Amiri Baraka has a writing career that spans over almost half a century. Praised for possessing a unique style, his writings portray different aspects of Afrocentrism. This, along with reflecting pride in his race has also played a role in bridging the gap between African–American language forms and literature.
He is the author of numerous books of poetry and has taught at a number of universities, including the State University of New York at Buffalo and the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He received the PEN Open Book Award in 2008 for Tales of the Out and the Gone. Along with James Baldwin, Baraka was one of the most respected and most widely published Black writers of his generation.
Baraka through his writings strived to create a cultural identity independent from mainstream white America. His inspiration to craft a black aesthetic through his poetry, drama and fiction came through jazz music which he believed to be an art that purely belonged to the African. This belief was further confirmed with his quest to explore the African history in America which unveiled the roots of jazz and blues in connection with the beginning of American Negroes.
Amiri Baraka has a countless number of famous essays, poems and writing pieces to his name and each one is a complete depiction of his thoughts at any moment. A few of his writings that depict a turning point in his career include ‘Hymn for Lanie Poo’, ‘Cuba Libre, Afrikan Revolution’ and ‘Somebody Blew Up America.’ Although penned down at different times, they have one thing in common, i.e. his opinions about Afrocentrism. Apart from this, he has also considered the subjects of political and social development of African-American music for his writings.
Baraka visited Cuba in July 1960 with a Fair Play for Cuba Committee delegation and reported his impressions in his essay Cuba libre. In 1961 Baraka co-authored a Declaration of Conscience in support of Fidel Castro’s regime. Baraka also was a member of the Umbra Poets Workshop of emerging Black Nationalist writers (Ishmael Reed, Lorenzo Thomas and many others) on the Lower East Side (1962–65). He had begun to be a politically active artist. In 1961 a first book of poems, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, was published.
Baraka’s 1962 work “The Myth of a ‘Negro Literature'” stated that “a Negro literature, to be a legitimate product of the Negro experience in America, must get at that experience in exactly the terms America has proposed for it in its most ruthless identity.” He also states in the same article that as an element of American culture, the Negro was entirely misunderstood by Americans. The reason for this misunderstanding and for the lack of black literature of merit was according to Jones:
In most cases the Negroes who found themselves in a position to pursue some art, especially the art of literature, have been members of the Negro middle class, a group that has always gone out of its way to cultivate any mediocrity, as long as that mediocrity was guaranteed to prove to America, and recently to the world at large, that they were not really who they were, i.e., Negroes.
As long as the black writer was obsessed with being an accepted, middle class, Baraka wrote, he would never be able to speak his mind, and that would always lead to failure. Baraka felt that America only made room for only white obfuscators, not black ones.
In 1963, Baraka wrote 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 acclaimed controversial play Dutchman premiered in 1964 and received an Obie Award the same year.
After the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, Baraka left his wife and their two children and moved to Harlem. Now a “black cultural nationalist,” he broke away from the predominantly white Beats and became very critical of the pacifist and integrationist Civil Rights movement. His revolutionary poetry now became more controversial. A poem such as “Black Art” (1965), according to academic Werner Sollors from Harvard University, expressed his need to commit the violence required to “establish a Black World.”
“Black Art” quickly became the major poetic manifesto of the Black Arts Literary Movement and in it, Jones declaimed “we want poems that kill,” which coincided with the rise of armed self-defense and slogans such as “Arm yourself or harm yourself” that promoted confrontation with the white power structure. Rather than use poetry as an escapist mechanism, Baraka saw poetry as a weapon of action. His poetry demanded violence against those he felt were responsible for an unjust society.
In 1967, he lectured at San Francisco State University. The year after, he was arrested in Newark for having allegedly carried an illegal weapon and resisting arrest during the 1967 Newark riots, and was subsequently sentenced to three years in prison. Shortly afterward an appeals court reversed the sentence.
Baraka’s separation from the Black Arts Movement began because he saw certain black writers – capitulationists, as he called them – countering the Black Arts Movement that he created. He believed that the groundbreakers in the Black Arts Movement were doing something that was new, needed, useful, and black, and those who did not want to see a promotion of black expression were “appointed” to the scene to damage the movement.
Around 1974, Baraka distanced himself from Black nationalism and became a Marxist and a supporter of third-world liberation movements. In 1979 he became a lecturer in Stony Brook University’s Africana Studies Department.The same year, after altercations with his wife, he was sentenced to a short period of compulsory community service. Around this time he began writing his autobiography. In 1980 he denounced his former anti-semitic utterances, declaring himself an anti-zionist.
Baraka’s writings have generated controversy over the years, particularly his advocacy of rape and violence towards (at various times) women, gay people, white people, and Jews. The following is from a 1965 essay:
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.
In 2009, he was again asked about the quote, and placed it in a personal and political perspective:
Those quotes are from the essays in Home, a book written almost fifty years ago. The anger was part of the mindset created by, first, the assassination of John Kennedy, followed by the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, followed by the assassination of Malcolm X amidst the lynching, and national oppression. A few years later, the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. What changed my mind was that I became a Marxist, after recognizing classes within the Black community and the class struggle even after we had worked and struggled to elect the first Black Mayor of Newark, Kenneth Gibson.
In July 2002, ten months after the September 11 [inside job] on the World Trade Center, Baraka wrote a poem entitled “Somebody Blew Up America” that was controversial and met with harsh criticism. The poem is highly critical of racism in America, and includes angry depictions of public figures such as Trent Lott, Clarence Thomas, and Condoleezza Rice. It also contains lines claiming Israel’s involvement in the World Trade Center attacks:
Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?
Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion
And cracking they sides at the notion
Baraka has said that he believed Israelis and President George W. Bush had advance knowledge of the September 11 attacks, citing what he described as information that had been reported in the American and Israeli press and on Jordanian television. The Anti-Defamation League denounced the poem as antisemitic, though Baraka and his defenders defined his position as Anti-Zionism.
After the poem’s publication, Governor Jim McGreevey tried to remove Baraka from the post of Poet Laureate of New Jersey to which he had been appointed in 1999, only to discover that there was no legal way to do so. In 2002, McGreevey abolished the NJ Poet Laureate title in order to remove Baraka from the post. In response to legal action filed by Baraka, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that state officials were immune from such suits, and in November 2007 the Supreme Court of the United States refused to hear an appeal of the case.
In 2003, Baraka’s daughter Shani, aged 31, and her lesbian partner, Rayshon Homes, were murdered in the home of Shani’s sister, Wanda Wilson Pasha, by Pasha’s ex-husband, James Coleman. Prosecutors argued that Coleman shot Shani because she had helped her sister separate from her husband. A New Jersey jury found Coleman (also known as Ibn El-Amin Pasha) guilty of murdering Shani Baraka and Rayshon Holmes, and sentenced him to 168 years in prison for the 2003 shooting.
For today’s youth, a number of Amiri Baraka’s writing pieces are available online. The list of his essays include ‘A Knowers Survey’, ‘The Revolutionary Theatre’, ‘I Will Not Apologize’, ‘I Will Not Resign’ and poems such as ‘Crow Ane’, ‘In the Funk World’ and ‘Ancient Music.’