- Anti-white, anti-Semitic writer. Formerly LeRoi Jones
- Self-avowed “Third World Marxist-Leninist”
- Former Poet Laureate of New Jersey
Amiri Baraka was born Everett Leroy Jones in 1934 to a middle-class family in Newark, New Jersey. He later changed his name to LeRoi Jones while attending Howard University in the early 1950s, then adopted the name Amiri Baraka after his conversion to Islam in 1968. Jones launched his literary career with the 1961 publication of his Beat-influenced poetry collection, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note. He gained national prominence from the 1964 New York production of Dutchman, a play focusing on the flirtatious interactions between a black man and a white woman on a subway train at whose climax the woman stabs the man to death.
The following year Jones wrote "American Sexual Reference: Black Male," an essay that states: "Most American white men are trained to be fags. For this reason it is no wonder their faces are weak and blank. … The average ofay [white person] thinks of the black man as potentially raping every white lady in sight. Which is true, in the sense that the black man should want to rob the white man of everything he has. But for most whites the guilt of the robbery is the guilt of rape. That is, they know in their deepest hearts that they should be robbed, and the white woman understands that only in the rape sequence is she likely to get cleanly, viciously popped."
The 1965 death of Malcolm X played a pivotal role in shaping Jones's worldview, leading him to become a hard-core black nationalist. "When Malcolm was murdered," Jones wrote, "I began to hold all white people responsible, even though in some part of my mind I knew better. But it was this heinous act … that made me pack up and move to Harlem and sever all ties with most of the white people I knew, many of whom were my close friends." Jones also left behind his Jewish wife and two young daughters, eschewing family life in favor of a quest to fill Malcolm's vacated leadership role in the race-conscious wing of the civil rights movement. Describing his abandonment of his family, Jones explained, "I was caught downtown with white people, and left. As simple as that. Like one day you got pubic hairs."
Following this episode, Jones's writings took on an increasingly anti-Semitic tone. In his poem "For Tom Postell, Dead Black Poet," Jones referred to his ex-wife as a "fat jew girl." The poem also contained these sentiments: "Smile, jew. Dance, jew. Tell me you love me, jew. I got something for you now though. … I got the extermination blues, jewboys. I got the hitler syndrome figured." In another poem, he wrote, "Atheist Jews double crossers stole our [black people's] secrets. … They give us to worship a dead Jew and not ourselves. … Selling fried potatoes and people, the little arty bastards talking arithmetic they sucked from the arab's head."
In Harlem, Jones helped found the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School, which produced plays emphasizing blackness as the central identifying characteristic of African-Americans. Outdoor performances of his plays -- including one that featured a black man murdering his white employers -- drew considerable public attention during the summer of 1965. Toward the end of that year, however, Jones moved back to Newark.
In 1967, Jones published Black Magic, a collection of poems describing his recent exit from white society. That same year, he denounced blacks who enjoyed European classical music as traitors to their race. Such people, he said, were too "connected up with white culture. They will be digging Mozart more than James Brown. If all of that shi* — Mozart, Beethoven, all of it — if it has to be burned now for the liberation of our people, it should be burned up the next minute."
One year later, Jones became a Muslim and changed his name to Amiri Baraka, meaning "Blessed Prince." His 1969 poem "Black Art" reads, in part: "Poems are bullsh -- unless they are teeth or trees or lemons piled on a step. … We want poems like fists beating ni--ers out of Jocks, or dagger poems in the slimy bellies of the owner-jews. Black poems to smear on girdlemamma mulatto bitches whose brains are red jelly stuck between 'lizabeth taylor's toes. Stinking Whores! We want poems that kill. 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." This same poem later celebrates the image of "cracking steel knuckles in a jewlady's mouth."
Baraka's poem "Black People" asserts that blacks are justified in robbing or even killing whites, because the latter "already stole" everything from the former. "[The white man] owes you anything you want," wrote Baraka, "even his life. All the stores will open if you say the magic words. The magic words are: Up against the wall mother f---er this is a stick up! … Let's get together and kill him my man." In another poem, Baraka writes, "Rape the white girls. Rape their fathers. Cut the mothers' throats."
Asserting that blacks and whites cannot possibly coexist in peace, Baraka once said, "We [blacks] must eliminate the white man before we can draw a free breath on this planet" When two white civil rights workers were killed by the Ku Klux Klan in June 1964 in Mississippi, Jones remarked that "those white boys were only seeking to assuage their own leaking consciences." When a white woman asked Baraka what whites could do to help the black cause, he replied, "You can help by dying. You are a cancer. You can help the world's people with your death."
In the mid-1970s Baraka became what he called a “Third World Marxist-Leninist.” After that, he taught poetry at the New School for Social Research in New York, literature at the University of Buffalo, and drama at Columbia University. He also taught at San Francisco State University, Yale University, George Washington University, and the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
In 1982 Baraka was a member of the League of Revolutionary Struggle, a Marxist-Leninist organization whose membership also included Carl Davidson.
Baraka received a host of literary prizes and honors, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, the Langston Hughes Award from the City College of New York, the Rockefeller Foundation Award for Drama, the PEN/Faulkner Award, a lifetime achievement award from the Before Columbus Foundation, and induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
In 1990 Baraka’s outspoken racism caused him to be denied a tenured position by the Rutgers University English department, which had previously hired him. He blamed "Europhilic elitists and white supremacists" for blocking his appointment. "The power of these Ivy League Goebbels [on the tenure committee] can flaunt, dismiss, intimidate and defraud the popular will," said Baraka. "We must unmask these powerful Klansmen. These enemies of academic freedom, people's democracy, and Pan American culture must not be allowed to prevail. Their intellectual presence makes a stink across the campus like the corpses of rotting Nazis."
In October 2001, Baraka published a poem titled "Somebody Blew Up America," in which he accused the Israeli government of having had prior knowledge that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were being planned. "Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed?" reads the poem. "Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers to stay home that day? Why did Sharon stay away?" In the same poem, Baraka also criticized the U.S. government for reflexively blaming "some barbaric A Rab" for 9/11, rather than "our American terrorists" like "the Klan or the Skin heads or the them that blows up ni--er churches, or reincarnates us [blacks] on Death Row." He referred to whites and Jews as "the gonorrhea in costume, the white sheet diseases that have murdered black people, terrorized reason and sanity, most of humanity, as they pleases." He further characterized whites and Jews as those "who cut your nuts off, who rape your ma, who lynched your pa … who own the oil, who do no toil, who own the soil … who killed the most ni--ers … who believe the confederate flag need to be flying … who [are] the biggest terrorist[s] … [who] only do evil … [and who] invented AIDS." Moreover, he makes disparaging references to "Tom Ass Clarence" (Clarence Thomas), "Skeeza" (Condoleezza Rice), the "wooden Negro" Ward Connerly, and the "doo doo [that] come out the Colon's mouth" [a reference to Colin Powell].
Anti-gay rhetoric was also part of Baraka's repertoire. In his "Civil Rights Poem," he declared: "Roywilkins is an eternal faggot. His spirit is a faggot … if i ever see roywilkins on the sidewalks imonna stick half my sandal up his ass."
In July 2002 Baraka was named Poet Laureate of New Jersey, thereby becoming only the second person to hold that position, which paid a $10,000 stipend funded by taxpayer dollars. When the appointment produced a national scandal, New Jersey officials avoided firing Baraka by eliminating the position entirely. Baraka responded by vowing to sue the state for slander and the violation of his First Amendment rights.
In April 2005, the Middle East Studies Program at Columbia University advertised a gala celebration for Professor Baraka’s 70th birthday.
Baraka died on January 9, 2014, after a short illness.