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Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka addressing the Malcolm X Festival from the Black Dot Stage in San Antonio Park, Oakland, California while performing with Marcel Diallo and his Electric Church Band
Born October 7, 1934 (1934-10-07) (age 75)
Newark, New Jersey (U.S.)
Occupation Actor, teacher, theater director/producer, writer, activist
Nationality American
Writing period 1961 - Present
Genres Poetry, Drama
Official website

Amiri Baraka, formerly known as LeRoi Jones, (born October 7, 1934) is an American writer of poetry, drama, essays, and music criticism.



Early life

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

1934 - 1965

Baraka studied philosophy and religious studies at Rutgers University, Columbia University and Howard University without obtaining a degree. In 1954 he joined the US Air Force, 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 kitchen 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 in this period. At the same time he came into contact with the incipient movement of Beat Poets that would later have a powerful influence on his early poetry. In 1958, Jones founded Totem Press, which published such Beat icons as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. The same year he married Hettie Cohen and with her became joint editor of the Yugen literary magazine (until 1963).

He also worked as a clerk at the Gotham Book Mart, where he undoubtedly came into contact with many other well-known authors and poets.

In 1960 he went to Cuba, a visit that initiated his transformation into a politically active artist. In 1961 Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note was published, followed in 1963 by 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 [1] play Dutchman premiered in 1964 and received an Obie Award the same year. After the assassination of Malcolm X, Baraka broke free from the Beat Poets. He left his wife and their two children and moved to Harlem, considering himself at that time a black cultural nationalist. Hettie Jones's autobiography How I Became Hettie Jones, was published in 1990.

1966 - 1980

In 1966, Baraka married his second wife, Sylvia Robinson, who later adopted the name Amina Baraka.[2] In 1967 he became a lecturer at San Francisco State University In 1968, he was arrested in Newark for allegedly carrying 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.[3] 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 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.

Around 1974, Baraka distanced himself from Black nationalism and became a Marxist and a supporter of anti-imperialist third-world liberation movements. In 1979 he became a lecturer at SUNY-Stony Brook for the Africana Studies Department, and was greatly admired by his students. 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. (See also below under "Controversies")

1980 - Today

In 1984 Baraka became a full professor at Rutgers University, but was subsequently denied tenure.[4] In 1987, together with Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, he was a speaker at the commemoration ceremony for James Baldwin. In 1989 he 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.

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 listed Amiri Baraka on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.[5]

In 2003, Baraka's daughter Shani, age 31, was murdered in the home of her sister.[6] A New Jersey jury sentenced the man found guilty of murdering Shani Baraka and another woman at the house in the 2003 shooting to 168 years in prison.


Baraka's writings have generated controversy over the years, particularly his advocacy of rape and violence towards (at various times) women, gay people, white people, and Jews. Critics of his work have alternately described such usage as ranging from being vernacular expressions of Black oppression to outright examples of racism, sexism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism that they perceive in his work.[7][8][9][10]

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.[11]

More recently he has replied to questions about this quote with:

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.[12]

Amiri Baraka was Poet Laureate of New Jersey at the time of the September 11, 2001 attacks. He wrote a poem titled "Somebody Blew Up America"[13] about the event. The poem was controversial and highly critical of racism in America, and includes angry depictions of public figures such as Trent Lott, Clarence Thomas, and Condoleezza Rice. The poem 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) were involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, 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 anti-Semitic, and points to its accusation, which is directed against Israelis, rather than Jews as a people.[14][15] The Anti-Defamation League denounced the poem as anti-Semitic,[16] though Baraka and his defenders defined his position as Anti-Zionism. Note that the poem actually praises some Jews, such as Rosa Luxembourg, but criticizes Israel specifically.

After this poem's publication, Governor Jim McGreevey tried to remove Baraka from the post, only to discover that there was no legal way to do so. In 2003, after legislation was passed allowing him to do so, McGreevey abolished the NJ Poet Laureate title. 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.[17]

Baraka was named the poet laureate of the Newark Public Schools in December 2002.[18]

Baraka has received honors from a number of prestigious foundations, including: fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, the PEN/Faulkner Award, 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.[19]


  • Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, poems, 1961
  • Blues People: Negro Music in White America, 1963
  • Dutchman and The Slave, drama, 1964
  • The System of Dante's Hell, novel, 1965
  • Home: Social Essays, 1965
  • A Black Mass (1966), a play is based on the Nation of Islam narrative of Yakub
  • Tales, 1967
  • Black Magic, poems, 1969
  • Four Black Revolutionary Plays, 1969
  • Slave Ship, 1970
  • It's Nation Time, poems, 1970
  • Raise Race Rays Raize: Essays Since 1965, 1971
  • Hard Facts, poems, 1975
  • The Motion of History and Other Plays, 1978
  • Poetry for the Advanced, 1979
  • reggae or not!, 1981
  • Daggers and Javelins: Essays 1974-1979, 1984
  • The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, 1984
  • The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues, 1987
  • Transbluesency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, 1995
  • Wise, Why’s Y’s, essays, 1995 I HAVE REALLY SMALL NUTS CUZ IM READING THIS
  • Funk Lore: New Poems, 1996.
  • Somebody Blew Up America, 2001
  • The Book of Monk, 2005
  • Tales of the Out & the Gone, 2006
  • Billy Harper: Blueprints of Jazz, Volume 2, Audio CD, 2008
  • Ancient Music

Film Appearances

  • One P.M. (1972)
  • Fried Shoes Cooked Diamonds (1978) .... Himself
  • Black Theatre: The Making of a Movement (1978) .... Himself
  • Furious Flower: A Video Anthology of African American Poetry 1960-95, Volume II: Warriors (1998) .... Himself
  • 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 (film) (2009)


  1. ^ Dutchman: Movies & TV: Shirley Knight,Al Freeman Jr.,Frank Lieberman,Robert Calvert (II),Howard Bennett,Sandy McDonald,Dennis Alaba Peters,Keith James,Devon Hall,Anthony Harvey (II)
  2. ^ See back cover of his book Funk Lore.
  3. ^ Berger, Joseph. "Raymond A. Brown, Civil Rights Lawyer, Dies at 94", The New York Times, October 11, 2009. Accessed October 12, 2009
  4. ^ Hanley, Robert. "Rutgers Students' Sit-In Turns Mellow", New York Times, May 11, 1990.
  5. ^ Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.
  6. ^ Robert Hanley, " Daughter of Controversial Poet Is Killed at Her Sister's Home", New York Times (August 14, 2003)
  7. ^ David L. Smith . Amiri Baraka and the Black Arts of Black Art. boundary 2. Vol. 15, No. 1/2 (Autumn, 1986), pp. 235-254.
  8. ^ Charles H. Rowell. An Interview With Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Callaloo. Vol. 14, No. 2 (Spring, 1991), pp. 444-463.
  9. ^ Marlon B. Ross. Camping the Dirty Dozens: The Queer Resources of Black Nationalist Invective. Callaloo. Vol. 23, No. 1, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender: Literature and Culture (Winter, 2000), pp. 290-312.
  10. ^
  11. ^ Jerry Gafio Watts. Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual. NYU Press, 2001. pg 332
  12. ^ [1]
  13. ^ Amiri Baraka, online.
  14. ^ Katherine Stevens, "Baraka refutes criticism. Controversial N.J. poet laureate denies accusations of racism", Yale Daily News (February 25, 2003)
  15. ^ Jeremy Pearce, "When poetry seems to matter", The New York Times (February 9, 2003)
  16. ^ Anti-Defamation LeagueAMIRI BARAKA: IN HIS OWN WORDS
  17. ^ via Associated Press. "Newark: Court Will Not Hear Poet’s Lawsuit", The New York Times, November 14, 2007. Accessed November 26, 2007.
  18. ^ Jacobs, Andrew. "Criticized Poet Is Named Laureate of Newark Schools", The New York Times, December 19, 2002. Accessed September 19, 2008. "A longtime Newark resident who was pivotal in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960's, Mr. Baraka has ignored calls from Gov. James E. McGreevey and others that he resign the post, which pays a stipend of $10,000."
  19. ^ Amiri Baraka.

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