Feature

Amiri Baraka, 1934–2014

The black poet who preached revolution

Amiri Baraka’s belated embrace by the establishment he’d railed against for decades didn’t end well. Within months of being named poet laureate of New Jersey in 2002, he read a poem about the 9/11 attacks that included the lines: “Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the twin towers / To stay home that day.” Amid the ensuing outrage, the governor asked Baraka to resign. After he refused, the state legislature eliminated the post, a move Baraka said confirmed its “ignorance, corruption, racism, and criminal disregard for the U.S. Constitution.” He sued, but he lost.

That was hardly the first controversy in the life of the fiery poet who “embodied the artistic face of the Black Power movement of the 1960s,” said The Wall Street Journal. Born Everett Leroy Jones in Newark, N.J., he studied at Rutgers University and historically black Howard University, where he was “exposed to African-American arts and scholarship” but alienated by what he saw as a drive to conform to white notions of success. He dropped out, changed his name to LeRoi, and after an unhappy stint in the Air Force, gravitated to Greenwich Village and the countercultural circle around poet Allen Ginsberg.

From there he strode “across a variety of American literary and social movements: from the Beats to Black Nationalism to Marxism,” said the Los Angeles Times. The poetry and criticism of LeRoi Jones earned broad acclaim, and his play Dutchman—about a racially charged subway encounter between a black man and a white woman—won an Obie Award in 1964. In 1967, he changed his name again—the Bantu-influenced Arabic roughly translates as “blessed prince”—and created work set on “capturing an outsider’s anger, and giving it form and voice and beauty.”

Baraka’s “political rhetoric wasn’t a tactic for career development,” said The Jewish Daily Forward. Some of his misogynistic, anti-gay, and anti-Semitic statements “were shockingly hateful.” But they expressed “the attitudes, beliefs, and experiences of a segment of society that our country as a whole was forgetting existed.”

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