Amiri Baraka addressing the Malcolm X Festival in San Antonio Park, Oakland, California
|Born||October 7 1934
Newark, New Jersey (U.S.)
|Died||January 9 2014 (aged 79)
Newark, New Jersey, U.S.
|Occupation||Actor, teacher, theater director/producer, writer, activist|
|Writing period||1961 - 2014|
|Influenced||John S. Hall|
Amiri Baraka (October 7, 1934 - January 9, 2014) was an American writer of poetry, drama, essays, and music criticism. Writing in the generation after the Harlem Renaissance, Baraka was profoundly influenced by the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, especially the murder of Malcolm X. He converted to Islam and made struggle for equal rights an animating feature of his work. Baraka founded several community organizations including a repertory theater.
Baraka tackled controversial subjects including not only racial relations but sexual politics. His most famous play, "The Dutchman," addresses the subject of racial relations in the United States through the prism of a brief flirtation between a white woman and black man on a train ride. His work is animated by his experience of white hypocrisy and anger at the injustice of the treatment of African-Americans in U.S. society.
Baraka, a convert to Islam, was born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, where he attended Barringer High School. His father, Coyette LeRoi Jones, worked as a postal supervisor and lift operator, and his mother, Anna Lois (née Russ), was a social worker. In 1952, he changed his name to LeRoi Jones. In 1967, he adopted the African name Imamu Ameer Baraka, which he later changed to Amiri Baraka.
Baraka studied philosophy and religious studies at Rutgers University, Columbia University and Howard University without obtaining a degree. In 1954, he joined the U.S. Air Force, reaching the rank of sergeant. An anonymous letter to his commanding officer accusing him of being a communist led to the discovery of pro-Soviet writings. Baraka was put on kitchen duty and given a dishonorable discharge for violation of his oath of duty.
The same year he moved to Greenwich Village, working initially in a warehouse for music records. His interest in jazz began during this period. At the same time he came into contact with the movement of Beat Poets that was to have a powerful influence on his early poetry. In 1958, Jones founded Totem Press, which published such Beat icons as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. The same year he married Hettie Cohen and with her became joint editor of the Yugen literary magazine (until 1963).
He also worked as a clerk at the Gotham Book Mart, where he undoubtedly came into contact with many other well-known authors and poets.
In 1960, he went to Cuba, a visit that initiated his transformation into a politically active artist. In 1961, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note was published, followed in 1963 by Blues People: Negro Music in White America. It remains one of the most influential volumes of jazz criticism, especially in connection with the beginning of the Free Jazz movement. His acclaimed, controversial play Dutchman premiered in 1964 and received an Obie Award the same year.
After the assassination of Malcolm X, Baraka broke with the Beat Poets. He left his wife and their two children and moved to Harlem, considering himself at that time a black cultural nationalist. Later, Hettie Cohen, in her autobiography, How I Became Hettie Jones (1996), claimed that Baraka had mistreated her during the time of their marriage.
In 1966, Baraka married his second wife who later adopted the name Amina Baraka. In 1967, he became a lecturer at San Francisco State University. In 1968, he was arrested in Newark for illegally carrying a weapon and resisting arrest during riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and sentenced to three years in prison. Shortly afterward, an appeals court threw out the sentence. The same year his second book of jazz criticism, Black Music, came out, a collection of previously published music journalism, including the seminal Apple Cores columns from Down Beat magazine. In 1970, he strongly supported Kenneth Gibson's candidacy for mayor of Newark; Gibson was elected the city's first Afro-American Mayor. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Baraka courted controversy by penning some strongly anti-Jewish poems and articles, similar to the stance at that time of the Nation of Islam.
Around 1974, Baraka distanced himself from Black nationalism and became a Marxist and a supporter of anti-imperialist third world liberation movements. In 1979, he became a lecturer at SUNY-Stony Brook for the Africana Studies Department, and was popular with his students. The same year, after altercations with his wife, he was sentenced to a short period of compulsory community service. Around this time he began writing his autobiography. In 1980, he denounced his former anti-semitic utterances, declaring himself instead an anti-zionist.
In 1984, Baraka became a full professor at Rutgers University, but was subsequently denied tenure. In 1987, together with Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, he was a speaker at the commemoration ceremony for James Baldwin. In 1989 he won an American Book Award for his works as well as a Langston Hughes Award. In 1990, he co-authored the autobiography of Quincy Jones, and 1998 was a supporting actor in Warren Beatty's film Bulworth.
Baraka collaborated with hip hop group The Roots on the song, "Something in the Way of Things (In Town)" on their 2002 album Phrenology.
In 2003, Baraka's daughter Shani, age 31, was murdered in Piscataway Township, New Jersey.
Amiri Baraka died on January 9, 2014, at Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey, after being hospitalized in the facility's intensive care unit for one month prior to his death. Baraka's funeral was held at Newark Symphony Hall on January 18, 2014.
The Dutchman is Baraka's best-known play. It played at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village, New York in March 1964 and won an Obie Award. Made into a movie in 1966, Dutchman was the last play produced by Baraka under his birthname, LeRoi Jones. At the time, Jones/Baraka was in the process of divorcing his white Jewish wife and embracing black nationalism.
The play was recently revived in 2007 at the Cherry Lane Theatre starring Dule Hill.
The action focuses almost exclusively on Lula, a flirtatious white woman, and Clay, a young black man, who ride the subway in New York City. Lula boards the train munching an apple, an allusion to the Biblical Eve. After Lula bends over in front of Clay in an obvious sexual come-on, the two characters engage in a flirtatious conversation throughout the long train ride.
Lula then begins to insult Clay, implying that somehow he is not "really" black because he is college educated, wears a three button suit, and because his "grandfather was a slave." She is now dancing in the train and ridicules Clay by asking him to join her and "do the nasty. Rub bellies." Clay, who initially does not respond to the provocation, rises up in extreme anger, menacing the other riders, telling Lula that she knew nothing about him, referring to her and other white people as "ofays." Forcing her on her seat next to him he slaps her twice and tells her that the neuroses of black men can be cured with her murder. He asks his leave and expresses his pity that it wouldn’t work out between them. As he bends over to pick up his books, Lula stabs him into his chest in full view of the other (white) riders who do nothing to stop the attack. She then instructs everyone else to help her throw his body out of the train and get off the subway at the next stop.
The play ends on a chilling note; Lula approaches another well-dressed black man in the exact same way that she approached Clay. As the train conductor enters the compartment, dancing “soft-shoe,” Lula copies his movements.
The play operates on a mostly symbolic level. Lula represents white America and the tendency of white Americans to stereotype Blacks, as also their oppression of those Afro-Americans, who try to do better than the stereotype. The apples that she munches throughout represent the (often empty) promises that America holds out to African Americans and again the wastefulness of white America (as she throws the apples away half eaten). Clay represents Black America, or more accurately, the assimilation of this community into the white-middle-class society.
Baraka's writings have generated controversy over the years, particularly his use of often-violent imagery directed towards (at various times) women, gay people, white people, and Jews. Critics of his work have alternately described such usage as ranging from being vernacular expressions of Black oppression to outright examples of racism, sexism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism that they perceive in his work. The following is a typical example cited, from a 1965 essay:
Most American white men are trained to be fags. For this reason it is no wonder their faces are weak and blank. … The average ofay [white person] thinks of the black man as potentially raping every white lady in sight. Which is true, in the sense that the black man should want to rob the white man of everything he has. But for most whites the guilt of the robbery is the guilt of rape. That is, they know in their deepest hearts that they should be robbed, and the white woman understands that only in the rape sequence is she likely to get cleanly, viciously popped.
Amiri Baraka was New Jersey’s Poet Laureate at the time of the September 11, 2001 attacks. He wrote a poem titled "Somebody Blew Up America" about the event. The poem was controversial and highly critical of racism in America, and includes angry depictions of public figures such as Trent Lott, Clarence Thomas, and Condoleezza Rice. The poem also contains lines claiming Israel's involvement in the World Trade Center attacks:
Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away? […] Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion
And cracking they sides at the notion
Baraka has said that he believed Israelis (and President George W. Bush) were involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, citing what he described as information that had been reported in the American and Israeli press and on Jordanian television. He denies that the poem is anti-Semitic, and points to its accusation, which is directed against Israelis, rather than Jews as a people. The Anti-Defamation League was amongst the critics who denounced the poem as anti-Semitic.
After this poem's publication, Governor Jim McGreevey tried to remove Baraka from the post, only to discover that there was no legal way to do so. In 2003, after legislation was passed allowing him to do so, McGreevey abolished the NJ Poet Laureate title. In response to legal action filed by Baraka, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that state officials were immune from such suits, and in November 2007, the Supreme Court of the United States refused to hear an appeal of the case.
"Baraka founded the Black Art Reperatory Theatre in Harlem in 1965. In 1968 he founded the Black Community Development and Defense Organization, a Muslim group committed to affirming black culture and to gaining political power for blacks."
Baraka was named the poet laureate of the Newark Public Schools in December 2002.
All links retrieved March 12, 2016.
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