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In memoriam: Amiri Baraka

Herb Boyd | 1/16/2014, 3:12 p.m.
Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka, like his name indicates, was a blessed prince, and he loomed like a colossus over the Black Arts Movement, excelling in practically every literary expression as a poet, playwright, novelist, historian, journalist and essayist. One of the most versatile writers in America, Baraka died Thursday afternoon in Newark, N.J., where he was born and lived most of his life. He was 79.

No cause was given for his death, though he had been hospitalized for several weeks and was reportedly a diabetic.

From his early days in Greenwich Village, where he began to make his mark among a coterie of beatnik and avant-garde notables such as Allen Ginsberg, Ted Joans, Bob Kaufman, Bob Thompson, Hettie Cohen and Diane di Prima—having had children by both women—as a poet and publisher of small journals, to his halcyon days in the fulcrum of the Black liberation struggle, Baraka was an irrepressible spirit. His star would shine even brighter after settling in Harlem and as he helped to spur the emergence of Black Nationalism and Pan-African thought.

However, he had already established himself as a leading playwright by 1964 with “Dutchman,” which earned him an Obie Award. The play featured two characters, Clay, a Black man, and Lula, a white woman. Their intense exchanges often mirrored the nation’s troubled race relations.

A year before he earned his acclaim on off-Broadway, Baraka, then LeRoi Jones, had written “Blues People,” a sizzling summary of African-American music that is still considered among the best compendiums of the blues. He would later complete “Black Music” and do for jazz what he had done for the blues.

By 1965, following the assassination of Malcolm X, Baraka was in Harlem and an active member of the Haryou Act, where he dispensed lessons in theaters while sharpening his political analysis and assuming a larger role in the activist community.

This is not to say he wasn’t politically conscious. The sprigs of that sprouted as early as his days at Howard University and in the Air Force, which he called the “Air Farce,” and certainly by the time he was a delegate who traveled to Cuba at the invitation of Fidel Castro.

During the late ’60s, Baraka was a prominent figure in the Black Power Movement and as a founder and leader of the Congress of African People. He promoted the philosophy of “Kawaida” (Swahili for tradition), formulated by Maulana Karenga. In 1972, he was in Gary, Ind., as a guiding force in the National Black Assembly. But two years later, as a delegate to the Sixth Pan-African Conference in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, he announced in a paper delivered at the conference that he had adopted a Marxist-Leninist outlook—an ideology he would retain for the rest of his life.

Born Everett Leroy Jones on Oct. 7, 1934, he was the son of middle-class parents and was on the same path as a student at Howard University. But soon, his iconoclastic personality surfaced, and to demonstrate his break with the bourgeois tendencies so prevalent at the school, he derided the administration by sitting in the middle of campus eating a watermelon.