Amiri Baraka, Activist, Poet, & Renowned Playwright, Dead at 79
Poet, playwright, novelist, activist, and former New Jersey poet laureate, Amiri Baraka, died Thursday at the age of 79.
He was a prominent writer and activist whose most influential works included “Somebody Blew Up America”, “Black Music”, “Dutchman and The Slave”, and “Blues People,” a “panoramic sociocultural history of African-America music.”
“Dutchman” won the Obie Award for best American Play in 1964.
In 2002, Baraka was named New Jersey’s second poet laureate, but soon became embroiled in controversy over “Somebody Blew Up America,” a poem about 911, which some critics condemned as anti-semitic, The Wall Street Journal reports.
New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey called on Baraka to resign, but he refused. McGreevey then attempted to fire Baraka from the post, but there was no provision under the law for removing a state poet laureate. In 2003, the position of state poet laureate was officially eliminated in New Jersey.
Baraka led the Black Arts Movement,a sibling of the Black Panthers, The LA Times reports. While the movement was short-lived, it involved authors such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Eldridge Cleaver, Gil Scott-Heron, Nikki Giovanni, Ishmael Reed, and Quincy Troupe.
I can see now that the dramatic form began to interest me because I wanted to go ‘beyond’ poetry. I wanted some kind of action literature,” Baraka wrote in his 1984 autobiography.
In 1990, in a preface to “The LeRoi Jones/Amari Baraka Reader”, Baraka wrote:
“My writing reflects my own growth and expansion, and at the same time the society in which I have existed throughout this longish confrontation. Whether it is politics, music, literature, or the origins of language, there is a historical and time/place/condition reference that will always try to explain exactly why I was saying both how and for what.”
Throughout his career, Amiri Baraka was awarded many great honors for his incredible artistic achievement including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, a PEN/Faulkner Award, Rockefeller Foundation Award for Drama, and the Langston Hughes Award from City College of New York.
Newark Mayor Luis Quintana said Baraka will be “sorely missed,” and added that he visited him in the hospital about two weeks ago. “He was more than a poet, he was a leader in his own right. He’s going to be missed and our condolences go out to his family today,” Quintana said according to NJ.Com.
Amiri Baraka is the father of Ras Baraka, a Newark city councilman who is the frontrunner to become Newark’s next mayor.
Layne Weiss writes regularly for Digital Journal, where she is known for her celebrity interviews, especially of hip-hop artists. She lives in Detroit.