Amiri Baraka—author, cultural critic, revolutionary, professor and intellectual—passed away today in New York City after a long illness. There is no doubt that he will be remembered fondly in circles of poets, politicians, and the proletariat, all of which audiences Baraka moved between in his 79 years on earth. Amiri Baraka was, as Maya Angelou called him “a griot”— a griot that dynamically approached the stories and lives of Black and oppressed people. From decade to decade, Baraka dynamically changed his approach to the problems facing oppressed people but always remained committed to producing revolutionary art.
Born in 1934 to two working class parents, Baraka lived by multiple names and perhaps, multiple identities throughout his life. He first became known to many as LeRoi Jones when he penned the now classic Blues People: Negro Music in White America in 1963. His discussion of Black political evolution via musical production creatively fused the cultural and political. In 1964, his celebrated play The Dutchman dealt with tensions of interracial relationships, the Civil Rights Movement and the transition towards Black Power ideology. His next plays The Slave and The Toilet shocked audiences and critics alike for their front-facing critiques of racism at a time when many in the United States thought racism was on the decline. Through his writing, Baraka believed he was capturing a pending “race war” that was not being discussed in mainstream news and the theater.
During the mid-1960s, Baraka underwent his own ideological transformation from integrationist Beat writer to Black Nationalist playwright and author. Along this path he divorced his White Jewish wife of seven years, Hettie Cohen in 1965 and married Amina Baraka (nee Sylvia Robinson) the following. With the assassinations of Malcolm X, Patrice Lumumba, Martin Luther King, Jr, and other political leaders, Baraka became increasing radical and militant, embracing art as a form of revolutionary engagement.
In 1965, he co-founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater in Harlem, which lasted only year, but the theater and his essay “The Revolutionary Theater” set the stage for the emergence of the Black Arts Movement (BAM). BAM demanded that Black artists create art that led to the raising of critical consciousness and creation of Black communities that were safe from outside oppression. Baraka viewed art as a weapon and in “Black Art” would write, “we want ‘poems that kill’.” The approach the BAM artists were distinctively political and race-focused and would lay the foundations for later forms of cultural nationalism as well as hip-hop.
For Amiri Baraka, art was inseparable from politics and in 1967, he was arrested and viciously beaten by local police during the Newark uprisings. While the state charged Baraka with possession of two weapons, his prosecution was based, in part, on his literary writings. During his trial, one of his poems was read as evidence of his support for rioting and intimated Baraka’s (then Jones) guilt. He was eventually jailed for possessions of two guns, which he denied until his death, and argued he was arrested for the “possession of two poems.”
In the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, Baraka was closely tied to Mualana Karenga (nee Ronald Everett) and embraced the philosophy of Kawaida and Black Nationalism. During this time, Baraka continued to emphasize embracing African traditions and cultural production for their emancipatory potentials. In the mid 1970s Baraka shifted from Black Nationalism to Marxism. He would characterize his move from race-based politics to class-based politics not as a turn away from Black people and political interests; instead it was an expansion in his understanding of conditions that faced oppressed peoples. Despite these political shifts and emphasis on challenging oppression, Baraka’s writings in the 1960s and 1970s often featured violent language and declarations which often had him characterized anti-White, homophobic, anti-Semitic and misogynistic.
Despite his controversial career, Baraka was celebrated among literary and art circles for his insight, avant-garde approach, and powerful performances. In 2002, he was named as the State of New Jersey’s second poet laureate. While holding this post, Baraka again drew great controversy as his poem, “Someone Blew Up America” eviscerated racism and intimated that some Israelis and President George W. Bush were aware of the September 11th attacks prior to them taking place. In response, then New Jersey Governor James McGreevey attempted to remove Baraka from his post unsuccessfully and abolished the position altogether a year later. Baraka’s poetry and fight for retention of the laureate post on grounds of free speech exemplify his outspoken and unrelenting commitment to art as weapon, even when what he said made others uncomfortable.
Baraka was no stranger to controversy, in many ways, they characterized his life and they were what propelled him forward. Until his death, Baraka remained outspoken and highly active, whether attending cultural celebrations or reading poetry to young audiences hoping to spark that revolutionary spirit that defined his time on this earth. He said, “I believe you have to be true to people. You have to be writing something that people understand but, at the same time, something that’s profound enough to have meaning past say, the six o’clock news.” In his passing, it is clear that his art and his legacy will extend far beyond the six o’clock news and his sunset to influence generations to come.
Dr. R. L'Heureux Lewis-McCoy is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York. His work concentrates on race, education and gender. You can follow him on Twitter @dumilewis or visit his website.