Poet • Writer • Professor
Oct. 7, 1934 — Newark, New Jersey, United States
Amiri Baraka is one of the most controversial writers in recent history, one whose influence on African-American literature has been profound. Plays, poems, novels, essays, short stories, jazz operas, and music criticism are all included in his body of work, and all have served as vehicles for his outspoken social and political commentary. According to Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor James A. Miller, he is
"a protean personality, fond of manifestos and vehement repudiations, [who] has shifted guises and discarded identities with such astonishing rapidity that critics have often been frustrated, suspended in the act of defining a man who is no longer there, while his admirers have been left abandoned or challenged to readjust themselves to his new position."
Maya Angelou thinks that Baraka is the world's greatest living poet.
Never Felt Comfortable in Academia
Born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, Baraka grew up in a family of distinctly middle-class aspirations. His parents, a housewife and a postal worker, encouraged Baraka to express himself through art and music. In an interview for Publishers Weekly with Calvin Reid, Baraka described a typical family gathering, "you had to sing or dance or tell stories or something. You couldn't just sit there, the old folks would think something was wrong with you. 'You can't sing boy?'" Baraka also recalled taking piano, drum, and trumpet lessons, drama class, and art school. One of a handful of blacks in his high school, Baraka loved sports and played baseball, basketball, football, and track. Baraka admitted to Reid, "If I had been a little bigger I would never have been a writer." Yet no matter what sports he joined or clubs he became a member of, Baraka was still seen by other students as an outsider. Baraka's parents took pride in the idea of their son succeeding at a mainly white school, but Baraka's unique status caused him tremendous feelings of alienation and isolation. Later in life he would mercilessly lampoon the values of assimilation his parents held dear.
Baraka won a scholarship to Rutgers University in 1951, but a continuing sense of cultural dislocation prompted him to transfer in 1952 to Howard University, a traditionally black college. He would eventually attack the school as the citadel of the black bourgeoisie he disdained, writing in an essay:
"Howard University shocked me into realizing how desperately sick the Negro could be, how he could be led into self-destruction and how he would not realize that it was the society that had forced him into a great sickness."
Despite his later criticism, however, Baraka benefitted greatly from his years at Howard. He studied philosophy, religion, and literature, and was exposed to the ideas of prominent black poets, music critics, and scholars. Baraka credited several of his teachers for providing a strong background in European classics as well as black American culture. In particular, he praises Sterling Brown for illustrating "the importance of the blues; that is was first a verse form and then the music flowed from that."
In 1954 Baraka left Howard without finishing his bachelor's degree, returned to Newark, and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. Baraka served in Puerto Rico and Germany as a weatherman and gunner. He told Publishers Weekly, "it was the worst thing I could have done," but also explained that his years in the Air Force are where he got his real education. While stationed in Puerto Rico, Baraka was the base librarian. The library eventually became an informal meeting place where Baraka and several others would read and discuss various books, from Proust to Thomas Hardy to Kafka. Baraka was also writing poems during this time and sending them to several magazines such as, The New Yorker and Kenyon Review.
Artistic Philosophy Influenced by the Beat Generation
Three years later Baraka returned to civilian life, after being discharged from the Air Force for having too many books—among them, The Communist Manifesto. "Someone said I was a Communist. As it turned out, 40 years later, now it's true," Baraka chuckled while describing this incident during his interview with Publishers Weekly. At the time, the social and artistic phenomenon known as the Beat Generation was just beginning to touch the consciousness of a complacent America. The Beats were challenging the stagnant literary establishment and the rigid moral code of the country; Baraka quickly aligned himself with them, seeing them as fellow outsiders. The ideal shared by the Beats and Baraka was to look beyond, or rise above, racial barriers. Baraka explained to David Ossman in The Sullen Art: Interviews with Modern American Poets:
"I'm fully conscious all the time that I'm an American Negro, because it's part of my life. But I also know that if I want to say, 'I see a bus full of people,' I don't have to say, 'I am a Negro seeing a bus full of people.' I would deal with it when it has to do directly with the poem, and not as a kind of broad generalization that doesn't have much to do with a lot of young writers today who are Negroes."
Baraka took up residence in Greenwich Village, a center of the budding cultural revolution. He soon met and married Hettie Cohen, a young Jewish woman who shared his tastes in music and literature. Cohen worked for the Partisan Review, where Baraka's first published piece appeared in 1958. It was a defense of the innovations of Beat writing, declaring that young writers "must resort to violence in literature, ... to shake us out of the woeful literary sterility which characterized the '40s." Baraka and Cohen organized Yugen, a literary magazine showcasing the new poets. Baraka wrote a letter—on toilet paper stationery—to Beat poet Allen Ginsberg soliciting works and was rewarded with contributions from Ginsberg, Philip Whalen, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, and other notables.
A vital relationship with Ginsberg developed. Baraka recalled in the Village Voice:
"We talked endlessly about poetry, about prosody, about literature and it is clear to me that my poetry would not have evolved as it has without A. G.'s ideas. He let me in on poetry as a living phenomenon, a world of human concern, and literature as a breathing force in one's life, the task of a lifetime. I absorbed and grew because of these ideas, and even in resisting some of Ginsberg's other ideas, I still grew and developed because of contact with them."
Baraka's association with Ginsberg, his editorship of Yugen, and establishment of Totem Press quickly made him one of the leading figures of the Greenwich Village scene. He began to write prolifically, contributing poetry and reviews of books and music to the important smaller magazines of the day.
Visit to Cuba Encouraged More Aggressive Social Activism
But even as he was becoming a key member of the Beat Generation, Baraka was drifting away from the movement. His fellow poets were, for the most part, apolitical. They criticized the system, but had no agenda for changing it. Baraka felt a growing sense of dissatisfaction with this kind of passivity. In 1960 he reached a turning point in his life when he visited Fidel Castro's Cuba. There he encountered many forceful, politically committed young artists and intellectuals who challenged him to abandon the Beat preoccupation with the soul and to tackle society's problems in a more aggressive fashion. Baraka did not change overnight; he did, however, return from Cuba with a new sense of political mission and a stronger identification with artists of the Third World than with those of the white vanguard. Though he remained a resident of Greenwich Village, he became increasingly involved in the social life of Harlem.
During the early 1960s Baraka seemed to regard himself as a bridge between the black and white worlds. He wrote two of his most serious works of fiction at this time, The System of Dante's Hell and Tales. Both reflect his struggle to pull away from Greenwich Village. He told Kimberly Benston in Boundary 2, "I was really writing defensively. I was trying to get away from the influence of people like [Robert] Creeley and [Charles] Olson. I was living in New York then and the whole Creeley-Olson influence was beginning to beat me up. I was in a very closed circle ... and I felt the need to break out." Still, he continued to work closely with Beat writers; in 1961 he and poet Diane Di Prima founded another important underground magazine, Floating Bear. The two were also instrumental in organizing the American Theatre for Poets. Baraka ridiculed the notion of a separate black society in his essay "Black Is a Country," insisting that "America is as much a black country as a white one. The lives and destinies of the white American are bound up inextricably with those of the black American." He clung to his belief in a world free of color lines even as he sought to establish for himself a stronger ethnic identity.
"The Dutchman" Exposed Disillusionment With Integration
Eventually Baraka's writing revealed the slow disintegration of his faith in racial harmony. In the poem "Black Dada Nihilismus" he ponders the many nonwhite cultures destroyed by Western civilization and concludes by calling on the African god Damballah for help in the destruction of the West. In his most well-known and highly praised play, Dutchman, he depicts a subway encounter between Lula, a white, Bohemian woman, and Clay, a young, middle-class, black man. At first Clay seems to represent the aspects of black life Baraka harshly criticized in his earlier works, while Lula appears to embody the values the author prized. Lula taunts Clay about his repressed identity, urging him to release his true black self. When he finally does, it pours forth as a violent tirade against Lula and the larger white world. At the drama's conclusion Lula calmly stabs Clay to death and sits back to await her next victim.
Dutchman "merges private themes, mythical allusion, surrealistic techniques, and social statement into a play of astonishing power and resonance," stated Miller. It won the 1964 Obie Award for best American play, was performed internationally, and propelled its author into a whirlwind of lectures, panel discussions, readings, and teaching assignments at liberal universities. Years after the play's debut Darryl Pinckley wrote in the New York Times Book Review, "[Baraka] is a highly gifted dramatist. Much of the black protest literature of the 60s now seems diminished in power, even sentimental. But 'Dutchman' immediately seizes the imagination. It is radically economical in structure, striking in the vivacity of its language and rapid shifts of mood."
Embraced Black Nationalism, Then Marxism
In Harlem he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre School. It was a short-lived but highly influential project that revolutionized black theater in the United States. Contemporary dramas shaped by black nationalist philosophy were performed there and institutions modeled after it sprang up all over the country. The theater—which was funded with federal money—was shut down by police in 1966, allegedly because an arms cache had been discovered there. Returning to his birthplace, Newark, Baraka dropped the name LeRoi Jones in favor of the Bantu Muslim appellation Imamu (meaning "spiritual leader," later dropped) Ameer (later changed to Amiri, meaning "blessed") Baraka ("prince"). He also married Sylvia Robinson, who changed her name to Amina Baraka. The couple opened the Spirithouse to help Newark both culturally and spiritually. In the essay "state/meant" he summarized his new sense of purpose:
"The Black Artist's role in America is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it. His role is to report and reflect so precisely the nature of the society, and of himself in that society, that other men will be moved by the exactness of his rendering and, if they are black men, grow strong through this moving, having seen their own strength, and weakness; and if they are white men, tremble, curse, and go mad, because they will be drenched with the filth of their evil."
As the dominant black theorist and artist of the late 1960s, Baraka was responsible for shifting the focus of black literature from an integrationist art that conveyed a raceless and classless vision to a literature rooted in the black experience. The era over which he presided is considered the most important in black arts since the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. And despite Baraka's rejection of the ideal of an integrated world, his work affected all races. As Native American author Maurice Kenny wrote in The Kaleidoscopic Torch, "He opened tightly guarded doors for not only Blacks but poor whites as well and, of course, Native Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans. 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."
As a black nationalist political leader, Baraka was a key figure in the organization of the Congress of African Peoples in 1970 and the National Black Political Assembly in 1972. But by 1974 he had undergone yet another reassessment of his cultural and political orientation. In a dramatic turnabout he rejected black nationalism and proclaimed himself a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist. He stated in the New York Times: "It is a narrow nationalism that says the white man is the enemy.... Nationalism, so-called, when it says 'all non-blacks are our enemies,' is sickness or criminality, in fact, a form of fascism." Since 1974 Baraka has produced a great deal of socialist poetry and essays and names the destruction of the capitalist state and the creation of a socialist community as his goal. William J. Harris quoted him in The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka as saying:
"I think fundamentally my intentions are similar to those I had when I was a Nationalist. That might seem contradictory, but they were similar in the sense that I see art as a weapon, and a weapon of revolution. It's just now that I define revolution in Marxist terms.... I came to my Marxist view as a result of having struggled as a Nationalist and found certain dead ends theoretically and ideologically, as far as Nationalism was concerned and had to reach out for a communist ideology."
Nonetheless, Baraka's many philosophical shifts are far from capricious, attested Arnold Rampersad, who wrote in The Kaleidoscopic Torch: "His change of heart and head is testimony to his honesty, energy, and relentless search for meaning.
Controversial Poem Created Backlash
In 1999, after twenty years teaching at SUNY, Baraka retired, but remained an activist, frequently accepting reading and speaking engagements. As the political climate in the United States became increasingly more conservative, Baraka's work has managed to retain its revolutionary ardor. Soon after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, Baraka composed his provocative poem, "Somebody Blew Up America", which was essentially focused on American imperialism but was also partly inspired by several conspiracy theories including the theory that George Bush and the Israeli government had previous knowledge of the attack. The poem was online weeks after the attack and Baraka read the poem at several venues including college campuses.
In 2002 Baraka was named poet laureate of New Jersey, a position that has been challenged by many individuals and groups, including the Anti-Defamation League. James Haba, a poet who was on the committee to choose a new poet laureate told The New York Observer, "He is clearly a major literary figure. Every anthology of American literature in the 20th century will include some mention of him, or some of his work. He was born in New Jersey and lives in New Jersey. On what grounds don't you nominate him?" In September of 2002, Baraka read "Somebody Blew Up America" at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in front of 2,000 people. Afterward, the poem came under heavy criticism which lead Governor McGreevey to ask for Baraka' apology and for him to step down from his appointment as poet laureate. Baraka wrote a lengthy statement defending his poem, explaining the irony of Bush's war on terrorism, that blacks in America have been victims of political and cultural terrorism for centuries. Needless to say, Baraka refused to apologize and refused to resign as poet laureate. On the contrary, as Stanley Crouch, a columnist for the New York Daily News pointed out,
"I do not think he should resign or be asked to step down. Those people in New Jersey chose a buffoon, and now they should experience the embarrassment of having been so naíve.... It seems to me that part of democracy means that you periodically—or often—have to hear things you disagree with. Part of democracy means enduring people not like yourself."
In his statement regarding "Somebody Blew Up America" Baraka said, "No, I will not apologize, I will not resign. In fact I will continue to do what I have appointed to do but still have not been paid to do.... We feel that this state and indeed this nation and this world is desperately in need of the deepest and most profound human values that poetry can teach." However, on January 29, 2003, the New Jersey Senate voted to abolish the poet laureate position. As in the past, this will not deter him. Amiri Baraka has shown tremendous courage in bringing forth change in not only the black community of Newark, New Jersey, but for many throughout the African diaspora.
July 1, 2003: Baraka sues the New Jersey state assembly "for violating his First Amendment rights and for slander" following their vote to abolish the position of poet laureate.
December 7, 2004: Baraka was featured on the second episode of the four-part documentary The First Amendment, produced by the Sundance Channel and Court TV. The episode, "Poetic License," recounts the controversy surrounding his tenure as the poet laureate of New Jersey.