Playwright, poet Amiri Baraka dead at age 79

Amiri Baraka (WENN.COM)

Amiri Baraka (WENN.COM)

David Jones, Reuters

, Last Updated: 10:05 PM ET

NEWARK, N.J. – African-American playwright, poet and activist Amiri Baraka, known for politically charged works that explore themes of race, died on Thursday at age 79 at a hospital in his native New Jersey, a representative said.

Baraka had been in failing health and passed away at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, surrounded by family, said his booking agent Celeste Bateman.

Baraka had associated with Beat Generation poets in the 1950s and he published his first collection of poems in 1961. In 1964, his explosive play “Dutchman” about a white woman and black man clashing venomously on a subway won the Obie Award.

Among his other well-known works are his nonfiction book “Blues People: Negro Music in White America” and the poems “In Memory of Radio” and “An Agony. As Now.”

Born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, he in 1967 changed his name to the African and Muslim-inspired Imamu Ameer Baraka and later became Amiri Baraka. He was founder of the Black Arts Movement, the cultural counterpart to the militant Black Power Movement that grew out of the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s.

The late poet Robert Creeley, in a 1996 piece in the Boston Review on a collection of Baraka’s poems, recognized the author’s “much emphasized antagonism toward the white majority“ but also his “shifts of strategy and relationship.”

“Clearly Baraka is always there, wry, often contemptuous, with characteristic quick wit and displacing humor, but what he values is the collective, the ‘we’ which comes again and again into his poems,” Creeley wrote.

In 2002, as poet laureate of New Jersey, Baraka drew accusations of anti-Semitism after reading his poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” which was said to include anti-Jewish material in an account of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Baraka refused then-New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey’s request for him to resign and, in response, state lawmakers passed a law to eliminate the position of poet laureate.

Newark Mayor Luis Quintana said in a statement that his city mourned the death of Baraka, who he said “used the power of the pen to advance the cause of civil rights.”

“Amiri Baraka’s poetry and prose transcended ethnic and racial barriers, inspiring and energizing audiences of many generations,” Quintana said.

U.S. Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, said in a statement, “My thoughts and prayers are with his children and the whole Baraka family after their loss.”


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