Amiri Baraka, poet, author, social activist, and emeritus professor of Africana studies at Stony Brook University, died on January 9 at Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey. He was 79 years old.
Born Everett Leroy Jones, he attended Rutgers University and Howard University, but dropped out to join the Air Force. After three years he was dishonorably discharged.
Baraka settled in New York and published poetry and edited literary magazines. In 1963, he published the highly acclaimed Blues People: Negro Music in White America, considered the first comprehensive historical study of Black music in the United States. A year later, his play Dutchman opened Off-Broadway and won the Obie Award as the best play of 1964.
Baraka was viewed by many as a radical, referring to Martin Luther King, Jr. at one point as a “brainwashed Negro” and to film director Spike Lee as a “petit bourgeois Negro.” A 2002 poem entitled “Somebody Blew Up America” included the line “Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers to stay home that day?” At the time Baraka was the poet laureate of the state of New Jersey and the controversy produced calls for his resignation.
But despite his controversial nature, many scholars praised Baraka for his literary skills and political activism on behalf of Black Americans. Pultizer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson once admitted, “From Amiri Bakara, I learned that all art is political.”