Sunday, 26 January 2014

Amiri Baraka

Poet, playwright, political activist, critic

Born October 7 1934; died January 9 2014

When Amiri Baraka, who has died aged 79 following a month in hospital, 
came to Glasgow in 2013 to speak and perform at the Freedom Is A 
Constant Struggle event, organised by left-field arts promoters, Arika, 
he brought with him a spirit of radicalism which a younger generation 
of artists and activists was hungry for. Sharing a platform with fellow 
poets Fred Moten and Sonia Sanchez and jazz musicians Henry Grimes and 
Wadada Leo Smith, here was a rare opportunity to witness a living 
embodiment of the links between black-powered art-forms and 
revolutionary politics that the event explored.

Baraka had been at the frontline of this all of his life, be it as a 
young poet and magazine editor in Beat era Greenwich Village when he 
was still known as LeRoi Jones, as an acclaimed playwright whose play, 
Dutchman, won an Obie award in 1964, or as a figurehead of the Black 
Arts Movement calling for 'poems that kill'. In later years, Baraka 
served as Poet Laureate of New Jersey, until his poem, Somebody Blew Up 
America, which questioned who knew in advance about the 9/11 attack on 
the World Trade Centre ten months before, caused the post to be 
abolished. Even that, however, wouldn't silence Baraka, and he 
published and spoke out unabated until the end.

Baraka was born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, where he 
attended Barringer High School before winning a scholarship to Rutgers 
University. Already feeling displaced by the dominant culture, Jones 
transferred to Howard University, but, as with the other academic 
institutions that followed, never graduated.

In 1954, Jones joined the US Air Force, but was dishonourably 
discharged after Soviet writings were discovered in his possession 
following an anonymous letter sent to his superiors that accused him of 
being a communist. Jones found a more accommodating habitat in 
Greenwich Village, where he discovered jazz and the Beat generation, 
and with his first wife, Hettie Cohen, published work by the Beat 
greats in their literary magazine, Yugen. Jones wrote for and edited 
Kulchu! with poet Diane di Prima, with whom Jones co-founded the New 
York Poets Theatre.

Jones' first poetry collection, Preface To A Twenty Volume Suicide 
Note, was published in 1961. This was followed in 1962 by Blues People: 
Negro Music in White America, while his play, Dutchman, in which a 
white woman accosts a black man on the subway, appeared in 1964. It was 
filmed three years later.

The assassination of Malcolm X in 1965 saw Jones move to Harlem and 
become immersed in the volatile politics of the era via the Black Arts 
Movement that saw poetry as a weapon against white oppression. In his 
poem, Black Art, Jones advocated ‘poems that kill. /Assassin poems, 
Poems that shoot /guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys /and take 
their weapons leaving them dead /with tongues pulled out and sent to 

In 1966, Jones married his second wife, Sylvia Robinson, and lectured 
at San Francisco State University. A book of jazz criticism, Black 
Music, was the last published under his original name, after becoming 
captivated by the philosophy of Kawaida. Under its influence, Jones 
first became Imamu Amear Baraka, modifying it to Amira Baraka.

Baraka later separated from the Black Arts Movement, became a Marxist 
and lectured extensively inbetween writing and supporting third-world 
liberation movements. While some of Baraka's early works had left him 
open to accusations of misogyny, homophobia and anti-Semitism, the 
1980s saw him share a platform with Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison at a 
commemoration ceremony for James Baldwin. Perhaps Baraka's greatest 
controversy came with Somebody Blew Up America, which he denied was 
anti-Semitic. In defiant response to the abolishment of the state poet 
laureate post, Baraka was appointed poet laureate of Newark Public 
Schools at the end of December 2002. This was one of numerous literary honours bestowed upon him.

Over the course of his life, Baraka penned twelve volumes of poetry, 
several collections of plays and thirteen prose works, three fiction, 
ten non-fiction. Both Baraka's writing and his activism were fired by a 
passion and an anger that grew from an early age and were defined by 
the times he lived through. Baraka may have tempered some of his views 
over the years, but he never lost sight of  the power of words as 
weapons to change the world.

"That's the point," Baraka said in an interview with the Herald prior 
to his 2013 Glasgow appearance.  "You have to try and make it that way. 
Poetry and music have to shape it. That's what the Black Arts Movement 
tried to do with it, to try and make poetry and music relevant to 
social struggle. That's what the bourgeoisie does with their ideas, 
they pump it out at people, so you have to pump it right back at them."

The Herald, January 24th 2014


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