Amiri Baraka, Controversial Poet and Playwright, Dead at 79

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13 Jan 2014

Amiri Baraka
Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka, who both depicted and embodied the African-American experience, and frequently courted controversy through his poetry, fiction, essays and plays, died Jan. 9 at Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, NJ. He had been checked into the hospital's intensive care unit one month ago. He was 79.

Though he carved out his most considerable literary career in the world of poetry, publishing a dozen books of verse over four decades, Mr. Baraka arguably made his biggest splash as a writer in the theatre when his incendiary 1964 one-act Dutchman — which he wrote under his given name Leroi Jones — became a nationwide sensation. (Norman Mailer called it "The best play in America.")

The allegorical play, set on a subway, depicted an increasingly volatile and ultimately deadly encounter between a bookish black man, Clay, and a flirtatious, taunting white woman, Lula. Approving critics considered the play a potent evocation of the turbulent and tragic history of white-black relations in the United States, and even those who didn't like the drama admitted that it provoked conversation unlike few other stage works of the time.

Dutchman, which was staged at the Cherry Lane Theatre with Robert Hooks and Jennifer West in the lead roles, was awarded an Obie Award for Best American play and ran for nearly a year. It was made into a 1967 film starring Shirley Knight and Al Freeman, Jr.

Baraka — he adopted the Muslim name Imamu Amear Baraka in 1967, which he later simplified to Amiri Baraka — went on to write several other stage works, including The Baptism, Slave Ship, The Slave and The Toilet, though none achieved the success and notoriety of Dutchman. In Harlem, he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater.

In 1963, he published one of his most significant cultural studies, "Blues People: Negro Music in White America," a volume of jazz and blues criticism which traces the history of African-Americans in America through their music.

Everett LeRoi Jones was born on Oct. 7, 1934, in Newark to Coyt Leverette Jones, a postal supervisor, and Anna Lois Russ, a social worker. In 1951, he won a scholarship to Rutgers University, but a year later he transferred to Howard University. He left Howard without graduating and later studied at Columbia University and The New School for Social Research. In 1954, he joined the Air Force, but he was dishonorably discharged when his commanding officer discovered some of his communist-leaning writings.


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