Poet Amiri Baraka, who lost his post as New Jersey’s poet laureate because of a controversial poem about the 9/11 terror attacks, died on Jan. 9, his agent said. Baraka was 79.
Baraka, considered a founder of the 1960s Black Arts movement, died in New Jersey’s Beth Israel Medical Center after a short illness, according to agent Celeste Bateman.
His official website said that Baraka “adopted a confrontational style for his poetry, drama, fiction and essays. With intent to create awareness about the concerns of African Americans, his writings … on one hand have been praised as a voice against oppression, on the other hand, have also incited controversies.”
Amiri Baraka was born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, on October 7, 1934. His father, Colt LeRoy Jones, was a postal supervisor; Anna Lois Jones, his mother, was a social worker. He attended Rutgers University for two years, then transferred to Howard University, where in 1954 he earned his B.A. in English. He served in the Air Force from 1954 until 1957, then moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There he joined a loose circle of Greenwich Village artists, musicians, and writers. The following year he married Hettie Cohen and began co-editing the avant-garde literary magazine Yugen with her. That year he also founded Totem Press, which first published works by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and others.
A self-described “poet icon and revolutionary political activist,” he was named New Jersey’s poet laureate by then-Gov. James McGreevey, on the recommendation of the state’s Council for the Arts, in 2002.
Two months after his appointment, Baraka read the poem “Somebody Blew Up America” before a local arts festival.
Among the poem’s lines:
“Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
“Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
“To stay home that day
“Why did Sharon stay away?”
Despite the public outrage over a poem suggesting that Jewish workers had advance notice of the terror attacks, McGreevey did not have the legal authority to fire the poet from his post. Baraka refused the governor’s request to resign, saying his work was neither anti-Semitic nor racist. The position was eliminated by the New Jersey legislature in July 2003.
In an open letter after the vote, Baraka called it a “confirmation of the ignorance, corruption, racism, and criminal disregard for the U.S. Constitution.”
He published his first volume of poetry, “Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note,” in 1961. From 1961 to 1963 he was co-editor, with Diane Di Prima, of “The Floating Bear,” a literary newsletter. His increasing hostility toward and mistrust of White society was reflected in two plays, “The Slave” and “The Toilet,” both written in 1962. The next year saw the publication of “Blues People: Negro Music in White America,” which he wrote, and “The Moderns: An Anthology of New Writing in America,” which he edited and introduced. His reputation as a playwright was established with the production of “Dutchman” at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York on March 24, 1964. The controversial play subsequently won an Obie Award (for “best off-Broadway play”) and was made into a film.
In 1965, following the assassination of Malcolm X, Jones repudiated his former life and ended his marriage. He moved to Harlem, where he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School. The company, which produced plays that were often anti-White and intended for a Black audience, dissolved in a few months. He moved back to Newark, and in 1967 he married poet Sylvia Robinson (now known as Amina Baraka). That year he also founded the Spirit House Players, which produced, among other works, two of Baraka’s plays against police brutality: “Police” and “Arm Yrself or Harm Yrself.”
In 1968, he co-edited “Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing” with Larry Neal and his play “Home on the Range” was performed as a benefit for the Black Panther party. That same year he became a Muslim, changing his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka. (“Imamu” means “spiritual leader.”) He assumed leadership of his own Black Muslim organization, Kawaida. From 1968 to 1975, Baraka was chairman of the Committee for Unified Newark, a Black united front organization. In 1969 , his Great Goodness of Life became part of the successful “Black Quartet” off-Broadway, and his play Slave Ship was widely reviewed. Baraka was a founder and chairman of the Congress of African People, a national Pan-Africanist organization with chapters in 15 cities, and he was one of the chief organizers of the National Black Political Convention, which convened in Gary, Indiana, in 1972 to organize a more unified political stance for African Americans.
Amiri Baraka’s numerous literary prizes and honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Rockefeller Foundation Award for Drama, the Langston Hughes Award from The City College of New York, and a lifetime achievement award from the Before Columbus Foundation.
In addition to his wife, Baraka is survived by four sons: Ras, Obalaji, Amiri Jr., and Ahi; four daughters, KJLH talk radio personality Dominique DiPrima, author and Village Voice columnist Lisa Jones Brown, Columbia University professor Kellie Jones, and Maria Jones; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
CNN News Wire contributed to this report.