The African American author Imamu Amiri Baraka (born 1934 as Everett LeRoi Jones) became influential during the 1960s as a spokesperson for radical black literature and theater.
Born as Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, on October 30, 1934, Baraka studied at Rutgers, Columbia, and Howard universities and at the New School for Social Research. After taking a bachelor of arts degree at Howard in 1953, he spent two years in the U.S. Air Force in Puerto Rico.
Baraka's life may be divided into two major periods. As a resident of New York City's Greenwich Village, LeRoi Jones led the life of a typical white American. He married a caucasian woman, Hettie Cohen, and they had two children. He and his wife published Yugen, a poetry magazine, and he coedited a literary newsletter, Floating Bear. Jones's political commitment began when he visited Cuba in 1960.
In 1965 Jones moved to Harlem and began the second period of his life. Here he lived a totally African American and separatist life. As founder and director of the Black Arts Repertory Theatre School, he made every aspect of his life "black" and opposite to the "white" life he had previously known.
Religious Conversion and Political Activism
Converted to the Kewaida sect of the Muslim faith, he took the name Imamu Amiri Baraka and moved to Newark, New Jersey. "Imamu" is the Swahili word for spiritual leader; "Amiri Baraka" is the Arabic name Jones adopted. In Newark he directed Spirit House, a religious, cultural, and educational black community. He lived with his second wife, their son, and his wife's three daughters by a previous marriage.
During the 1967 racial rebellions in Newark, Baraka was severely beaten and then arrested and charged with carrying a concealed weapon. The judge fined him $25,000 and read one of Baraka's poems, which he regarded as obscene, as justification for the exorbitant fine. National indignation was aroused by this injustice, and the fine was paid by the contributions of Baraka's supporters. He later appealed the case and won. The 1970 election of the African American Kenneth Gibson as mayor of Newark was due partly to Baraka's leadership of a fervent voter registration campaign among African Americans of the city.
As a black nationalist political leader, Baraka was a key figure in the organization of the Congress of African Peoples in 1970 and the National Black Political Assembly in 1972. Political writings during this period cover such topics as the development of a black value system and black political institutions and include the essay collection Raise, Race, Rays, Raze: Essays since 1965 (1971). However, by 1974 Baraka had undergone yet another reassessment of his cultural and political orientation. In a dramatic turnabout he rejected black nationalism and proclaimed himself a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist. After 1974 Baraka produced a great deal of socialist poetry and essays espousing revolutionary politics.
The most startling feature of Baraka's literary work is his arresting vocabulary, which communicates shocking states of emotion as well as ideas that indicate new intellectual dimensions and frontiers of the mind. He was a brilliant myth-maker, breaking icons and clichés and destroying the stereotypes and shibboleths of the old racist myth—the myth of race and sex in America. As poet, essayist, and playwright, he pressed for new cultural understanding in the turbulent society of modern America.
Baraka's writing reveals the influence of black music on his sensibilities. Jazz especially influenced the rhythms of his poetry, although the imagery and style of his early poetry reflect wide reading in classical poetry of all countries and especially the influence of contemporary "beat" poetry. However, his subject matter was from the start almost entirely the plight of African Americans.
During the 1960s Baraka wrote three volumes of poetry: Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961), The Dead Lecturer (1964), and Black Magic Poetry (1969). His many plays of the period include Dutchman (1964), which won the Obie Award and marked the beginning of black revolutionary theater, The Slave, Slave Ship, Arm Yrself or Harm Yrself or Harm Yrself, Jello, and The Toilet. Experimental Death Unit #1, A Black Mass, Great Goodness of Life, and Madheart were published as Four Black Revolutionary Plays (1969). He authored three collections of non-fiction, Blues People (1963), Home, a group of social essays (1966), and Black Music (1967); a novel, The System of Dante's Hell (1965); and a group of short stories entitled Tales (1967). During this period he also edited The Moderns: An Anthology of New Writing in America (1963) and coedited an anthology of new African American writing, Black Fire (1968).
While Baraka produced numerous political writings during the 1970s—some of which were later collected in 1984's Daggers and Javelins: Essays, 1974-1979—his literary efforts of the decade include the drama collection The Motion of History, and Other Plays (1978), as well as The Sidnee Poet Heroical, in Twenty-Nine Scenes (1979). A first Selected Poetry was issued in 1979 in addition to such later verse collections as Reggae or Not! Poems (1981) and Transbluesency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1961-1995) (1995). Funk Lore (1996) features poems written from 1984 to 1995. Both 1995's Wise, Why's, Y's and 1996's Eulogies offer his insight into notable African American figures of the 20th century. Baraka's autobiography was published in 1984.
Further Reading on Imamu Amiri Baraka
Examinations of Baraka's literary achievement may be found in William J. Harris The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic (1985), Henry C. Lacey, To Raise, Destroy, and Create: The Poetry, Drama, and Fiction of Imamu Amiri Baraka (1981), Lloyd Wellesley Brown, Amiri Baraka (1980), Werner Sollors, Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a "Populist Modernism" (1978), Kimberly W. Bentson, Baraka: The Renegade and the Mask (1978), Theodore R. Hudson, From LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka: The Literary Works (1973), and Robert Elliot Fox, Conscientious Sorcerers: The Black Postmodernist Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, and Samuel R. Delany (1987).