Amiri Baraka, Controversial Poet and Playwright, Dead at 79

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.

Amiri Baraka
Amiri Baraka

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.

After moving to Greenwich Village, he founded Totem Press, which published works by the Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, as well as a literary magazine called Yugen. He also served as editor and critic of the arts journal Kulcher from 1960-65.

As the 1960s wore on, Mr. Baraka became increasingly political, identifying himself as a black nationalist and voicing criticism of the pacifist Civil Rights Movement, advocating instead, through his poetry, a more violent approach to black liberation. He became a leader in the short-lived Black Arts Movement, a cultural extension of the black rights movement. Later, he renounced black nationalism and declared himself a Marxist.

Beginning in the 1980s, he moved into academia, teaching at Stony Brook University, Columbia University and Rutgers University.

In his last years, Baraka's occasional forays into the public spotlight were sparked more by controversy than any of his literary output. His works were variously applauded as vital and searing, and denounced as anti-Semitic, homophobic and misogynist. One of the biggest scandals of his career surrounded his 2002 publication of the poem "Somebody Blew Up America," a response to the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks. The poem contained lines that seemed to indicate Israel was secretly involved in the World Trade Center attacks. The work was attacked as anti-Semitic and, soon after, New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey moved to remove Baraka from his post as Poet Laureate of New Jersey. Not being able to find a legal way to do so, McGreevey instead introduced legislation to abolish the post.

Baraka was married twice and is survived by several children, including Kellie Jones and Lisa Jones (with first wife Hettie Cohen), Newark politician Ras Baraka, Obalaji Baraka, Amiri Baraka Jr. and Ahi Baraka (with Amini Baraka, nee Sylvia Robinson, who also survives him), and Dominique di Prima (with poet Diane di Prima, with whom Baraka has an extended affair in the '60s). He was predeceased by his daughter Shani Baraka.