Amiri Baraka (AP Photo/Mike Derer, File)
NEW YORK (AP) — 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, told The Associated Press 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 political 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, Barak 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 and Mao Zedong to Ginsberg and John Coltrane. Baraka wrote poems, short stories, novels, essays, plays, musical and cultural criticism and jazz operas. His 1963 book "Blues People" has been called the first major history of black music to be written by an African-American. A line from his poem "Black People!" — "Up against the wall mother f-----" — became a counterculture slogan for everyone from student protesters to the rock band Jefferson Airplane. A 2002 poem he wrote alleging that some Israelis had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks led to widespread outrage.
Decades earlier, Baraka 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."
"All of the oaths I swore were sincere reflections of what I felt — what I thought I knew and understood," he wrote in a 1990 essay. "But those beliefs change, and the work shows this, too."
He was denounced by critics as buffoonish, homophobic, anti-Semitic, a demagogue. He was called by others a genius, a prophet, the Malcolm X of literature. Eldridge Cleaver hailed him as the bard of the "funky facts." Ishmael Reed credited the Black Arts Movement for encouraging artists of all backgrounds and enabling the rise of multiculturalism. The scholar Arnold Rampersad placed him alongside Frederick Douglass and Richard Wright in the pantheon of black cultural influences.
First published in the 1950s, Baraka crashed the literary party in 1964, at the Cherry Lane Theater in Greenwich Village, when "Dutchman" opened and made instant history at the height of the civil rights movement. Baraka's play was a one-act showdown between a middle class black man, Clay, and a sexually daring white woman, Lula, ending in a brawl of murderous taunts and confessions.
Baraka was born Everett LeRoy Jones, in 1934, a postal worker's son who grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood in Newark and remembered his family's passion for songs and storytelling. He showed early talents for sports and music and did well enough in high school to graduate with honors and receive a scholarship from Rutgers University.
Feeling out of place at Rutgers, he transferred to a leading black college, Howard University. He hated it there ("Howard University shocked me into realizing how desperately sick the Negro could be," he later wrote) and joined the Air Force, from which he was discharged for having too many books, among other transgressions. By 1958, he had settled in Greenwich Village, met Ginsberg and other Beats, married fellow writer Cohen and was editing an avant-garde journal, Yugen. He called himself LeRoi Jones.
He was never meant to write like other writers. In his "Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka," published in 1984, he remembered himself as a young man, sitting on a bench, reading "one of the carefully put together exercises The New Yorker publishes constantly as high poetic art."
And he was in tears.
"I realized that there was something in me so out, so unconnected with what this writer was and what this magazine was that what was in me that wanted to come out as poetry would never come out like that and be my poetry," he wrote.
Baraka divorced Cohen in 1965 and a year later married Sylvia Robinson, whose name became Bibi Amina Baraka. He had seven children, two with his first wife and five with his second. A son, Ras Baraka, became a councilman in Newark. A daughter, Shani Baraka, was murdered in 2003 by the estranged husband of her sister, Wanda Pasha.
Amiri Baraka taught at Yale University and George Washington University and spent 20 years on the faculty of the State University of New York in Stonybrook. He received numerous grants and prizes, including a Guggenheim fellowship and a poetry award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Baraka was the subject of a 1983 documentary, "In Motion," and holds a minor place in Hollywood history. In "Bulworth," Warren Beatty's 1998 satire about a senator's break from the political establishment, Baraka plays a homeless poet who cheers on the title character.
"You got to be a spirit," the poet tells him. "You got to sing — don't be no ghost."
HILLEL ITALIE, AP National Writer
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