Amiri Baraka, legendary poet who never abandoned Newark, dead at 79
Amiri Baraka, son of Newark, the city he loved and never abandoned, was all about contradictions and brilliance. He was a renowned American poet — and to some eventually more agitator than poet — a playwright, novelist, screenwriter, but also an activist so controversial that he became the state’s last Poet Laureate.
Yet for all things good and bad that could be said about him — and Baraka reveled in his status as a complicated, provocative figure — the one thing no one could dispute is that there was no one quite like him in politics or poetry. During the early 1960s, Baraka became the unofficial writer of black nationalism, not only writing about it but, in many ways, shaping it through his words.
"On the cultural side, he accomplished more in a lifetime than most people could in five," said Larry Hamm, founder of the People’s Organization for Progress and one of Baraka’s many devotees. "On the political side, he was really a foremost advocate and practitioner of black self-determinism. A lot of people talked about black power. Baraka was actually on the ground practicing black power in Newark. And he ended up having a tremendous amount of influence on the way people thought."
After decades of confounding and inspiring people in Newark and beyond, Amiri Baraka died today at Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark. He was 79.
Baraka’s family declined to comment.
A cause of death was not immediately known, although a spokesman for Amiri’s son, South Ward Councilman Ras Baraka, said the veteran poet had been battling diabetes for years.
Amiri Baraka was considered an international figure in everything from Marxist thought to African independence and is known as the father of the Black Arts Movement, which helped move multiculturalism into the artistic mainstream. He was the chair of the Congress of African Peoples and founded numerous Newark-based political and cultural groups, which did everything from help elect the city’s first black mayor to push for more arts in the schools.
His awards include an Obie, the off-Broadway equivalent of a Tony; the American Academy of Arts & Letters Award; a National Book Award, and the James Weldon Johnson Medal for contributions to the arts. He also was a Guggenheim Fellow.
And while he was known to intellectual communities throughout the world, Baraka spent most of his life in his Newark home at South 10th Street, an address that became known to some of the world’s most heralded artists as well as neighborhood kids who hung out there after school.
Amiri Baraka was born Everett Leroi Jones on Oct. 7, 1934, and a handful of old Newarkers never stopped calling him Leroi. His father, Coyt Leroy Jones, was a postal worker who eventually became supervisor at the city’s main post office. His mother, Lois Russ Jones, was a social worker at the Hayes Homes.
His parents, among Newark’s earliest black activists, were part of a vital group of socially conscious African-Americans who worked their way from lower middle class to middle class.
Baraka graduated Barringer High School in 1952 . He went on to Rutgers University and later Howard University in Washington, where he left school a semester short of graduation. He joined the Air Force and was later discharged because of his affiliation with civil rights groups that were considered subversive.
By 1958, he was living in Greenwich Village, where he became known as a beat poet and married a white Jewish women named Hettie Cohen. Together they founded Totem Press, which published beat generation writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and edited the literary magazine "Yugen."
The couple had two children together and, according to the autobiography, "How I Became Hettie Jones," Baraka had a third child out of wedlock.
In 1960, in what became a turning point in his life, Baraka traveled to Cuba with other writers. It was here he learned that poetry and politics mix well together, and he quickly discovered that his politics were radical.
Upon his return, he wrote an essay, "Cuba Libre," in the "Evergreen Review." It won a Longview Award as the best essay of the year. Jones soon found himself drawn to black nationalism and one of its leading proponents, Malcolm X.
"At his most creative moments, Baraka’s charismatic presence, organizational skills and artistry spurred thousands into meaningful political engagement and transformed African-American politics and American public discourse," Cedric Johnson once wrote in the "Monthly Review," a magazine for socialist thought.
He became a kind of literary celebrity, adored by blacks as well as left-leaning whites, even as his writing contained its share of "kill whitey" rhetoric .
His play, "Dutchman," first staged in 1964, included a long monologue about racism in American that was considered a touchstone within the black power movement.
In 1964, Baraka published the book of poetry, "Dead Lecturer" that marked a significant transition in his career. Also written under the name Leroi Jones, the book featured more traditional poems but also laid the groundwork for the more radical, experimental work that would come to define his later career.
In January 1965, Baraka had a 12-hour meeting with Malcolm X, where the then-head of the Organization of Afro-American Unity spoke with the poet about his vision for black power. A month later, Malcolm X was murdered.
Baraka left Hette Jones in what he later described as a fit of racial guilt and formed the Black Arts Repertory Theater in Harlem in 1965. Then, after a scandal involving funding (he was accused of using federal anti-poverty money to stage plays ), he moved back to Newark. He and his new wife, later known as Amina Baraka, opened Spirit House, a combination playhouse and artists’ residence.
He immediately became a thorn in the side of the authorities, who accused him of stirring up discontent in the black community. During the city’s civil disorder in July 1967, Baraka was savagely beaten by Newark police who suspected him of firing shots at officers.
He was charged with weapons possession. But after legal proceedings that dragged on for several years, he was found not guilty. Most who reviewed the evidence, which included ballistics reports that showed the guns he was accused of possessing had never been fired, surmised the police had grabbed the wrong man and planted the evidence on Baraka.
"He really became a hero in the black community because of that," said Komozi Woodard, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College who edited a book on Baraka. "Before, he was just a guy who went around reading poetry. He didn’t have any political credentials. But being imprisoned the way he was gave him credibility."
A NEW PROMINENCE
In 1968, having changed his name to Imamu Ameer Baraka, he was visited at Spirit House in Newark by Martin Luther King, who spoke to him about the need for greater solidarity among splintered black groups. Eight days later, King was gunned down.
His audience with King, similar to his meeting with Malcolm X, helped vault Baraka into new prominence on the national black power scene.
Meanwhile, he also was growing a movement within post-riot Newark, one that was both ideological and practical. In his book about the riots, "No Cause for Indictment," Ron Porambo described Baraka at that time:
"Short and thin with slightly stooped shoulders, Leroi Jones is, despite his press clippings, essentially a mild-mannered man with the gentle sensitivity of an artist," Porambo wrote. "He message, to be found in any high school civics textbook, is that meaningful change in Newark will only come from the ballot box."
With that message, Baraka became a driving force behind the Black and Puerto Rican Convention, which helped elect Ken Gibson in 1970 as the city’s first black mayor.
"He was really a man ahead of his time in many ways," Gibson said today. "He was a spiritual leader of the group that we put together to develop the black and Puerto Rican convention."
Gibson and Baraka were close allies when Gibson was elected mayor in 1970 but Gibson said governance was not soemthing Baraka took to easily.
"He was much more artistic than political and that was his nature," Gibson said. "But I never lost respect for him and he never lost respect for me."
Gibson said despite his outspoken nature, Baraka "kept a lot of things internal," but added, "He was a visionary. A visionary is sometimes misunderstood and sometimes they are understood, but he was in a class by himself."
In the early 1970s, Baraka reached the peak of his powers. His headquarters at House of Unity on the corner of High Street and Springfield Avenue, was a place where men and women wore quasi-military garb and waved red-black-and-green flags of black nationalism.
In 1972, he was elected chair of the Congress of African Peoples and was a key speaker at the Black Power Convention in Gary, Ind., a precursor to the Congressional Black Caucus. He also helped found the African Liberation Support Committee, which did the spadework for the anti-Apartheid movement.
"He really was a world leader," Hamm said. "When you were in his presence, you really felt that when he spoke, it wasn’t just those of us in Newark who appreciated it. He was known and respected around the world."
A TIRELESS WORKER
As black power began to fade nationally, Baraka denounced his ties to the movement in 1974, making a shift into Marxism.
"It’s not white people who are the enemy," he once told a group of Rutgers students. "The wealthy are your enemy. If you don’t understand they’re your enemy, you’ll end up working for them."
At this time, he also threw himself back into writing, producing more than 40 book-length works. He was legendary for going four or five days at a time without sleep, sometimes writing a play, prose and poetry simultaneously.
He taught English on the college level during the next three decades at Rutgers and State University of New York-Stony Brook.
He also continued getting into occasional scrapes with the local authorities. He was thrown in jail a few times when confrontations with police got out of hand, although criminal charges seldom escalated beyond the misdemeanor level and Baraka always blamed racism.
As Rutgers historian Clement Price once facetiously noted at a roast of Baraka, "You know you’re in the presence of Baraka when all the cars following you are full of police officers."
As Baraka aged, he rather notoriously did not mellow, nor grow any less controversial.
In 2002, Gov. James E. McGreevey called for Baraka’s resignation as Poet Laureate of New Jersey after a Jewish group condemned his poem "Somebody Blew Up America." Written shortly after 9/11, the work included a passage that claimed 4,000 Israelis workers stayed home from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 because they knew there was going to be an attack.
In typical Baraka fashion, he defended his free speech and wrote the essay "I will not apologize, I will not resign."
"Don’t tell me that every time I criticize Israel I have to be an anti-Semite," he said. "That’s absurd and I’m not going to be intimidated by that."
The state legislature ultimately had to change the law to oust Baraka, who fought the removal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear his appeal.
In the meantime, Baraka was dealing with a personal tragedy. In 2003, his daughter, Shani, a former college basketball star and a teacher at Vailsburg Middle School, was shot and killed by James Coleman, the estranged husband of another one of Baraka’s daughters, Wanda Pasha. At his murder trial, prosecutors painted Coleman as a man trying to seek revenge on his ex-wife by hurting those close to her.
But through it all, Baraka continued writing, traveling, and speaking to student groups. As the decades passed, scholarly interest in his writing only increased. To many, Baraka was a fascinating study simply because his work spanned so many eras of African-American thought.
"In the best of worlds, it would be unwise to call out the name Amiri Baraka in a crowded hall of black intellectuals," City University of New York professor Jerry Watts wrote in the introduction to his 2001 book on Baraka. "To bring up Baraka in a symposium on art and politics is to bring a conversation to a standstill. One of the most controversial Afro-American intellectuals of the last 40 years, Baraka is admired, hated, feared, dismissed, adored, and despised."
The man himself wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Former Star-Ledger staff writer Brad Parks and staff writers David Giambusso and James Queally contributed to this report