Amiri Baraka was born Everett Leroy Jones on October 7, 1934 in Newark, New Jersey and was raised in a middle-class family. He received a two-year scholarship from Rutgers University in 1951, but after his freshman year he transferred to Howard University. During his time at Howard, he changed his name to LeRoi Jones. Before long, Jones began to feel that Howard University merely “trained blacks for token positions in a white-dominated society, creating only the illusion of significant progress,” and he eventually flunked out.
After leaving Howard, Jones joined the U.S. Air Force as a way of fulfilling his military obligations. He was prematurely discharged in 1957 because of his suspected “communist sympathies,” and then promptly settled in Greenwich Village, New York, where he befriended the Beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, and Gilbert Sorrentino. Taking a job as a stock employee in a local record shop, Jones also began to review jazz albums for Downbeat magazine. In 1958 he married a white Jewish co-worker, Hettie Cohen, with whom he co-founded the magazine Yungen. Jones also worked closely with the poet Diane DiPrima and the novelist Jack Kerouac.
In 1961 Jones visited Cuba, where he was profoundly influenced by the Cuban Revolution of Fidel Castro. In Cuba, Jones met a number of writers and artists from Third World nations, writers whose political concerns included poverty, hunger, and oppressive governments. He also met NAACP official Robert Williams, who in the 1950s had formed a gun club for blacks who wished to oppose Ku Klux Klan terror. According to Leaders from the 1960s: A Biographical Sourcebook of American Activism: “The militance of Williams, the spirit of the Cuban Revolution, and the examples of African revolutions against European colonization all stimulated Jones to question the nonviolent integrationist struggles in the United States. When he returned [home], he criticized the pretentiousness of Greenwich Village intellectuals who imagined that they were superior to ‘in the streets’ politics.”
In 1961 Jones formed the Organization of Young Men, a group of local blacks who had grown impatient with the slow progress engendered by nonviolent protest tactics, and sought to take a more aggressive, militant approach.
Also in 1961, Jones launched his literary career with the publication of his Beat-influenced poetry collection, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note. During the years that followed, he wrote many plays, poems, and short stories, as well as commentaries on literature, music, and society. White racism and black liberation were the predominant themes of his work.
After working as an instructor at the New School for Social Research (in New York City) from 1962-64, Jones was a visiting professor at the University of Buffalo (Summer 1964), Columbia University (Fall 1964 and 1966-67), San Francisco State College (1967), Yale University (1977-78), George Washington University (1978-79), and Rutgers University (1988). His longest tenure was at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he taught from 1979-1999 in the Department of Africana Studies.
As evidence of his ever-growing militancy, Jones concurred with Malcolm X‘s derisive reference to the 1963 March on Washington, which featured Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech and a call for racial unity, as the “Farce of Washington.”
Jones first gained a degree of national prominence from the 1964 off-Broadway production of his play Dutchman, which centered around flirtatious interactions between a black man and a white woman aboard a subway train, where the woman ultimately stabbed the man to death.
The February 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 later recalled, “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.”
From that point onward, Jones’s writings took on an increasingly anti-Semitic tone. For example, in his poem “For Tom Postell, Dead Black Poet,” Jones referred to his ex-wife as a “fat jew girl.” The poem also said: “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, titled “The Black Man Is Making New Gods,” Jones wrote:
Atheist Jews double crossers stole our [black people’s] secrets crossed
the white desert white to spill them and
turn into wops and bulgarians
The Fag’s Death
They give us on a cross. To worship. Our dead selves
in disguise. They give us
a dead Jew
and not ourselves
chained to the bounties
mad chains of
and their wishes
and their escape
with our power
with our secrets and knowledge
they turn into loud signs
advertising empty factories
the empty jew
betrays us, as he does
from a cross, in an oven, the pantomime
of our torture …
the little arty bastards
talking arithmetic they sucked from the arab’s
In 1965 Jones founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BARTS), a Harlem-based entity that produced plays emphasizing blackness as the central identifying characteristic of African-Americans. One play that featured a black man murdering his white employers, drew considerable public attention during the summer of ’65.
During this period, Jones effectively established himself as the primary theorist of the Black Arts Movement, which held that African-American artists should follow “black,” rather than “white,” values and standards of beauty, and should stop seeking the approval of white culture.
The mid-Sixties were a time when the federal government was trying to quell civil unrest and prevent further race riots by pouring money into black urban areas. Thus BARTS received a large amount of federal funding. But when rumors began to spread that Jones’s school was using taxpayer dollars to promote anti-white extremism, President Lyndon Johnson assigned his Special Assistant, Sargent Shriver, to conduct an unannounced investigation of BARTS. Jones refused to allow Shriver to enter the premises, however, and soon thereafter all government assistance to the school was cut off, plunging it swiftly into bankruptcy. A subsequent police raid on the building that housed BARTS uncovered a significant cache of weapons and ammunition.
Jones, meanwhile, relocated back to Newark, where he continued to organize black nationalist groups. In 1965 he wrote “American Sexual Reference: Black Male,” an essay that stated: “Most American white men are trained to be fags. For this reason it is no wonder their faces are weak and blank…. That red flush, those silk blue faggot eyes…. 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.”
That same essay also said the following about white men: “They are the ‘masters’ of the world, and their children are taught this as God’s fingerprint … but even so the paradox, which is the recurrence of the homosexual-motif underpinning to the society that the bomb, [a representation of white power] which is their constant threat and claim to manhood, is not even real … the goal of white society is luxury … Do you understand the softness of the white man, the weakness?… Manhood is deemed the ability to oppress by the white man … And over the years even the hero image of the white American has changed to where most of the heroes … at least look like out-and-out fairies.”
In Home: Social Essays (1966), Jones wrote that the black artist’s principal task was to “aid in the destruction of America as he knows it”—by graphically depicting society’s extreme ugliness and thereby moving audiences to transform it.
In early 1967 in New Jersey, Jones founded Spirit House, an institution whose agendas resembled those of BARTS. (He continued to head Spirit House until 1975.)
Also 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,” added Jones. “If all of that shit—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.”
In 1967 as well, Jones married his second wife, Communist Party USA member Amina Baraka. He then took a teaching post at San Francisco State College, where the Black Student Union was agitating for the creation of minority cultural and academic programs. There, Jones encouraged black students to be as confrontational as possible, even urging them to threaten violence against white members of the student council if necessary.
During the protests of 1967, Jones met the black nationalist Maulana Karenga, who founded the Islamic-inspired Kawaida faith and, later, the holiday Kwanzaa. When Jones became a Kawaida member late in ’67, he discarded his “slave name” for a traditional African name, Amiri Baraka, meaning “Blessed Prince.” The following year, Baraka formally converted to Islam, adding the prefix “Imamu” (meaning “spiritual leader” in the Swahili language) to his name. He subsequently returned to Newark and sought to advance the principles of Kawaida. Most notably, he sought to help blacks gain control of as many elected seats as possible in the city government.
Baraka’s 1969 poem “Black Art” contains the following passages of hate directed against whites, Jews, and police officers: “Poems are bullshit—unless they are teeth or trees or lemons piled on a step.… We want poems like fists beating niggers 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.”
In the poem “Black People,” Baraka 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,” writes Baraka, “even his life. All the stores will open if you say the magic words. The magic words are: Up against the wall motherfucker this is a stick up! … let’s smash the window drag the shit from in there. No money down. No time to pay. Just take what you want. The magic dance in the street. Run up and down broad Street niggers take the shit you want. Take their lives if need be, but get what you want what you need…. We must make our own world, man, our own world, and we cannot do this unless the white man is dead. Let’s get together and kill him my man.”
Maintaining that blacks and whites would never be able to 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, Baraka remarked that “those white boys were only seeking to assuage their own leaking consciences.” And 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 1974 Baraka dropped the prefix “Imamu” from his name.
In the mid-1970s Baraka turned away from black nationalism and began to call himself a “Third World Marxist-Leninist.” During the remainder of the decade, he produced a number of Marxist poetry collections and plays that gave voice to his new political perspectives.
Also in the 1970s, Baraka led a pair of black nationalist organizations — the African Liberation Support Committee and the Congress of African People — before founding the Revolutionary Communist League (RCL), a Maoist entity whose members were mostly black. In 1979, RCL merged with the League of Revolutionary Struggle, a Marxist-Leninist group whose membership also included Carl Davidson.
In 1990 Baraka’s outspoken racism caused him to be denied a tenured position by the Rutgers University English department. Blaming “Europhilic elitists and white supremacists” at Rutgers for blocking his appointment, Baraka said: “The power of these Ivy League Goebbels [on the tenure committee] can flaunt, dismiss, intimidate and defraud the popular will. 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 1990 and again in 1997, Baraka spoke at Socialist Scholars Conferences in New York City.
On October 30-31, 1998 at Cooper Union in New York, Baraka helped lead a Brecht Forum workshop titled “Communist Manifestivity to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the Communist Manifesto.”
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?” the poem read. “Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers to stay home that day? Why did [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] 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 nigger 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 niggers … who believe the confederate flag need to be flying … who [are] the biggest terrorist[s] … [who] only do evil … [and who] invented AIDS.” Moreover, Baraka made disparaging references to a number of blacks whom he perceived as conservatives: “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 literary repertoire. In his “Civil Rights Poem,” for instance, he declared: “Roywilkins [an NAACP official) 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, New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey named Baraka as the Poet Laureate of his state, making the latter only the second person ever to have held that title (which was accompanied by a $10,000, taxpayer-funded stipend). When many New Jerseyites were outraged by the fact that such a prestigious honor was being given to a racist anti-Semite, McGreevey asked Baraka to resign from the post. Baraka not only refused, but he threatened to sue if the state legislature voted to revoke the award. In response, New Jersey’s state senate decided to eliminate the position of Poet Laureate entirely. The Newark city school board, in an effort to honor Baraka in some alternate way, subsequently named him “Laureate of Newark Schools” in December 2002.
In July 2006, Baraka addressed the 5th National Convention of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism.
In July 2008, Baraka prepared a statement for circulation at the upcoming Black Radical Congress meeting in St. Louis, expressing support for the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama. It read, in part: “[N]o amount of solipsistic fist pounding about ‘radical principles’ will change this society as much as the election of Barack Obama will as president of the U.S. Not to understand this is to have few clues about the history of this country, its people, or the history of the Black struggle in the U.S…. After years of Washington stupidity and slavish support for the Miami Gusanos and Israeli imperialism, there is in Obama’s raising of talks with the U.S. Bourgeois enemies something that must be understood as the potential path for new initiative. It is the duty of a left progressive radical bloc to be loud and regular in our demands for the changes Obama has alluded to in his campaign. We must take up these issues and push collectively, as a Bloc, or he will be pushed inexorably to the right…. It is time for the left to really make some kind of Left Bloc to support Obama.”
On September 21, 2010, in midtown Manhattan, Baraka and approximately 130 fellow American leftists—from such organizations as Al-Awda, the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition, Code Pink, the International Action Center, United for Peace & Justice, and Women Against Military Madness—attended a friendly meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In addition to the quotes already cited in this profile, Baraka further demonstrated his racism and anti-Semitism over the years with quotes like these:
Amiri Baraka died on January 9, 2014, after a short illness.
For an extensive bibliography of Baraka’s major works of poetry, essays, screenplays, and more, click here.
Further Reading: “Amiri Baraka” (Keywiki.org, Biography.com, PoetryFoundation.org); Leaders from the 1960s: A Biographical Sourcebook of American Activism, pp. 21-28.