bush had advance knowledge of the September 11 attacks,[32] citing what he described as information that had been reported in the American and Israeli press and on Jordanian television. He denies that the poem is antisemitic, and points to its accusation, which is directed against Israelis, rather than Jews as a people.[4][5] The Anti-Defamation League denounced the poem as antisemitic,[33] though Baraka and his defenders defined his position as Anti-Zionism.

After the poem's publication, Governor Jim McGreevey tried to remove Baraka from the post of Poet Laureate of New Jersey to which he had been appointed as the state's second poet laureate (following Gerald Stern) in July 2002. McGreevey learned that there no legal way to remove Baraka in the law authorizing and defining the position. On October 17, 2002, legislation was introduced in the State Senate to abolish the post which was subsequently signed by Governor McGreevey and effective July 2, 2003.[34] 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.[35]

Honors and awards

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.[36]

Baraka has received honors from a number of prestigious foundations, including: fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, the Langston Hughes Award from the City College of New York, the Rockefeller Foundation Award for Drama, an induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Before Columbus Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award.[37]

A short excerpt from Amiri Baraka's poetry was selected to used for a permanent installation by artist Larry Kirkland in New York City's Pennsylvania Station.[38][39]

I have seen many suns
use
the endless succession of hours
piled upon each other

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.[38]

Works

Poetry

  • 1961: Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note
  • 1969: Black Magic
  • 1970: It's Nation Time
  • 1970: Slave Ship
  • 1975: Hard Facts
  • 1980: New Music, New Poetry
  • 1995: Transbluesency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones
  • 1995: Wise, Why’s Y’s
  • 1996: Funk Lore: New Poems
  • 2003: Somebody Blew Up America & Other Poems
  • 2005: The Book of Monk

Drama

  • 1964: Dutchman
  • 1966: A Black Mass
  • 1978: The Motion of History and Other Plays

Fiction

Non-Fiction

  • 1963: Blues People: Negro Music in White America
  • 1965: Home: Social Essays
  • 1971: Raise Race Rays Raize: Essays Since 1965
  • 1979: Poetry for the Advanced
  • 1981: reggae or not!
  • 1984: Daggers and Javelins: Essays 1974-1979
  • 1984: The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka
  • 1987: The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues
  • 2003: The Essence of Reparations

Edited works

  • 1968: Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing (co-editor, with Larry Neal)
  • 1969: Four Black Revolutionary Plays
  • 1983: Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women (edited with Amina Baraka)
  • 2008: Billy Harper: Blueprints of Jazz, Volume 2 (Audio CD)

Film appearances

  • One P.M. (1972)
  • Fried Shoes Cooked Diamonds (1978) .... Himself
  • Black Theatre: The Making of a Movement (1978) .... Himself
  • Poetry in Motion (1982)
  • Furious Flower: A Video Anthology of African American Poetry 1960–95, Volume II: Warriors (1998) .... Himself
  • Through Many Dangers: The Story of Gospel Music (1996)
  • Bulworth (1998) .... Rastaman
  • Piñero (2001) .... Himself
  • Strange Fruit (2002) .... Himself
  • Ralph Ellison: An American Journey (2002) .... Himself
  • Chisholm '72: Unbought & Unbossed (2004) .... Himself
  • Keeping Time: The Life, Music & Photography of Milt Hinton (2004) .... Himself
  • Hubert Selby Jr: It/ll Be Better Tomorrow (2005) .... Himself
  • 500 Years Later (2005) (voice) .... Himself
  • The Ballad of Greenwich Village (2005) .... Himself
  • The Pact (2006) .... Himself
  • Retour à Gorée (2007) .... Himself
  • Polis Is This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place (2007)
  • Revolution '67 (2007) .... Himself
  • Turn Me On (2007) (TV) .... Himself
  • Oscene (2007) .... Himself
  • Corso: The Last Beat (2008)
  • The Black Candle (2008)
  • Ferlinghetti: A City Light (2008) .... Himself
  • Motherland (2010)

References

External links

African-American portal
Biography portal
Poetry portal

Reference sites

  • WorldCat catalog)
  • Internet Movie Database
  • Template:DNB portal

Pages dedicated to Amiri Baraka

  • Modern American Poetry page about Amiri Baraka
  • Pulse Magazine Berlin Interview
  • Site dedicated to Amiri Baraka
  • Amiri Baraka Discography Project

This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and USA.gov, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for USA.gov and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
 
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
 
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.