Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) October 7, 1934 – January 9, 2014
Amiri Baraka has been a controversial figure in the Black Movement for many years—first and foremost were his writings, but also to include his speeches and lectures.
When I was a preteen, I first read about him (then known as LeRoi Jones) in Ebony magazine. The articles stimulated my curiosity and I began to read his poetry. Back then, he was a revolutionary, part of the Black Power Movement, which emphasized racial pride and expressed a new set of racial goals for blacks.
Then after the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., Baraka seemed to become even more militant and became involved in the Black Arts Movement. It was quite evident that the Black Arts Movement demanded that Black artists create art that led to the raising of critical consciousness. I think, Baraka was one of the most important figures in the Black Arts Movement, sometimes referred to as “the artistic sister of the Black Power Movement.”
Whenever you read about poets or playwrights in the Black Arts Movement, Amiri Baraka’s name was always mentioned first. Baraka often used violent language in his writing, which advocated violence against the oppressors and he openly used art as a weapon in the political war.
There were many voices emerging from the Black Arts Movement. Nikki Giovanni was also an outspoken young Black writer during this time. She is our Celebrity Guest Author for Black History Month (February 14th). So, join us, it promises to be an informative interview!
In 1967, Baraka was arrested and beaten by the police in the “Newark Uprising.” He firmly believed that art was an expression of politics and his writings were used as evidence against him in his trial. How ironic that he later became the Poet Laureate for New Jersey! But even that position was controversial, the governor couldn’t fire him, so he abolished the position.
Fast-forwarding to 2008…I was a Board member of the DC Writers Corps and our fundraising event in January of that year was when we presented the most influential living Black writer, Amiri Baraka. The topic, “Role of the Writer in an Era of Terrorism.” It was a sold-out and standing room only event. He still had a controversial air about himself and drew a large inter-racial crowd. Even at 74 years old, he hadn’t lost his edge and discussed the role of the writer in fostering social, political and economic justice. That was the last time that I saw him in person. But his memory will be embedded in my mind forever!
My most prized possession is a copy of Preface to A Twenty Volume Suicide Note, (copyright 1961) signed with both of his names.
Amiri Baraka was the author of over 30 books, an award-winning poet and playwright, and the former New Jersey Poet Laureate.
Thousands of people will honor Amiri Baraka’s legacy. I, too, honor his legacy and I also offer my humble condolences to his family and many friends.