Authors: Amiri Baraka

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American playwright, poet, and essayist

October 7, 1934

Newark, New Jersey

January 9, 2014

Newark, New Jersey


Amiri Baraka (buh-RAH-kuh), born Everett LeRoi Jones, was a major figure of the Black Arts movement. Born on October 7, 1934, to a middle-class family, he graduated from high school at fifteen and attended Rutgers University on a science scholarship. After a year, he transferred to Howard University, receiving a BA in English in 1954. After serving in the Air Force, Baraka moved to Greenwich Village and plunged into a bohemian lifestyle that was influenced by the aesthetic protests of the Beat generation. From 1960 to 1965, he was married to Hettie Cohen, a Jewish intellectual with whom he edited Yugen, an avant-garde magazine that he had founded in 1958. He gained recognition as a music critic, did graduate work in philosophy at Columbia University and the New School for Social Research, and taught courses at both schools as well as at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Although he wrote plays during this period, most have been lost—except The Eighth Ditch, which was later incorporated into his novel, The System of Dante’s Hell. The play was closed after a few days because of obscenity; its aborted production marked the first of Baraka’s many conflicts with the law.

Amiri Baraka

(Library of Congress)

The year 1964 was the beginning of a radical shift in Baraka’s political and aesthetic beliefs. He increasingly associated himself with the cultural aspirations and standards of the black community. He developed the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School in Harlem, with the goal of increasing black pride by utilizing theater as a weapon against American racism. In addition, four of his plays that year gained for him both notoriety and fame. In The Baptism, a minister and bohemian homosexual man compete for the favors of a young boy seeking baptism. The Toilet is set in a high-school latrine, where a white gay man is beaten senseless for loving a black gang leader. The racial and sexual ambivalence that runs through these plays is eliminated in The Slave, a frankly autobiographical work. In it, a returning black serviceman violently renounces his former life, shooting the husband of his white former wife and watching as their home is destroyed by his black revolutionary forces.

In 1967, LeRoi Jones officially became Imamu (prophet) Amiri (warrior) Baraka (blessed), a minister of the Kawaida faith and an adherent of black cultural nationalism. He returned to Newark, founded Spirit House Theatre, and became active in local politics. The plays from this period reflect Baraka’s antiwhite rage in the form of agitprop theater, designed to shock. For example, Madheart is a morality play in which a black Everyman removes female obstacles—a sexual white woman, an Uncle Tom mother, an assimilationist sister—on his road to black manhood. Many critics believe that Slave Ship is Baraka’s most significant play from this period. Subtitled A Historical Pageant, the play presents the exploitation and victimization of black Americans. Using music to reinforce his images of black history, Baraka assaults the moderate views of most middle-class black Americans and advocates violence as a means of solving racial conflict.

In 1974, Baraka renounced black nationalism for Marxist-Leninist-Maoist thought and dropped Imamu from his name. Dismissing most of his sociopolitical ideas of the 1960s, calling them chauvinistic, he began to analyze the problems facing black Americans in economic rather than racial terms. This shift in ideology was reflected in his plays. S-1, like the left-wing plays of the 1930s, calls for the overthrow of the capitalist regime by the call of the black Communist protagonist: “We fight opportunism, we fight chauvinism. And we fight narrow nationalism too.” Generally, these more didactic plays have not met with critical success. Baraka defended his work from this period by insisting that its political philosophy represented a growth of, and not a change in, his previous ideologies. What remained consistent was his focus on how culture shapes internal and other personal conflict as well as social and political strife.

In 1979, Baraka began teaching Africana studies at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He received tenure in 1982 and a promotion to full professor in 1984. In 1990, Rutgers University, where he had been teaching as a visiting instructor, denied him a tenured appointment, sparking allegations of racism and campus protests. Baraka remained an outspoken and controversial activist for civil rights and a critic of the establishment. In 2002, his position as New Jersey’s state poet laureate was hotly debated as a result of inflammatory passages in his poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” a reflection on the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The poem suggests that four thousand Israeli workers stayed home from the World Trade Center that day because they had advance warning of the attacks, drawing widespread criticism that Baraka was anti-Semitic. With the governor unable to remove Baraka from the position and with Baraka refusing to resign, the New Jersey state legislature voted in July 2003 to eliminate the poet laureate position.

Among his many honors, Baraka received a PEN/Faulkner Award, a Rockefeller Foundation Award, and a Langston Hughes Award from the City College of New York. Although Baraka’s critical reputation has been on the decline in the twenty-first century, his impact on theater cannot be overestimated. Although his best-known works are linked to the violence and radicalism of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Baraka’s impact extends beyond that time. He brought to the stage black cultural experiences, rituals, and language as well as anger and the burning need to find a solution to the problems of living in a racist society. Baraka’s work paved the way for a whole generation of black playwrights, challenging them with his experimental and cultural models.

Author Works Drama: The Baptism, pr. 1964 Dutchman, pr., pb. 1964 The Slave, pr., pb. 1964 The Toilet, pr., pb. 1964 Experimental Death Unit #1, pr. 1965 Jello, pr. 1965 A Black Mass, pr. 1966 Arm Yourself, or Harm Yourself, pr., pb. 1967 Great Goodness of Life (A Coon Show), pr. 1967 Madheart, pr. 1967 Slave Ship: A Historical Pageant, pr., pb. 1967 The Death of Malcolm X, pb. 1969 Bloodrites, pr. 1970 Junkies Are Full of (SHHH . . . ), pr. 1970 A Recent Killing, pr. 1973 S-1, pr. 1976 The Motion of History, pr. 1977 The Sidney Poet Heroical, pb. 1979 (originally as Sidnee Poet Heroical, pr. 1975) What Was the Relationship of the Lone Ranger to the Means of Production?, pr., pb. 1979 At the Dim’cracker Convention, pr. 1980 Weimar, pr. 1981 Money: A Jazz Opera, pr. 1982 Primitive World: An Anti-Nuclear Jazz Musical, pr. 1984 The Life and Life of Bumpy Johnson, pr. 1991 General Hag’s Skeezag, pb. 1992 Meeting Lillie, pr. 1993 The Election Machine Warehouse, pr. 1996 Long Fiction: The System of Dante’s Hell, 1965 Short Fiction: Tales, 1967 The Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, 2000 Poetry: Spring and Soforth, 1960 Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, 1961 The Dead Lecturer, 1964 Black Art, 1966 A Poem for Black Hearts, 1967 Black Magic: Sabotage, Target Study, Black Art—Collected Poetry, 1961-1967, 1969 It’s Nation Time, 1970 In Our Terribleness: Some Elements and Meaning in Black Style, 1970 (with Fundi [Billy Abernathy]) Spirit Reach, 1972 Afrikan Revolution, 1973 Hard Facts, 1975 Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, 1979 Reggae or Not!, 1981 Transbluesency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka, 1995 Wise, Why’s, Y’s, 1995 Funk Lore: New Poems, 1984–1995, 1997 Beginnings and Other Poems, 2003 Somebody Blew Up America and Other Poems, 2003 Un Poco Low Coup, 2004 The Book of Monk, 2005 Nonfiction: Blues People: Negro Music in White America, 1963 Home: Social Essays, 1966 Raise Race Rays Raze: Essays Since 1965, 1971 The New Nationalism, 1972 The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, 1984, revised 1997 Daggers and Javelins: Essays, 1984 The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues, 1987 (with Amina Baraka) Jesse Jackson and Black People, 1996 The Essence of Reparation, 2003 Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music, 2009 Razor, 2011 Edited Texts: The Moderns: New Fiction in America, 1963 Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, 1968 (with Larry Neal) African Congress: A Documentary of the First Modern Pan-African Congress, 1972 Confirmation: An Anthology of African-American Women, 1983 (with Amina Baraka) Miscellaneous: Selected Plays and Prose, 1979 The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, 1991 Tales of the Out and the Gone, 2009 Amiri Baraka and Eward Dorn: The Collected Letters, 2013 (edited by Claudia Moreno Pisano) Bibliography Baraka, Amiri. Conversations with Amiri Baraka. Edited by Charlie Reilly. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994. Offers insights into the black experience through Baraka’s experiences during the turbulent later half of the twentieth century, from his ghetto life in the 1940’s through the Black Nationalist movement of the 1970’s to his intellectual life in the 1990’s. Baraka critiques and elucidates his works and underscores his belief in the connection between art and social criticism. Benston, Kimberly W., ed. Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones): A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1978. Benston, who also wrote Baraka: The Renegade and the Mask (1976), brings together essays that shed light on various aspects of his poetry and drama. Includes a bibliography. Brown, Lloyd W. Amiri Baraka. Boston: Twayne, 1980. Chapter 4 focuses on the short stories and includes the sections “The Writer as Divided Self” and “Toward Black Nationalism.” Brown’s is clearly the best analysis of individual Baraka short stories, and, like Werner Sollors, he identifies both the formal and thematic elements that tie these different stories together. Effiong, Philip Uko. In Search of a Model for African-American Drama: A Study of Selected Plays by Lorraine Hansberry, Amiri Baraka, and Ntozake Shange. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2000. A comparative study of how these three dramatists seek and devise new models to address the specific conditions of blacks in America. Fox, Margalit. "Amiri Baraka, Polarizing Poet and Playwright, Dies at 79." The New York Times, 9 Jan. 2014, Accessed 22 Aug. 2017. Fox, Robert Eliot. Conscientious Sorcerers: The Black Post-modernist Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Baraka, Ishmael Reed, and Samuel R. Delaney. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987. Chapter 2 is a discussion of Baraka’s novel and the stories collected in Tales, in a comparative study of “three of the most important and gifted American authors to have emerged in the tumultuous period of the 1960’s.” Gwynne, James B., ed. Amiri Baraka: The Kaleidoscopic Torch. Harlem, N.Y.: Steppingstones Press, 1985. This collection of poems and essays for and about Amiri Baraka includes Richard Oyama’s analysis of “The Screamers,” titled “A Secret Communal Expression,” as well as essays by Clyde Taylor and E. San Juan, Jr. Lacey, Henry C. To Raise, Destroy, and Create: The Poetry, Drama, and Fiction of Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones). Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1981. In the last chapter, “Recapitulation,” Lacey traces the autobiographical origins of many of Baraka’s short stories. While he recognizes Baraka’s faults—“extreme privacy of reference, frequent experimental failure, and racist dogma, to name only a few”—he also identifies Baraka’s main merits: “daring and frequently successful verbal approximations of jazz music, vibrant recreation of black speech, and a consummate portrayal of the black middle-class psyche.” Reilly, Charlie, ed. Conversations with Amiri Baraka. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994. In the text’s introduction, the editor prepares the reader for the telling of the story—“much of it told for the first time”—of “the acclaimed author who walked back into the ghetto to support his people and who never looked back.” Includes chronology and index. Sollors, Werner. Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a “Populist Modernism.” New York: Columbia University Press, 1978. In Chapter 7 of this early study, Sollors examines the themes and forms of Baraka’s lone novel and his short stories. The stories in Tales “may be considered the logbook of a fiction writer who under the social pressures of the 1960’s, catapulted himself out of writing fictions while writing a swan-song to telling tales.” Watts, Jerry Gafio. Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual. New York: New York University Press, 2001. A critical appraisal. Watts argues that Baraka’s artistry declined as he became more politically activist, though he considers Baraka an important poet and lens through which African American political history can be viewed. Woodard, K. Komozi. A Nation Within a Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black Power Politics. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. Revises the common view of Baraka as an extremist, arguing that he became a seasoned political veteran who brought together divergent black factions.

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