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.
That same defiant attitude would color his stay in the Air Force. He was dismissed with a dishonorable discharge, accused of reading subversive literature.
Greenwich Village, with its abundance of free spirits, was a natural environment for his nonconformity, his radical penchant and for one who was always eager to think and act outside of the box.
While Baraka possessed a Midas touch when it came to the written word, his preference was poetry, and it’s hard to choose one poem that encapsulates his prowess, though, “We are unfair, and unfair/We are Black magicians, Black arts we make in Black labs of the heart. The fair are fair, and deathly white. The day will not save them/and we own the night,” provides a glimpse of his sentiments about racism and white supremacy during at least one stage of his ever-evolving life.
In a poetic homage to Baraka, esteemed poet and publisher Haki Madhubuti wrote a number of poems for his friend, and this excerpt is an expression of his respect and high regard: “Approaching him, I wondered why this genius of serious music and transcendent literature wasn’t surrounded by readers, fans, collectors of fine words on pages seeking instructions and autographs.”
His devotees may not have been as obvious and visible as warranted, but they were many, and you didn’t have to walk too far in Newark to bump into someone ready to spout about Baraka’s black magic and his relentless fight against forces of oppression.
Even into his 70s, his younger associates in Newark declared Baraka was still on the ramparts, despite all the controversy surrounding his poem about the bombing of the World Trade Center, despite being stripped of his laureate honor and despite the crippling challenges that came with age.
“Even though he was in his late 70s,” wrote anti-violence activist Bashir Akinyele, “he was with us on the streets at many of our most critical turns, like when we shut down Broad and Market the first time in 2009!”
And none of the late challenges in his life were as hurtful as losing his sister and his daughter Shani and to see the daily assaults targeting his sons as they fought to make their hometown a safe haven.
Two years ago, the ever-feisty Baraka expressed his derision over the publication of Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X. It was his opinion that Marable had assassinated Malcolm again, and he publicly denounced the book at several forums and in print, which he did with his typical sense of outrage and denunciation.
Still, there was Baraka the praise master too, as he illustrated at the funeral services for James Baldwin and at the more recent memorial for Jayne Cortez. A more extensive collection of his words can be found in a reader under his name, which resonates with much more conviction than even his autobiography. Baraka at one time referred to himself as “Imamu” and “Mwalimu,” and to a great extent, he was both priest and teacher, as the Swahili words designate, and there are thousands of his students able to attest to his profound wizardry in the classroom.
However, in the end, the final words ring with beauty and authority in his poetry. In this one, Baraka’s ironic wordplay is never more succinct and to the point.
“Monday in B-Flat”
I can pray
But if I call
in a minute!
“Imamu Amiri Baraka was not afraid to speak out through the use of his pen and was one of the few who supported the great Paul Robeson, as he was demonized by the white establishment and many Black leaders,” said Frederick Williams, executive editor of Prosperity Publications. “Outraged that history was not kind to Robeson, Baraka wrote in 1998, ‘Robeson’s pitiless harassment, character assassination, career destruction and ultimate physical sickness and death are another legacy of American slavery and the continuing rule of money.’
“He was an unabashed critic of the ills of this society in the same class as Richard Wright, Dr. W.E.B. and Shirley Graham Du Bois, and Paul and Eslanda Robeson. Do we have writers today willing to carry on these great artists’ legacies?”
Baraka, who moved effortlessly from art to politics, leaves behind an extraordinary corpus of creativity to be protected and managed by his talented wife, Amina, and his children Amiri Baraka Jr., Ras Baraka, Obalaji Baraka, Ahi Baraka, Dominique DiPrima, Maria Jones, Lisa Jones and Kellie Jones.