Amiri Baraka, controversial writer and founder of the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s and 70s, died yesterday in Newark, New Jersey.
Born Leroy Jones (he later changed the spelling to LeRoi Jones to honor the memory of Roi Ottley, an African American journalist), Baraka was a brilliant student who could not tolerate mainstream academia, becoming ever more political, especially after his brief stint in the Air Force.
His first play, Dutchman (and incendiary indictment on race relations at the time). was performed Off Off Broadway and won the 1964 Obie for Best American Play.
The assassination of Malcolm X further radicalized Baraka. He changed his name two more times, first to Imamu Ameer Bakarat and then to Amiri Baraka. He abandoned his white wife and children, founded the now-defunct Black Arts Repertory Theater, and was credited with starting the Black Arts Movement which jump-started the careers of such noteworthy authors as Nikki Giovanni, Eldridge Cleaver, and Gil-Scott Heron.
His volatile personality got him in trouble in 1979 when he assaulted his second wife, poet Amina Baraka. He was sentenced to 48 weekends in a halfway house and used that time to pen his autobiography, The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (1984).
In 2002, he was named New Jersey Poet Laureate, a title that he held incident-free for just one month. When Baraka published Somebody Blew Up America, a furious poem about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, with some strong anti-Semitic accusations, the governor of New Jersey demanded he resign his poet laureate post. Baraka refused so a year later the New Jersey legislature passed a law dissolving the position altogether.
Among the authors who recognized Mr. Baraka's influential, brilliant, provocative writings were Maya Angelou, Norman Mailer, and Allen Ginsberg who became a lifelong friend when they exchanged a brief correspondence written on toilet paper. He was the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1989, he won the Langston Hughes Award.
Mr. Baraka, who suffered from diabetes, was 79.