Baraka, Amiri

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Baraka, Amiri

Amiri Baraka (amērē bərä´kə), 1934–2014, American poet, playwright, and political activist, b. Newark, N.J., as Everett LeRoy Jones, studied at Rutgers Univ., Howard Univ. In college he adopted the name LeRoi Jones. In the 1950s he moved to Greenwich Village, where he associated with writers of the beat generation and founded two literary magazines and a small publishing company. Radicalized in the early 1960s, he won critical attention and notoriety in 1964 when four of his plays—Dutchman,The Toilet,The Baptism, and The Slave—were produced Off-Broadway in New York City. A provocative political analyst, he wrote many works that express a strident anger toward the racism of mainstream white American society, and was an important figure in the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and 70s, which echoed the aims of the Black Power movement. His volumes of poems include Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961), Selected Poetry (1979), Transbluesency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, 1961–1995 (1995), Eulogies (1996), and S.O.S.: Poems 1961–2013 (2015). Among his many other plays are those in The Motion of History and Other Plays (1978) and Election-Machine Warehouse (1996); his volumes of essays include Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1963, repr. 1980) and Daggers and Javelins (1984). With his second wife, Amina Baraka, he edited Confirmation: An Anthology of African-American Women (1983). His collected fiction was published in 2000.

Baraka also was deeply involved with the African-American community. He founded Harlem's Black Arts Repertory Theatre and a related school in 1965. After they closed in the late 1960s he moved back to Newark, converted to Islam, and changed his name to Amiri Baraka. In 1968 he established the Black Community Development and Defense Organization, and started the Black National Political Convention in 1972. He also taught at a number of colleges and universities, and was named New Jersey's third poet laureate in 2002. After one of his poems suggested that Israel had foreknowledge of the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the resulting controversy led to unsuccessful demands for his resignation or firing; in 2003 the state legislature eliminated the poet laureateship to remove him.

See W. J. Harris, ed., The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader (1999) and Baraka's The Autobiography of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1984, rev. ed. 1997); C. Reilly, ed., Conversations with Amiri Baraka (1994); studies by K. W. Benston, ed. (1978), T. R. Hudson (1973), W. Sollors (1978), W. J. Harris (1987), K. Woodard (1999), and J. G. Watts (2001).

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