Amiri Baraka was born Everett LeRoy Jones in Newark, New Jersey, and adopted the spelling LeRoi in 1951. He took his Muslim name in 1967, a period when he dedicated his poetry and political activity to Black Nationalism. His poetry, as well as his plays, novels, essays, and short stories, speak with a power and commitment that have made him a prominent figure for more than 35 years. Baraka sees "art as a weapon, and a weapon of revolution," although he now sees that revolution in Marxist rather than exclusively racial terms. The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader (1991), edited by William J. Harris in collaboration with Baraka, divides the poet's career helpfully into three main stages: "The Beat Period (1957-1962)," "The Black Nationalist Period (1965-1974)," and "The Third World Marxist Period (1974- )."
Baraka initially attended the Newark branch of Rutgers University, but then transferred to Howard University. He also pursued some graduate work at Columbia. From 1954 to 1956 he served in the United States air force, and then settled in New York's Greenwich Village, joining the district's multi-racial bohemian scene. In 1958 he married his first wife, Hettie Cohn, a white Jewish writer, and together they put out the important little magazines Yugen and Floating Bear, which published the work of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, among others. Their life together with their two daughters, and the broader Greenwich Village world of the time, is described by Hettie Jones in her 1990 memoir How I Became Hettie Jones.
Baraka is among the most militant of black poets, although in a 1959 statement in Donald Allen's The New American Poetry he records his debt to white writers: "For me, Lorca, Williams, Pound and Charles Olson have had the greatest influence." In addition, the Beat poets' social criticism and emphasis upon consciousness-raising have also been an important influence upon his work, alongside black music and jazz forms. His sense of a poem, the statement notes, is that it be open in form, "without any preconceived notion or design for what a poem ought to be."
Baraka's first volume, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961), contains poems that show a division between two selves, a public and a personal self, as well as poems in which death is a frequent subject. These themes continue in his second book, The Dead Lecturer (1964). "An Agony. As Now" from 1964 begins:
I am inside someone who hates me. I look out from his eyes. Smell what fouled tunes come in to his breath. Love his wretched women.
Baraka increasingly came to see the division as a racial one. This racial division became explicit in his award-winning off-Broadway play Dutchman (1964), the success of which brought him to national attention. The play contains a passionate claim by its leading black character that black artistic expression is a way of channeling the murderous rage that would otherwise be directed by blacks against whites. The speaker, Clay, his own anger revealed by his speech, is himself then murdered as a dangerous threat to the system of white power. Baraka writes in The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/ Amiri Baraka (1984) that with the success of Dutchman he received many offers to work for the white media. In his view such co-opting was another way in which radical black voices were potentially silenced. The Slave (1964) is another of his important plays.
A visit that Baraka had made to Cuba in 1960 began his sense that the Greenwich Village artistic community was more self-indulgent than radical, and the final break came in 1965 when, following the assassination of Malcolm X, he moved from the Lower East Side of New York to Harlem, and later back to Newark. In 1965 he divorced Hettie Cohn, and in 1967 married African American poet and visual artist Sylvia Robinson. In 1967 he became a Black Muslim, taking the name Amiri Imamu Baraka (later dropping Imamu), and Sylvia Robinson took the name Amina. Baraka's art and political actions in this period were directed entirely to a black audience, conceived as a separate nation. He founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater School in Harlem, a model for many similar groups across the country. His 1969 volume Black Magic: Sabotage, Target Study, Black Art; Collected Poetry 19611967 records his journey towards Black Nationalism. Like some other black American writers and intellectuals at the time, he supported violent protest and even deadly violence as necessary for bringing about the change that would allow separate nationhood. "SOS" (1969) is a call, written to be performed as much as to be read, to "all black people, man woman child / Wherever you are, calling you, urgent, come in." "Black Art" from the same year, argues:
We want a black poem. And a Black World.
Let the world be a Black Poem
And Let All Black People Speak This Poem
And "When We'll Worship Jesus" (1972) begins: "We'll worship Jesus / When jesus do / Somethin / When jesus blow up / the white house / or blast nixon down."
In 1974 Baraka concluded that Black Nationalism was narrowly racist, and became a Third World socialist, concerned more broadly with oppressed peoples everywhere regardless of race. His book of essays Daggers and Javelins: Essays, 1974-1979 (1984) collects a number of essays that reflect this shift from a nationalist to a Marxist view of revolution. His output has remained prolific, including essays on cinema, music - including Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1983) following the earlier Black Music (1968) - and politics. However, Wise Why's Y's (1995), charting the record of African American movements and history, was his first volume of poetry for more than ten years. Transbluesency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones also appeared in 1995. In 1979 Baraka joined the African Studies department at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, retiring in 1999.
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