These days, the term “pioneer” is thrown around loosely and applied to nearly anyone who makes the slightest ripple in the vast waters of history. In the case of Amiri Baraka (aka Leroi Jones), the moniker actually fits. Baraka had a profound influence on culture, taking on societal norms and turning them on their heads at a time when it was unpopular for a Black man in America to challenge the status quo.
An author, poet and playwright, Baraka was both celebrated and denigrated. Long before there was rap, Baraka was stirring up controversy with poetry that shocked cultural consciousness and stirred up political and social firestorms. Born Everett Leroi Jones in Newark, New Jersey in 1934, he won a scholarship to Rutgers University in 1951 but later transferred to Howard University and eventually left without obtaining a degree. He followed a similar pattern at Columbia University and the New School for Social Research in New York City, not obtaining a degree from either institution. He joined the US Air Force in 1954 but was dishonorably discharged after he was accused of being a communist.
Leroi Jones moved to Greenwich Village and married Hettie Cohen, with whom he embarked upon several publishing ventures. Cohen, a writer and poet herself, became estranged from her Jewish family due to her marriage to a Black man at a time when such a union was strongly frowned upon. The relationship would produce two daughters, though Baraka, then still known as Leroi Jones would have a lengthy extramarital affair with Diane Di Prima. Jones eventually left his wife and children and moved to Harlem upon the assassination of Malcolm X. The drastic move seemed to mark the beginning of Jones’ decided radical outspokenness on racial and political issues.
Baraka wrote several controversial poems over the course of his career. His first book of poems was titled Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note. He also wrote Dutchman, a play which took a dark turn on race relations. Dutchman won critical acclaim, garnering an Obie Award in 1964, but also drew stark criticism. Baraka was also a supporter of Fidel Castro, drawing even more fire when he co-authored a Declaration of Conscience in support of Castro’s regime.
In 1966, Jones married Sylvia Robinson. In 1967, under the influence of Maulana Karenga, he became a practitioner of the activist Kawaida philosophy that would produce Kwanzaa and feature an emphasis on African names that is now commonplace in African American culture. He adopted the name Imamu Amear Baraka, later dropping Imamu (“spiritual leader”) and changing Amear (“Prince”) to Amiri. Baraka means “blessing” or “divine favor.” His wife Sylvia later adopted the name Amina Baraka.
Though an established artist, Baraka was harshly critical of Black artists and writers that he felt went out of their way to assimilate with White America. He broke away from the Black Arts Movement – which he created – when he saw certain Black writers, which he termed “capitulationists”, working against the movement from within by their attempts at assimilation. Among his quotes:
In most cases the Negroes who found themselves in a position to pursue some art, especially the art of literature, have been members of the Negro middle class, a group that has always gone out of its way to cultivate any mediocrity, as long as that mediocrity was guaranteed to prove to America, and recently to the world at large, that they were not really who they were, i.e., Negroes.
Baraka eventually became a Marxist, spurning Black nationalism altogether. He became a professor at Stony Brook University, and later at Columbia University and Rutgers University as well. Baraka was named Poet Laureate of New Jersey in 2002, a post he held for one year before the position was abolished over controversy regarding a poem he wrote titled “Somebody Blew Up America?” about the September 11th attacks. In the poem, Baraka allegedly spewed anti-Semitic sentiments and spoke harshly of public figures, including Clarence Thomas, Condoleezza Rice and Trent Lott.
Amiri Baraka died on January 9, 2014 after a month-long hospitalization. Baraka had a lengthy struggle with diabetes. He leaves a legacy of activism and controversy, but has clearly made an indelible mark upon American culture and paved the way for a freedom of expression now taken for granted by many who were once denied such a privilege.
Rest in peace Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka.
Brian C. Scott