Amiri Baraka at his home in Newark, N.J., in 2007. Baraka, a poet and playwright, died Thursday. He was 79.
Ruth Fremson • New York Times,
Amiri Baraka, militant poet and playwright, dies at 79
- Article by: HILLEL ITALIE
- Associated Press
- January 9, 2014 - 8:46 PM
NEW YORK – Amiri Baraka, the militant man of letters and tireless agitator whose blues-based, fist-shaking poems, plays and criticism made him a provocative and groundbreaking force in American culture, has died. He was 79.
His booking agent, Celeste Bateman, said that Baraka, who had been hospitalized since last month, died Thursday at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center.
Perhaps no writer of the 1960s and ‘70s was more radical or polarizing than the former LeRoi Jones, and no one did more to extend the debates of the civil rights era to the world of the arts. He inspired at least one generation of poets, playwrights and musicians, and his immersion in spoken word traditions and raw street language anticipated rap, hip-hop and slam poetry.
The FBI feared him to the point of flattery, identifying Baraka as “the person who will probably emerge as the leader of the Pan-African movement in the United States.”
Baraka transformed from the rare black to join the Beat caravan of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac to leader of the Black Arts Movement, an ally of the Black Power movement that rejected the liberal optimism of the early ‘60s and intensified a divide over how and whether the black artist should take on social issues.
Scorning art for art’s sake and the pursuit of black-white unity, Baraka was part of a philosophy that called for the teaching of black art and history and producing works that bluntly called for revolution.
“We want ‘poems that kill,’ ” Baraka wrote in his landmark “Black Art,” a manifesto published in 1965, the year he helped found the Black Arts Movement. “Assassin poems. Poems that shoot guns/Poems that wrestle cops into alleys/and take their weapons leaving them dead/with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland.”
He was as eclectic as he was prolific: His influences ranged from Ray Bradbury to Mao Zedong to Ginsberg to John Coltrane. Baraka wrote poems, short stories, novels, essays, plays, musical and cultural criticism and jazz operas.
He had declared himself a black nationalist out to “break the deathly grip of the White Eyes,” then a Marxist-Leninist out to destroy imperialists of all colors. No matter his name or ideology, he was committed to “struggle, change, struggle, unity, change, movement.”
He was denounced by critics as homophobic, anti-Semitic and a demagogue. He was called by others a genius, a prophet, the Malcolm X of literature. The scholar Arnold Rampersad placed him alongside Frederick Douglass and Richard Wright in the pantheon of black cultural influences. “From Amiri Baraka, I learned that all art is political, although I don’t write political plays,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist August Wilson once said.
Baraka had a huge impact on artists and performers in the Twin Cities, where he often gave readings of his poetry, sometimes accompanied by jazz musicians, and where his psychosexual play, “Dutchman,” was staged multiple times. In fact, “Dutchman” was produced in 1976 as the first production at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, where it was directed by Lou Bellamy, who that same year founded Penumbra Theatre.
“It’s impossible to overstate his impact on black artists across the nation,” said Bellamy, who was on a panel in Charlotte, N.C., with Baraka a few months ago. “In codifying the Black Arts Movement, he gave us excited and agitated young people the language and intellectual rigor to explain our rationale, our aim and purpose as artists. Otherwise, we would’ve just been mad. Penumbra was founded on those principles.”
St. Paul-based sculptor and painter Seitu Jones echoed that sentiment. “One of the principles of the movement that he championed is that we, artists, should leave our community more beautiful than we found it,” Jones said. “That’s the foundational pillar of my work. Baraka was a provocateur, a lion, a philosopher, a teacher, a political activist and leader. He was a renaissance man, and we will miss him.”
Staff writer Rohan Preston contributed to this report.
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