A magazine for Africans and friends of Africa...Our Voices, Our Vision, Our Culture

  << BACK TO ISSUE   
Black History Month Profile: Poet Amiri Baraka
By Keisha Saul

As African-Americans rediscover their history and develop a faith in themselves, credit should go to those who fought in the struggle. Credit should go to those who are still fighting-and writing for themselves and their people. Among those, Amiri Baraka.

One of the best African-American writers, LeRoi Jones, was born on October 7th, 1934 in Newark, New Jersey. He was born to African American parents in the lower middle-class neighborhood but admits that his childhood was better ecomonically than many at the time. Issues of race and class affected Jones throughout his life because of many hardships. He is an African American writer of poetry, drama, music criticism, and essays.Ã'Ã'Ã'Ã' 

Later changing his name to Amiri Baraka, he is today most widely known for being Poet Laureate of the State of New Jersey. However, the State of NJ later forced him out of that position after just a year because of a highly controversial poem he wrote entitled "Somebody Blew up America." This piece of literature was widely interpreted to mean that Jones actually believed that Israelis were behind the terrorist attacks in New York at the World Trade Center on September 11th of 2001. This theory they claim Jones had about the attacks led them to characterize him as an anti-Semite. Jones has been stereotyped for much of his life; being raised in a country that has for many years been terrified and ashamed of a possible anti-Semite, he quickly realized that people quickly gave the label when many racists and promoters of violence are in office without any concern of the general public.

Jones's family was not immune to racial violence and discrimination. His grandfather knows this all too well; he played a strong influence in Jones' life. He had been burned out of business twice in Alabama by racist arsonists before finally deciding to move to Newark, New Jersey, where he thought he would have a better chance for survival. Once he moved to Newark, his grandfather was very active in Black Republican politics until he was later injured in a mysterious accident. He never healed physically or emotionally from that accident. Jones, in his autobiography, links his grandfather's experiences to the injustices that he himself endured and witnessed during his arrest later in life. This arrest took place in the summer of 1967 during the Newark Rebellion.

In 1952, Jones changed his name from LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka. Then in 1967, he adopted the Arabic name Imamu Amiri Baraka. Baraka attended Barringer High School, a predominantly White (mostly Italian-American) college prep school, where he graduated with honors in 1951. After a brief period of alienation at Rutgers University, he transferred to Howard University, the preeminent university for African-Americans, where he attended from 1952 to 1954. Ã'Ã'Ã'Ã' He later dropped out of Howard. At Howard University, Baraka attended unofficial classes along with classmate A. B. Spellman (who would later become, like Baraka, a well-known jazz critic) in African-American music, specifically jazz, taught by Sterling Brown.Ã'Ã'Ã'Ã'  He was alleged to have declared the major of Philosophy and Religious studies. Baraka speaks of his reasons for leaving Howard:

"At that time, Howard still did not admit 'nigger' music to its campus. I think the first jazz musician to get in on an official concert was Stan Kenton." said Baraka. Baraka went on to speak of Sterling Brown's influence on music. "He was opening us up to the fact that music could be studied and, by implication, that Black people had a history....Brown's music classes were the high point of my formal Howard education."

It was the university's bias to African-American history and its preoccupation with pleasing mainstream (White) society that Baraka described as being part of the "Negro sickness." "It shocked me into realizing how desperately sick the Negro could be, how he could be led into self-destruction [by White society]....So that I find myself, now, reacting very quickly to Negroes who talk about "good hair." There are some who think light-skinned is somehow preferable to being dark."

Following his departure from Howard University, Baraka joined the Air Force, where he discovered the created oppression and "sickness" that made up the political world of his version of White America. As a sergeant stationed in Puerto Rico, Baraka began extensive reading and writing in what he would later consider more an obsession than an obligation. Though many critics report that he traveled to Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, the true extent of Baraka's overseas travel was "almost entirely to Germany." Following his dismissal from the Air Force, for reasons again clouded by various and often conflicting accounts, Baraka moved to New York's Greenwich Village where he lived from 1957 to 1965, creating a name for himself as an editor, jazz critic, avant-garde poet and dramatist. After having lived in Greenwich Village for only a few months, he married a white Jewish woman by the name of Hettie Cohen, the woman with whom he would have two daughters and would later leave behind as he reunited himself with the Black community through the political movement Black Nationalism.

In 1960, Baraka went to Cuba, a visit that initiated his transformation into a politically active artist. In 1961, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note was published, followed in 1963 by Blues People: Negro Music in White America-to this day one of the most influential volumes of jazz criticism, especially in regard to the then beginning Free Jazz movement. His play The Dutchman premiered in 1964 and the same year he won an Obie Award for it. After the killing of Malcolm X, Baraka broke his relationship with the Beat Poets, left his wife and their two children, and moved to Harlem because, at the time, he thought of himself as a Black cultural nationalist. Hettie Cohen, later, in her autobiography How I Became Hettie Jones (1990), claimed that Baraka had mistreated her during the time of their marriage.

In 1966, Baraka married his second wife, who later adopted the name Amina Baraka. In 1967, Baraka became a lecturer at San Francisco State University. In 1968, he was arrested in Newark, for illegally carrying a weapon and resisting arrest during riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and was subsequently sentenced to three years in prison; shortly afterwards an appeal court threw out the sentence. The same year his second book of jazz criticism, Black Music, was published, a collection of previously published music journalism, including the seminal Apple Cores columns from Down Beat Magazine. In 1970, he strongly supported Kenneth Gibson's candidacy for mayor of Newark; Gibson was elected the city's first African American Mayor.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Baraka courted controversy by penning some strongly anti-Jewish poems and articles, similar to the then stance of the Nation of Islam. In one poem, he writes, "Atheist Jews double crossers stole our [Black people's] secrets.... They give us to worship a dead Jew and not ourselves.... Selling fried potatoes to people, the little arty bastards talking arithmetic they sucked from the Arab's head." This was obviously, very controversial and not nicely welcomed. Baraka went on to achieve great things. 'As African-Americans rediscover their history and develop a faith in themselves, credit should go to those who fought in the struggle. Credit should go to those who are still fighting-and writing for themselves and their people. Among those, Amiri Baraka."

<< BACK TO ISSUE