Revolutionary Poet Laureate Playwright Imamu Amiri Baraka Dies at 79

Imamu Amiri Baraka

His death at Beth Israel Medical Center,Thursday, January 9 was confirmed by his son Ras Baraka, a member of the Newark Municipal Council. He did not specify a cause, but said that Mr. Baraka had been hospitalized since Dec. 21.


Mr. Baraka was famous as one of the major forces in the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and ’70s, which sought to duplicate in fiction, poetry, drama and other mediums the aims of the black power movement in the political arena. I know as a student of the performing arts myself during the mid-1960s , we saw, then Leroi Jones as a National Black Leader. In   some circles, more so than vibrant & popular Dr. Martin Luther King..  WE considered him the “Tip of the Spear” in the Black Arts Movement.Personally, I liked the way he was able to speak to my frustrations in America as a black youth.

He wrote very powerful essays around the socio-economic conditions and the music that addressed the dogma that existed among the people.  As a “Griot”, he helped navigate us through many of the so-called Angry Black Jazz artists, coming out of the 1950s into the early 1960s. John Coltrane, Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman , Archie Shepp, Sun Ra, and the new Avant Garde  crews waiting in the wings , Chicago Art Ensemble, Black Arthur Blythe, Albert Ayler and Horace Tapscott to name a few.

Over six decades, Mr. Baraka’s writings — his work also included essays and music criticism  were periodically accused of being anti-Semitic, misogynist, homophobic, racist, isolationist and dangerously militant. Some of the  accusations were believed true, not all . Many of his statements were hurled at the group or individuals who were exploiting black people. Mainstream media were not his friend due to his political positions.

Leroi Jones Blues People

 I chose to focus on his Plays and books on Jazz or Black music in general. Among his best-known works are the poetry collections “The Dead Lecturer” and “Transbluesency: The Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, 1961-1995”; the play “Dutchman”; and “Blues People: Negro Music in White America,” a highly regarded historical survey.

During my stay in the San Francisco bay-area, I attended book fairs that featured  Amiri Baraka , wife Amina, Sonia Sanchez and a litany of local and regional writers and poets, along with Arts organization sponsored appearances during the early to mid-2000s.

My last time seeing Amiri Baraka live in-concert with jazz saxophonist Billy Harper.. the sponsor was the East Bay Arts Alliance, at their center in Oakland.. a packed house of 150 plus people were there to hear the marriage of Baraka’s poetry and the original jazz of Billy Harper, circa 2007.

“Love is an evil word,” Mr. Baraka,  writing as LeRoi Jones, the name by which he was first known professionally, said in an early poem, “In Memory of Radio.” It continues:

Turn it backwards/see, see what I mean?

An evol word. & besides

who understands it?

I certainly wouldn’t  like to go out on that kind of limb.

Saturday mornings we listened to Red Lantern & his undersea folk.

At 11, Let’s Pretend/& we did/& I, the poet, still do. Thank God!

Statement  from the North website and written by an  Associated Press writer

“Perhaps no writer of the 1960s and ’70s was more radical or polarizing than the former LeRoi Jones, and no one did more to extend the political debates of the civil rights era to the world of the arts. He inspired at least one generation of poets, playwrights and musicians, and his immersion in spoken word traditions and raw street language anticipated rap, hip-hop and slam poetry. The FBI feared him to the point of flattery, identifying Baraka as “the person who will probably emerge as the leader of the Pan-African movement in the United States.”

Baraka transformed from the rare black to join the Beat caravan of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac to leader of the Black Arts Movement, an ally of the Black Power movement that rejected the liberal optimism of the early ’60s and intensified a divide over how and whether the black artist should take on social issues. Scorning art for art’s sake and the pursuit of black-white unity, Baraka was part of a philosophy that called for the teaching of black art and history and producing works that bluntly called for revolution.

“We want ‘poems that kill,'” Baraka wrote in his landmark “Black Art,” a manifesto published in 1965, the year he helped found the Black Arts Movement. “Assassin poems. Poems that shoot guns/Poems that wrestle cops into alleys/and take their weapons leaving them dead/with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland.”

He was as eclectic as he was prolific: His influences ranged from Ray Bradbury and Mao Zedong to Ginsberg and John Coltrane. Baraka wrote poems, short stories, novels, essays, plays, musical and cultural criticism and jazz operas. His 1963 book, “Blues People,” has been called the first major history of black music to be written by an African-American. A line from his poem “Black People!” — “Up against the wall mother f—–” — became a           counter-culture slogan for everyone from student protesters to rock bands.               Picture-1

I will miss the “jazz” of Amiri Baraka’s voice at those book fairs, and arts organizations sponsoring Literary Art performances. We’ll still be studying the literary papers,books and videos of Imamu Amiri Baraka, then one day out of nowhere, a ghost will say to us, I told you so!  posted by Robert J. Carmack  #@blues2jazzguy


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