Poet, writer, teacher, and political activist Amiri Baraka was born Everett LeRoi Jones in 1934 in Newark, New Jersey. He attended Rutgers University and Howard University, spent three years in the U.S. Air Force, and returned to New York City to attend Columbia University and the New School for Social Research. Baraka was well known for his strident social criticism, often writing in an incendiary style that made it difficult for some audiences and critics to respond with objectivity to his works. Throughout most of his career his method in poetry, drama, fiction, and essays was confrontational, calculated to shock and awaken audiences to the political concerns of black Americans. For decades, Baraka was one of the most prominent voices in the world of American literature.
Baraka’s own political stance changed several times, thus dividing his oeuvre into periods: as a member of the avant-garde during the 1950s, Baraka—writing as Leroi Jones—was associated with Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac; in the ‘60s, he moved to Harlem and became a Black Nationalist; in the ‘70s, he was involved in third-world liberation movements and identified as a Marxist. More recently, Baraka was accused of anti-Semitism for his poem “Somebody Blew up America,” written in response to the September 11 attacks.
Baraka incited controversy throughout his career. He was praised for speaking out against oppression as well as accused of fostering hate. Critical opinion has been sharply divided between those who agree, with Dissent contributor Stanley Kaufman, that Baraka’s race and political moment have created his celebrity, and those who feel that Baraka stands among the most important writers of the twentieth century.
In the American Book Review, Arnold Rampersad counted Baraka with Phyllis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison “as one of the eight figures . . . who have significantly affected the course of African-American literary culture.”