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March 9, 2001

The Life and Poetry of Amiri Baraka

“To understand that you are black in a society where black is an extreme liability is one thing, but to understand that it is the society that is lacking and impossibly deformed, and not yourself, isolates you even more” (About 3). This is a direct quote from Baraka, and it outlines his beliefs well. History and society have always influenced Amiri Baraka, and this made him feel as though society was isolating the Black community. Throughout his life, Baraka has tried to teach the idea of equality among races and classes by way of his poetry, plays, and speeches. His concept of equality came from his experiences while growing up during the time of the Civil Rights Movement. He held three main ideological positions due to his place in history; they are his values during the so-called ‘Beat Generation’, his Black Nationalist period, and his Marxist-Leninist period.

Perhaps, to better understand his ethics, one must look at his upbringing and lifestyle. Everette Leroy Jones was born on October 7, 1934 in the industrial city of Newark, New Jersey. His parents, Colt LeRoy Jones and Anna Lois Jones, were two lower-middle class workers who held jobs as a postal supervisor and social worker, respectively (Young 1). Leroy went to public schools in Newark, and graduated from Barringer High School in 1951. He was offered many scholarships, but accepted the one from Rutgers University. However, he was disappointed in Rutgers, and transferred to Howard University. There he studied chemistry before turning to psychology and literature. In 1954 he ended his college career and joined the US Air Force. While there, he came interested in modern literature and poetry, reading whenever possible. By 1957, Leroy had reached the rank of sergeant, but when communist journals were found in his possession, he was discharged (Young 2).

He then moved to Greenwich Village, and joined with the likes of Allen Ginsburg, Charles Olson, and Frank O’Hara. These artists, musicians, and writers were known as the “Beat Generation” (Baraka 1). During this time, Leroy had his works recognized by literary giant, Langston Hughes. He was also given an award for his off-Broadway play, Dutchman. On October 13, 1958, he married Hettie Cohen, a middle-class Jewish woman with whom he co-edited a magazine (Amiri 1). With his new reputation as a writer, he opened the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BART/S) on April 30, 1965. The idea was to open a channel between the black artists and the masses. Even though the life of the BART/S was short, the idea spread across the nation (BARTS 1). When his theater failed to stay open, he began to distance himself from white society. In 1965, with the assassination of Malcolm X, this hatred was solidified. From this point, Baraka took Malcolm’s view of Black Nationalism. It was a view of equality, even through militant means (Young 3). The man who buried Malcolm X gave Leroy the Muslim name, Ameer Baraka, and later Ron Karenga, perhaps one of the strongest voices in the Black Nationalist Movement, changed Ameer to Amiri (Young 3). With his new name, and his new values, Baraka divorced Hettie and abandoned his children, leaving them for Newark. He then married Sylvia Robinson, who changed her name to Amina Baraka (Amiri 1).

In July of 1967, Amiri was beaten by police officers and arrested for carrying a firearm, which he later said were planted. This was during one of the deadliest urban riots throughout this century. What led from this was a trial surrounded with controversy. The debate was not over the police brutality, nor was it over the all-white jury; the debate was over a poem of Baraka’s that was submitted into evidence. The poem, entitled “Black People” was about murder and theft of white people and their property, and the court claimed that it was cause for them to suspect that Amiri helped formulate the riot. This battle ended in a conviction for Baraka, which was later overturned in an appeal (Poetry 3). After this incident, Baraka joined the Black Panthers, and supported other Black Power groups (Amiri 1).

While the court trial was happening, Baraka wrote a poem called “SOS” (Meyer 1077). “SOS” was first published at the beginning of a collection of other black-empowering poems in a book called Black Magic. This poem reads like a radio transmission, with many repetitions of lines and phrases. It is specifically written in this form to show the importance of the message Baraka needed to get across. He needed to draw attention to the other poems, a way to bring the reader into the book. The poem expressed the need for blacks to take control of their lives, and be proud of their heritage.

However, as time went on his views changed again. He soon realized that it was not only blacks being discriminated against, but all races. He began to read about Marxism and it’s characteristics, and soon adopted the view (Baraka 3). Marxism-Leninism is an ideology that is based on class disputes and the working class versus the upper class. Baraka felt these views were more consistent with all races, and benefited everyone.

Through 1972 to 1983, Amiri addressed several issues of race through his poetry, various plays, and speeches. From 1983-1993, he taught writing and African American Literature at Rutgers University, where the decision to deny him tenure caused a student protest. He left Rutgers soon after to teach at the University of New York, Stony Brook (Young 3). Today, he is a critic, poet, playwright, and activist. He has appeared in movies, such as Bulworth, and tours colleges and universities giving lectures. Writing has empowered Baraka, and has given him rule over himself. He once said

My writing reflects my own growth and expansion, and at the same time the society in which I have existed throughout this confrontation. Whether it is politics, music, literature, or the origins of language, there is always a historical and time/place/condition reference that will always try to explain why I was saying both how and for what (Poetry 1).

Young, Vershawn. “Report on Amiri Baraka.” April 28, 1999. 5 March 2001.


“Baraka: Biography and Historical Context.” 26 February 2001.


“About Amiri Baraka.” 26 February 2001.


“Amiri Baraka.” 20 February2001.


“BARTS.” 4 March 2001.


“Poetry Previews: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones).” 6 March 2001.


“Poetic Style in Amiri Barka’s Black Art.” CLA Journal (December 1988)

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