Radical African American Marxist Poet Who Defied All Traditions
Amiri Baraka was born Everett LeRoi Jones
in Newark, New Jersey on October 7, 1934 the son of Coyette LeRoi and Anna Lois Russ Jones. Established as an urban, lower middle-class family in Newark, New Jersey, Jones’s childhood and adolescence were relatively uneventful for an African-American youth. Still, during that time period, racism and overt discrimination were ubiquitous to anyone of color. Fortunately, Jones had the opportunity to attend Rutgers University on a science scholarship, which he later relinquished in lieu of transferring to Howard University in 1952. He also changed his name at this time to LeRoi Jones. In 1954, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force without obtaining any educational degree.
LeRoi Jones spent most of his enlisted time in Puerto Rico, where he began writing. It was during this time that he drew his conclusions about white oppression and the bourgeois politics controlling American society. He was dishonorably discharged from the Air Force in 1957 when a fellow soldier found his communist-sympathizing writings.
Magnetically attracted to Greenwich Village in New York City and the burgeoning Beat movement there, he relocated. Initially, the white Beat subculture was supportive of Jones’s writings and he started Totem Press in 1958, which published the writings of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. He also co-edited two independent Beat magazines, Yugen
and Floating Bear
. He went on to marry Hettie Cohen, another co-editor of Yugen
, in 1958.
While staying in Greenwich Village, Jones penned Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note
(1961), Blues People
(1963), The Dead Lecturer
(1964), and Dutchman
(1964), a play that received the prestigious Obie Award. Jones also founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School while in New York City. It was also during this time that ties to the Beat community loosened due to his own initiative in finding his poetic voice, collecting influence from Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. This led to his unique style of poetics, which is scholastically constrained to the identity of free verse, Beat, and Dada, but which he describes himself as the ability to speak verse. Becoming an increasingly political and controversial voice from within the African-American community, LeRoi Jones disregarded the Beat movement and became an identifiable icon within the Black Nationalist approach and Black Arts Movement.
In 1965, Jones divorced his white wife, Hettie, and left behind two daughters. A year later he married an African-American woman, Sylvia Robinson, who would eventually produce five children. Both Jones and Robinson changed their names in 1968 in order to reflect their Muslim beliefs, adhering to the order of the Kelvaida sect. Jones renamed himself Imamu Amiri Baraka, and later changed it to Amiri Baraka upon becoming a Marxist.
Amiri Baraka has served as professor at Yale, George Washington University, and the State University of New York. He served as poet laureate of New Jersey and after September 11, 2001 he wrote a controversial poem titled “Somebody Blew Up America” that criticized racial prejudice in America and questioned Israeli involvement in the attacks. Labelled as anti-Semitic, he was removed from the position by former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey.
Besides poetry, Amiri Baraka
has authored numerous plays, fiction, a great body of nonfiction, many collections of prose, and he has edited several volumes of literature as well.