Amiri Baraka

Article Bio Works Merits Projects www
crossroads:
human rights, Islam, marxism, racism
genre(subgenre):
Written and spoken word (novel, play, poetry)
region:
America, North, America, Central
country/territory:
United States of America, Mexico
created on:
August 31, 2004
last changed on:
Please note: This page has not been updated since October 7, 2010. We decided to keep it online because we think the information is still valuable.
information provided by:
Other languages:

Article

Things have come to that

Amiri Baraka, born in 1934 in Newark, New Jersey (USA), is said to be the founding father of the black arts movement. As a poet, playwright and novelist he has played a leading role in shaping Afro-American arts in the last four decades. He has also been active on behalf of civil rights and has vigorously supported the struggle of US Afro-Americans for equal opportunities.
Amiri Baraka was born in 1934 as Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey (USA), where he then grew up. After finishing his studies and serving in the army he issued his first poems. In 1957 he joined the group of artists in the New York borough Greenwich Village and together with his wife Hetti Cohen published the avant-garde magazine YUGEN. They were also founding members of the publishing company Totem Press, publishing the first works by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and other Beat authors.

His artistic breakthrough came in 1964 with the premiere of his provocative play ´Dutchman´, which won the prestigious Obie Award. The murder of Malcom X (1965) led to the first radical change in his life. He got divorced from his white Jewish wife, converted to Islam, dropped his ´slave name´ LeRoi Jones and called himself Imam Amiri Baraka. In 1967 he married Black poetess Sylvia Robinson, who changed her name to Amina Baraka, then the couple moved to the black borough of Harlem, where they joined a group of Muslim activists.

A second change followed in 1974, as Amiri Baraka´s dissatisfaction with the black Islamic stance in theory and practice led him to Marxism. He openly preached class conflict, dropped his title of ´Imam´ and called himself only Amiri Baraka.

Since the mid 1960s he had become one of the most famous, influential and productive Black authors in the USA. He published not only poems and plays but also non-fiction and novels. He was active in Black civil rights´ groups and founded a black school of drama. He also accepted posts as a lecturer at various US universities, being a resident lecturer in Afro-American studies from 1985 to his retirement in 2000 at the State University of New York/Stony Brook (Long Island). In 2002 he became the poet laureate of New Jersey. Following a political contoversy sharpened by the publication of his poem ´Somebody blew up America´, which was taken to be anti-Semitic, the nomination ´poet laureate´ was abolished by the government of New Jersey in 2003, which entailed his loss of the title before the end of the usual two-year period.

Since then Amiri Baraka has been living in active retirement, supporting the political careers of his five sons and carrying on his work as an author and artist. The start of this new phase of life was overshadowed by the violent death of his only daughter Shani in 2003. Already in 1983 his sister Kimako, a dancer, actress, and choreographer, who was making a name for herself on Broadway, had been murdered. Baraka once said that a curse like that on the Kennedys seemd to be lying on his own family.

Baraka inherited two things from his parents: a love of music and an obligation to struggle for Black rights in the USA. He was encouraged to learn the piano, trumpet and drums and was well informed about black US history.

This education was to bear rich fruit. On the one hand music has played a key role in Baraka´s life since childhood. Again and again he wrote expert books about Black music, but he has also sought to be near music as an artist and performer, if possible in joint performances. He became close friends with saxophonist John Coltrane and shared his house for awhile with singer Nina Simone.
On the other hand he has also been active - after his three mandatory years of army service - as an artist and politician in the struggle for equal rights for the Afro-American population in the USA. He published his first explicitly political poems in 1956 followed by plays also stating Black political objectives. Baraka has never had more than contempt for art for art´s sake. His forceful political art made LeRoi Jones a founding father of the Black Arts Movement at the beginning of the 1960s.

Influenced by Alan Ginsberg, he eschewed formalism in poetry from the start. He feels that formlessness is typical of poetry, and indeed his early writing was a more instinctive than calculated process without rational control. Later he changed his approach to involve more deliberately directed associations.

At the time Baraka was much influenced by poems and short stories by his Black contemporary Henry Dumas, who like Martin Luther King was murdered in 1968 and whose writings were published posthumously in ´Ark of Bones´ (1974). In Greenwich Village he worked together with authors like Frank O’Hara, Charles Olson and Gilbert Sorrentino.

To give black plays and black players a forum, he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BART/S) in Harlem. The BART/S became one of the most influential schools within the Black Arts Movement and a model for many Black cultural centres throughout the USA.

After his conversion to Islam and as a meber of the Black Muslim Movement he supported armed opposition to the state. At the time he believed that sometimes you need an inhumane deed to end inhumanity. In his oppinion, armed opposition was also especially important as a way to end the slave mentality of US Blacks. At this time his plays and poems became ever more radical with the aim of mobilising the increasing willingness of the Black community to change. ´We have to eliminate the Whites to breathe freely on this planet´ was one of his much cited radical theses. Paralleling the domestic escalation in the USA, there was also a sharpening of the conflict between the USA and Vietnam, which likewise coloured his works.

At the beginning of the 1970s Baraka became more and more unhappy about the position of the Black Muslims in theory and practice and distanced himself clearly from the movement´s aims. He accused the black Muslims of being racist, criminal, mentally ill and fascist in claiming that non-blacks are all foes to be eliminated. He had come to the conclusion that the fight against the injustice done to Blacks by Whites in the course of several centuries should not lead to exactly the reverse. Since even an Islamic Black society would not overcome unfairness and social oppression, he now preached a revolutionary struggle against capitalism, be it Black or White, which he defined as the root of all evil. His collection of poems ´Hard Facts´ (1976), published at the time, is among his best work.

Baraka denies that his wayward itinerary consists of about-turns. He believes that his intellectual and artistic positions have developed organically from the 1950s.

Then as well as today he defines art as a weapon - as a weapon of revolution in the struggle against an inhuman system. He believes that the key to the future lies in the hands of the revolutionary potential of the Blacks in the USA, whom he believes to outnumber the members of any other ethnic group.
Author: Alexander Knaak

Bio

Everett LeRoi Jones was born on 7th October 1934 in Newark, New Jersey. His father, Coyt LeRoy Jones, was a postman, and his mother Anna Lois Jones was a social worker. He studied for two years at the local Rutgers University then moved to Howard University, where he took his BA in English in 1954. He then did three years of obligatory army service in the airforce before moving to the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1957. In 1958 he married his first wife, Hetti Cohen, decended from a wealthy Jewish family, in a Buddhist ceremony and published his first play ´A Good Girl is Hard to Find´. His collection of poems ´Spring and Soforth´ followed. In 1960 he visited Cuba for the first time and made no secret of his sympathies for the revolutionaries surrounding Fidel Castro - he recorded his impressions of this trip in the book ´Cuba libre´ (1961).

His second collection of poems ´Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note´ (1961) made him instantly famous. These poems plainly belonged to the Beat movement. At this time he also became co-publisher of the literary magazine ´The Floating Bear´ (till 1963) with Diane di Prima. His political shift in the direction of the Black Power Movement was marked by two plays: ´The Slave´ and ´The Toilet´ (1962). In 1963 he published a collection of music reviews ´Blues People - Negro Music in White America´, which is now held to be a classic of its kind, and an anthology of texts from young authors ´The Moderns - An Anthology of New Writing in America´, with texts by Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and so on. His breakthrough as a playwright came with his ´Dutchman´ in the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York in 1964. This provocative play won the Obie Award as the best off-Broadway play and was eventually made into a movie by Anthony Harvey with Shirley Knight and Al Freeman Jr. in the leading roles.

The play stands in the tradition of the theatre of cruelty developed by Artaud and shows a meeting between a sadistic white woman and a naive Black student in a carriage on the underground. The white woman tortures the student psychically and physically. Whereas the student - representing the assimilated African Americans in the USA - persistently hesitates to kill her to free himself from her, she finally stifles him. In 1965, Baraka´s first novel ´The System of Dante´s Hell´ was published, a free paraphrase of the original in a contemporary style.

The murder of Malcolm X in the same year led to a drastic change in Baraka´s life. He gave up his current work, got divorced and moved to Harlem, where he had already founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School in 1964. The group produced a number of explicitly anti-white plays but broke up soon afterwards. Baraka´s first poems in this new phase of life were published under the title ´Black Art´ (1966).

He finally went back to Newark and in 1967 married Black poetess Sylvia Robinson, who has since changed her name to Amina Baraka. That same year he founded the ´Spirit House Players´ which presented various plays, including two of his own against police brutality: ´Police´ and ´Arm Yrself or Harm Yrself´ . In the summer of 1967 he was arrested by the police during the race riots in Newark and sentenced by a court to two and a half years´ imprisonment only to be released soon afterwards.

In 1968 he founded the Black Community Development and Defense Organization and published together with Larry Neal ´Black Fire - An Anthology of Afro-American Writing´. His next play ´Home on the Range´ was performed at a benefit show in aid of the Black Panthers. That same year he converted to Islam, renamed himself Imam Amiri Baraka and became the head of his own Black Muslim organisation Kawaida. From 1968 to 1975 Baraka was the chairman of the Committee for a Unified Newark. In 1969 his play ´Great Goodness of Life´ became part of the successful ´Black Quartet´ off Broadway, and his play ´Slave Ship´ was very successful. Baraka was the founder and chairman of the Congress of African People, a national Pan-African organisation with local groups in 15 towns. In 1972 in Gary in Indiana he was also one of the main organisers of the National Black Political Convention aimed at increasing the solidarity and effectiveness of the Afro-American concerns in the US political arena. For a while he was also a member of the Black Panthers.

In 1974 Baraka converted to Marxism and dropped the title ´Imam´ from his name. Since then he has put his artistry not only at the service of Black freedom in the USA but also of the struggling against capitalist economics, which he held to be cynical and criminal.

More and more often he was working with his wife Amina Baraka. Together they published an anthology of texts called ´Confirmation - An Anthology of African-American Women´, which won the ´American Book Award´ of the Before Columbus Foundation. In 1987 they jointly published ´The Music - Reflections of Jazz and Blues´. At the age of 50 he wrote his autobiography, which was first published in 1984 then revised and republished in 1997.

Amiri Baraka has won many literary awards and honours, including a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation and one from the National Endowment for the Arts. He has also won the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Rockefeller Foundation Award for Drama, the Langston Hughes Award of the City College of New York, and an Lifetime Achievement Award from the Before Columbus Foundation.

He has taught poetry and writing at the New School for Social Research in New York, literature at the University of Buffalo, and drama at Columbia University. He has had further assignments as a lecturer at San Francisco State University, Yale University and at George Washington University. From 1985 to 2000 he was a professor for African studies at the State University of New York in Stony Brook. In 2001 he was admitted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Together with his wife, Baraka is the curator of a series of events entitled ´Kimako´s Blues People´, a monthly meeting for talks and music in his elegant house in Newark.

For some time now, his son Amiri Jr. has been the personal assistant of the mayor of Newark Sharpe James. His son Ras was elected to the post of deputy Mayor of Newark in 2002. Ras is also the organiser of a monthly hip-hop and lyric meeting held in various places in Newark and called Verse-4-Verse Poetry Café.

A first exhibition of Amiri Baraka´s paintings, sketches and collages was held in the Aljira Gallery in Newark in 1999.

Works

Secondary literature

Published Written
From LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka by T. Hudson (1973); The Renegade and the Mask by K.B. Benston (1976); Amiri Baraka / LeRoi Jones - The Question for a ´Populist Modernism´ by W. Sollors (1978); Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. by K. Benston (1978); The Poetry and Politics of Amiri Baraka - The Jazz Aesthetic by W.J. Harris (1985); How I Became Hetti Jones by Hetti Jones (1990); Amiri Baraka / LeRoi Jones by Bob Bernotas et al (1991); Conversations With Amiri Baraka, ed. by Charlie Reilly et al. (1994); Contemporary African American Theater by Nilgun Anadolu-Okur (1997); Amiri Baraka by David Bakish (1999, in Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, ed. by Steven R. Serafin); A Nation Within a Nation - Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black Power Politics by Komozi Woodard (1999)

Novels

Published Written
The System of Dante´s Hell (1965) Tales (1967) Three Books by Imamu Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones) (1975)

Plays

Published Written
A GOOD GIRL IS HARD TO FIND (1958); DANTE (1961); THE BAPTISM (1964); DUTCHMAN (1964); THE SLAVE (1964); THE TOILET (1964); EXPERIMENTAL DEATH UNIT no. 1 (1965); A BLACK MASS (1966); GREAT GOODNESS OF LIFE (1967); MADHEART (1967); JELLO (1965); ARM YRSELF OR HARM YRSELF (1967); BLACK SPRING (1967); SLAVE SHIP (1967); HOME ON THE RANGE (1968); POLICE (1968); ROCKGROUP (1969) THE DEATH OF MALCOLM X (1969); FOUR BLACK REVOLUTIONARY PLAYS (1969); INSURRECTION (1969); All Praises to the Black Man (1969) DLOODRITES AND JUNIIES ARE FULL OF (SHHH...) (1970); A FABLE (1971); BA-RA-KA (1972); Black Power Chant (1972) COLUMBIA, THE GEM OF THE OCEAN (1973); A RECENT KILLING (1973); THE NEW ARK´S MOVERIN (1974); THE SIDNEE POET HEROICAL (1975); S-I (1976); THE MOTION OF HISTORY (1977); WHAT WAS THE RELATIONSHIP OF THE LONE RANGER TO THE MEANS OF PRODUCTION? (1979); The Sidney Poet Heroical, in 29 Scenes (1979) AT THE DIM´CRACK CONVENTION (1980); BOY AND TARZAN APPEAR IN CLEARING (1981); WEIMAR 2 (1981); MONEY (1982, with G. Gruntz); PRIMITIVE WORLD (1984, with D. Murray); GENERAL HAG´S SKEEZAG, 1992

Non-fiction

Published Written
CUBA LIBRE (1961); BLUES PEOPLE (1963); HOME - SOCIAL ESSAYS (1966); BLACK MUSIC (1968); TRIPPIN´ - A NEED FOR CHANGE (1969, with L. Neal and A.B. Spellman); A BLACK VALUE SYSTEM (1970); RAISE RACE RAYS RAZE - Essays Since 1965 (1971); STRATEGY AND TACTICS OF A PAN AFRICAN NATIONALIST PARTY (1971); BEGINNING OF NATIONAL MOVEMENT (1972); KAWAIDA STUDIES - THE NEW NATIONALISM (1972); AFRICAN FREE SCHOOL (1974); CRISIS IN BOSTON!!!! (1974); NATIONAL LIBERATION AND POLITICS (1974); TOWARD IDEOLOGICAL CLARITY (1974); THE CREATION OF THE NEW ARK (1975); SPRING SONG (1979); DAGGERS AND JAVELINS - Essays, 1974-1979 (1984); THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF LEROI JONES/AMIRI BARAKA (1984); THE ARTIST AND SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY (1986); THE MUSIC: REFLECTIONS ON JAZZ AND BLUES (1987); A RACE DIVIDED (1991); CONVERSATIONS WITH AMIRI BARAKA, ed. by Charlie Reilly and Maya Angelou (1994); Jesse Jackson & Black People (1996) THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF LEROI JONES (1997, rev. edition of The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones, 1984); HOME - SOCIAL ESSAYS (1998, paperback), DIGGING - AFRO AMERICAN BE/AT AMERICAN CLASSICAL MUSIC (1999) The Essence of Reparations (2003)

Poetry collections

Published Written
SPRING AND SOFORTH (1960); PREFACE TO A TWENTY VOLUME SUICIDE NOTE (1961); THE DEAD LECTURER (1964); BLACK ART (1966); A POEM FOR BLACK HEARTS (1967); BLACK MAGIC (1969); IN OUR TERRIBLENESS (1970); IT´S NATION TIME (1970); SPIRIT REACH (1972); AFRICAN REVOLUTION (1973); HARD FACTS (1976); AM/TRAK (1979); SELECTED POETRY (1979); REGGAE OR NOT! (1982); THOUGHTS FOR YOU! (1984); THE LEROI JONES/AMIRI BARAKA READER (1993); Wise Why´s Y´s - The Griot´s Tale (1995) TRANSBLUESENCY - THE SELECTED POEMS OF AMIRI BARAKA / LEROI JONES 1961-1995 (1995); EULOGIES (1996); FUNK LORE - NEW POEMS 1984-1995 (1996)

Merits

Amiri Baraka has received many literary awards and honours, including a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Rockefeller Foundation Award for Drama, the Langston Hughes Award of the City College of New York and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. His play ´Dutchman´ (premiered in 1964) won the prestigious Obie Award.

Projects

This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.

Black Atlantic

(17 September 04 - 15 November 04)

Www

Official website of the artist