Amiri Baraka Oct. 7, 1934 - Jan. 9, 2014 Activist Writer Formerly Known as Leroi Jones

By Italie, Hilel | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Amiri Baraka Oct. 7, 1934 - Jan. 9, 2014 Activist Writer Formerly Known as Leroi Jones


Italie, Hilel, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


Amiri Baraka, the militant man of letters and tireless agitator whose blues-based, fist-shaking poems, plays and criticism made him a provocative and groundbreaking force in American culture, has died. He was 79.

His booking agent, Celeste Bateman, said that Mr. Baraka, who had been hospitalized since last month, died Thursday at a Newark, N.J., hospital.

Perhaps no writer of the 1960s and '70s was more radical or polarizing than the former LeRoi Jones, and no one did more to extend the political debates of the civil rights era to the world of the arts. He inspired at least one generation of poets, playwrights and musicians, and his immersion in spoken word traditions and raw street language anticipated rap, hip-hop and slam poetry.

Mr. Baraka transformed from the rare black to join the Beat caravan of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac to leader of the Black Arts Movement, an ally of the Black Power movement that rejected the liberal optimism of the early '60s and intensified a divide over how and whether the black artist should take on social issues. Scorning art for art's sake and the pursuit of black-white unity, Mr. Baraka was part of a philosophy that called for the teaching of black art and history and producing works that bluntly called for revolution.

"We want 'poems that kill,' " Mr. Baraka wrote in his landmark "Black Art," a manifesto published in 1965, the year he helped found the Black Arts Movement.

Mr. Baraka wrote poems, short stories, novels, essays, plays, musical and cultural criticism and jazz operas. His 1963 book, "Blues People," has been called the first major history of black music to be written by an African-American. A line from his poem "Black People!" -- "Up against the wall ... " -- became a counterculture slogan for everyone from student protesters to the rock band Jefferson Airplane. A 2002 poem he wrote alleging that some Israelis had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks led to widespread outrage.

Decades earlier, Mr. Baraka had declared himself a black nationalist out to "break the deathly grip of the White Eyes," then a Marxist-Leninist out to destroy imperialists of all colors. …

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