Amiri Baraka was born Everett LeRoy Jones on October 7, 1934 in Newark, New Jersey to Coyette (“Coyt”) LeRoy Jones and Anna Lois Jones. He graduated from high school with honors in 1951 and began attending Rutgers University, only to transfer to Howard University in 1952. It was also in 1952 when he first changed his name, this time from LeRoy to the “frenchified” LeRoi. In 1954, he flunked out of Howard and joined the Air Force, where he attained the rank of sergeant before being discharged “undesirably” in 1957. It was then that he settled in New York’s Greenwich Village and began to be influenced by the art scene there.
Beat Period (1957-1962)
In 1958, he married Hettie Cohen, and the two edited the literary journal Yugen together. Yugen, printed from 1958-1963, published works by Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Philip Whalen, among others. In 1961, he began printing The Floating Bear, a literary newsletter with Diane DiPrima. It ran until 1963.
During this period in Baraka’s life and writing, his race was not a central issue. Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961), his first book of poems, show the influences of Ginsberg, Charles Olson, and Frank O’Hara, and contain numerous references to popular culture and his fellow writers. (“Who has ever stopped to think of the divinity of Lamont Cranston?/ Only Jack Kerouac, that I know of: & me.” From “In Memory of Radio”) In 1960, he was quoted as saying, “I’m fully conscious all the time that I am an American Negro, because it’s part of my life. But I know also 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.”‘ This view began shifting dramatically for Baraka over the next few years, as his race became a central issue not only in his art, but in his life, as he would become an outspoken activist in the Civil Rights Movement and the American class struggle.
Transitional Period (1963-1965)
It is in this period of Baraka’s life when he became disenchanted with white bohemia and his race became a bigger issue in his art. In 1963, he published Blues People: Negro Music in White America, part of his lifelong interest in, study of, and writing about black music and its history. The poems from The Dead Lecturer (1964) show the struggle Baraka faced as his consciousness shifted from white bohemian to black political activist. The poem An Agony. As Now., opens with “I am inside someone/ who hates me”, and goes on to describe the painful conflict between who he appeared to be and who he would later change into. Another poem from this period, “The Liar”, further demonstrates this shift and his consequent distancing from the Beats in lines like, “When they say, “It is Roi/ who is dead”? I wonder/ who will they mean”?
In 1964, the Obie Award-winning play Dutchman was produced in New York, and brought Baraka his first real fame. The play is Baraka’s most famous work, and was once hailed by Norman Mailer as “the best play in America.” It’s a highly stylized drama that depicts the American civil rights struggle in the characters of Lula (a white woman) and Clay (a black man) and their subsequent conversation while riding the subway. Clay tolerates, even flirts with Lula, but he eventually lashes out at her (and the white hipster mentality in general) with a long speech about how black art is created out of hatred for white people:
Charlie Parker. All the hip white boys scream for Bird. And Bird saying, “Up your ass, feeble-minded ofay! Up your ass.” And they sit there talking about the tortured genius of Charlie Parker. Bird would’ve played not a note of music if he just walked up to East Sixty-seventh Street and killed the first ten white people he saw. Not a note!”
Lula ends up stabbing Clay to death, then flirting with the next young black man who enters the subway car, showing that the cycle will continue to repeat itself.
In his autobiography, he wrote about the fame that Dutchman had brought to him, saying that he had realized he wanted to be a voice for his people. “…Even if I wasn’t strong enough to act, I would become strong enough to SPEAK what had to be said, for all of us, for black people, yes, particularly for black people, because they were the root and origin of my conviction, but for anyone anywhere who wanted Justice!”
Black Nationalist Period (1965-1974)
After the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, Baraka left his wife Hettie Cohen and moved to Harlem, calling himself a Black Cultural Nationalist, one who is committed to black people as “a race, a culture, a nation.” That year he also organized the Black Arts Repertory Theater-School, wrote his only novel The System of Dante’s Hell, and moved back to Newark. He married Sylvia Robinson (now Amina Baraka) in 1966, and also published Home: Social Essays, which contains much of his early Black Nationalist ideology.
In 1967, he changed his name again, this time completely. He took on the Bantuized Muslim name Imamu (“spiritual leader” later dropped) Ameer (“prince” later changed to Amiri ) Baraka (“blessed”). He also published his only collection of short stories that year, a book called Tales. He published Black Music in 1968, and along with Larry Neal, edited an important anthology of African American Literature, Black Fire. In 1969, Baraka published a collection of Black Nationalism-inspired poetry, called Black Magic. One of the poems in the book, “leroy”, says, “When I die, the consciousness I carry I will to black people. May they pick me apart and take the useful parts, the sweet meat of my feelings. And leave the bitter bullshit rotten white parts alone.”
While a Black Nationalist, Baraka spoke publicly about his hatred of white people, though he later renounced the attitudes he carried during that period as racist. In his autobiography, he writes, “We hated white people so publicly, for one reason, because we had been so publicly tied up with them before … I guess, during this period, I got the reputation for being a snarling, white-hating madman. There was some truth to it, because I was struggling to be born, to break out from the shell I could instinctively sense surround[ing] my own dash for freedom.”
By 1973, Baraka began his split from Black Nationalism, marked with the poem “AFRIKAN REVOLUTION”, which shows the beginning of his ideas changing toward the belief that racial oppression and class oppression are inextricably linked.
Third World Marxist Period (1974-)
In 1974, Baraka rejected Black Nationalism and announced his change to Third World Marxism in an article that appeared in Black World. In a 1984 radio interview, he explained, “As long as it was a bourgeois nationalist, reactionary nationalist kind of trend–a “hate whitey” kind of thing, during that period of the movement, they didn’t really have any problem with that. They might get officially excited … That is, if you say that the enemy is “all whites” without making a class analysis and showing that there’s only a handful of super-billionaire vampires that actually control the society, the ruling class. When you do that and start making an analysis with your art in a forceful way, then they don’t see that as a charming commodity that they need like they might need some tiger teeth around their neck…”
In 1975, Baraka published his first collection of Marxist poetry, Hard Facts, and in 1979, he wrote The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka (published 1984), while s
erving a 48-consecutive weekend sentence in a halfway house for an altercation with his wife.
In 1995, he published the work Wise, Why’s Y’s: The Griot’s Tale, a book of poems written in the style of the Griot, who were, as Baraka described them, “the African Singer-Poet-Historians who carried word from bird, mouth to ear, and who are the root of our own African-American oral tradition.” The poems trace the history of black people in America from the days of slavery to the present.
In 2002, controversy surrounded Baraka once again, this time over the poem “Someone Blew Up America”, about the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. Baraka wrote the lines,
“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?”
and started an uproar, which included the New Jersey government asking him to step down from his position as the state’s poet laureate. (Full text of the poem and discussion of the controversy from the Poetry & Politics board can be found here.) Recently, Baraka was named poet laureate of the Newark schools, amid continuing pressure from the state government to get him to quit the state’s position. Baraka continues to refuse to resign as New Jersey’s poet laureate, and has accepted the Newark position as well.