(1934— ) Amiri Baraka, also known as Imamu Amiri Baraka and LeRoi Jones, is a unique force in American poetry. His practice as a cultural activist redefined the role of the modern American poet. He is best known for his powerful contribution, as writer and theorist, to the black arts movement of the 1960s. Mixing the open forms of 1950s beats and black mountain school poetry with the rhetorical and musical traditions of black culture, he explosively developed an urgent and militant African-American poetry and poetics. Literary historian and critic Arnold Ram-persad identifies Baraka as the principal modernizing influence on black poetry and names him, along with Langston hughes and others, as one of the eight writers "who have significantly affected the course of African-American literary culture" (qtd. in Harris "Introduction" xviii). Hughes's example and influence on Baraka was profound, and the two poets are clearly in sympathy in terms of formal experimentation, commitment to audience, and historical consciousness, even to the extent that Hughes's "Broadcast to the West Indies" (1943) seems to make possible Baraka's "SOS" (1967), and Baraka's "When We'll Worship Jesus" (1975) becomes a later 20th-century treatment of Hughes's "Goodbye Christ" (1932). Other influences include jazz and blues music and musicians and the theory and practice of politicized black writers, including Frederick Douglass, W E. B. DuBois, Aimé Césaire, and Malcolm X. A prolific poet since the publication of his first collection, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961), Baraka is also a celebrated playwright, essayist, music critic, fiction writer, and editor.
Baraka was born Everett LeRoy Jones to a lower-middle-class family in Newark, New Jersey. His early work was published under the name LeRoi Jones. In 1967 he adopted the name Ameer Barakat (Blessed Prince), later "Bantuizing or Swahilizing" it to Amiri Baraka (Autobiography 267). He attended Rutgers and Howard universities before joining the united States Air Force in 1954. He has taught at several schools, including the State University of New York at Stony Brook. His many awards and honors include an Obie Award for his play Dutchman (1964), the American Book Award's Lifetime Achievement Award (1989), and the Langston Hughes Award (1989); in 2001 he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2002 Baraka was appointed to a controversial two-year term as poet laureate of New Jersey.
Partly as a result of his capacity for extreme statement and sense of dramatic timing, Baraka's work is often seen as belonging to distinctly defined periods, what William J. Harris names as "Beat" (1957-62), "Transitional" (1963-64), "Black Nationalist" (1965-74), and "Third-World Marxist" (1974- ). During the Beat period, Baraka lived in Manhattan's Greenwich Village and Lower East Side, establishing a reputation as a poet and critic, coediting the avantgarde journals Yugen and Floating Bear with Hettie Cohen and Diane di prima, respectively, and associating with avant-garde musicians, visual artists, and poets, including Allen ginsberg, Robert creeley, and Frank o'hara. In his Autobiography, Baraka describes himself at this time as being '"open' to all schools within the circle of white poets of all faiths and flags. But what had happened to the blacks? What had happened to me? How is it that [there is] only the one colored guy?" (157).
As a black poet in an America then being transformed by the Civil Rights movement, Baraka felt a growing dissatisfaction with the role of poet as disaffected outsider. A visit to Cuba in 1960 initiated a conscious process of politicization, which eventually resulted in a vehement rejection of white aesthetics and society in favor of the separatist Black Arts movement, which Larry Neal has defined as "the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept" (62), although Baraka has identified black music as being as fundamental to Black Arts as black revolution.
Baraka's black nationalist period was dramatically announced by his rejection of white bohemia, and his first wife, after the assassination of Malcolm x in February 1965, and his subsequent move uptown to Harlem, where he founded the influential Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School. Later that year he moved back to Newark, where he established the publishing company Jihad Productions and the arts space Spirit
House, in addition to participating in black revolutionary politics and politicization. His best-known poem of this period, "Black Art" (1966), announces his uncompromising poetics: "We want 'poems that kill.' / Assassin poems, Poems that shoot / guns." For Baraka, the poem becomes a lethal weapon, and poetry—in rejection of W. H. auden's well-known dictum to the contrary from "In Memory of W B. Yeats"—can and will make something happen. Baraka aims to replace the silent reader of modernist poetry with a charged, elated, and articulate audience (see modernism). His poem "SOS" (1967), both distress call and call to arms, issues an opening salvo to which black people are asked to respond: "Black people, come in, wherever you are, urgent, calling / you, calling all black people."
In 1974 Baraka rejected cultural nationalism in favor of Marxism-Leninism as a way forward for black revolution. In contrast to black nationalism, which he now saw as racist, Marxism-Leninism offered solidarity not only among oppressed blacks in the United States, Africa, and the West Indies, but also among oppressed classes everywhere. Although his "hate whitey" phase was more or less spent, Baraka's passionate polemic still boiled in his first marxist volume, Hard Facts (1975). "When We'll Worship Jesus" exploits black religious rhetoric while simultaneously ripping it apart, saying that we'll worship Jesus, "When jesus blow up / the white house" and "when he get a boat load of ak-47s / and some dynamite." Baraka, who has resoundingly replaced the hesitant "I" of his early poetry with the collective "we," declares: "We can change the world / we aint gonna worship jesus cause jesus don't exist." The intensely musical "In the Tradition" (1982), dedicated to avant-garde jazz musician Arthur Blythe, shows Baraka at the top of his form, hooking together references to the great artistic and political traditions of black leadership in a loose and exuberant rap: "our fingerprints are everywhere / on you America, our fingerprints are everywhere."
One of the paradoxes of Baraka's poetry is the continued power of his poems, old and new, to stir strong reactions despite their obvious grounding in specific historical contexts. His poems do not grow stale, perhaps because of their outrageous energy and humor. Baraka continues to be a poet of his time, as indicated by the Internet circulation of his poem, "Somebody Blew Up America," written shortly after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The poem is a blasting indictment of white greed throughout history and became controversial because of its anti-Semitic questions: "Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed / Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers / To stay home that day," and Baraka's subsequent statement that the Bush administration had advance knowledge of the attacks. Baraka's refusal to resign as poet laureate led the New Jersey State Senate Government Committee to vote for a bill eliminating the position.
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