Amiri Baraka was born Everett LeRoi Jones on October 7, 1934, in Newark, New Jersey. While attending high school, Jones developed a love for poetry and jazz. After graduating from high school, he attended Howard University. There, he changed his name, dropping his first name, Everett, and going by LeRoi Jones.
Jones earned his degree in English in 1954. Upon graduating, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, serving three years. He was given a dishonorable discharge for owning inappropriate texts. After receiving his discharge, Jones moved to Manhattan.
Jones attended Columbia University. He also became a prominent poet, building a following in Greenwich Village. He befriended fellow poets, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. He also began publishing his work and his friends’ work in the Totem Press and the Yugen magazine, both of which he founded in the late 1950s.
Jones’ first major publication came in 1961. He published his first collection of poetry titled, ‘Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note. His first play, ‘The Dutchman,’ was published three years later in 1964. His play addressed the repressed hostility that Black people in America had toward White people. His play brought him immense notoriety.
Upon his return from a trip to Cuba, Jones changed his political views. He disassociated himself with the apolitical beatnik movement and focused more on the racial divide in the U.S. Further change came with the assassination of Malcolm X. It was a turning point for Jones. He ended his marriage and changed his name to Amiri Baraka.
Under his new name, Baraka became a Black nationalist. He moved to Harlem where he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School. His school did not last longer than a few months, prompting him to move back to Newark. There, he founded the Spirit House Players and dedicated himself to the Black community in Newark.
By 1968, Baraka decided to convert to the Muslim faith. He also added the prefix Imamu, or ‘spiritual leader,’ to his name. He later dropped the prefix Imamu and began to identify as a Marxist.
‘Somebody Blew Up America’
Following the events of 9/11 (the destruction of the World Trade Center), Baraka wrote a poem titled, ‘Somebody Blew Up America.’ Baraka’s poem was criticised because he suggested that Israeli and American leaders knew of the attack on the World Trade Center prior to it taking place. His poem was also accused of being anti-Semitic. After the public attacked his poem, Baraka was fired from his job as New Jersey’s poet laureate.
Over the course of his career, Baraka wrote upwards of 50 books, including ‘The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka’ (1984). He taught at several universities with his latest teaching position being at the State University of New York at Stony Brook which he held for 20 years. Amiri Baraka died on January 9, 2014, in Newark, New Jersey, at the age of 79.
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