Writer, activist and former poet laureate of New Jersey, Amiri Baraka has died at the age of 79. Baraka, born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, NJ, was a playwright, poet, critic and activist, and is considered to be one of the most prominent and controversial African American voices in the world of American letters.
Baraka has published dozens of poems, essays and works of non-fiction. In 1963 Amiri Baraka wrote “Blues People,” an in-depth history of music from the time of slavery throughout the various incarnations of blues and jazz, with integrated social commentary. The book’s 50th anniversary was recently celebrated during an event at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.
Outside of his writing, Baraka led the Black Arts Movement, a movement that was often compared to the Black Panthers. Members of the movement included other authors such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Eldridge Cleaver, Gil-Scott Heron, Nikki Giovanni, Ishmael Reed and Quincy Troupe.
“[W]e wrote art that was, number one, identifiably Afro American according to our roots and our history and so forth. Secondly, we made art that was not contained in small venues,” Baraka said in a 2007 interview. “The third thing we wanted was art that would help with the liberation of black people, and we didn’t think just writing a poem was sufficient. That poem had to have some kind of utilitarian use; it should help in liberating us. So that’s what we did. We consciously did that.”
Baraka was named New Jersey’s second poet laureate in 2002 but the controversy surrounding his 9/11 poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” marred his tenure.
Newark City Council President Mildred Crump, a longtime friend of the Baraka family, said the world lost one of its pre-eminent literary figures today.
“Not only has New Jersey, but the United States of America, has lost a great human being. He was a legend in his own lifetime,” Crump said. “It is such a loss, such a great loss.”