Amiri Baraka, Outspoken Poet, Author & Activist, Dies At 79
Amiri Baraka has died at the age of 79 following a long illness. The cause of death, according to the Star Ledger, is unclear at this time. The lauded author leaves a body of published literary works and a legacy of outspoken activism marked by a notoriously razor sharp tongue, sharper intellect and a ceaseless devotion to the circumstance and certain beauty of the black experience. Baraka's work was written with a deft hand and dense with the nasty bits that are often left to the cutting room floor in rose-colored accounts of the American experience - a detail that forces readers of his works to experience a range of emotion, from rage and embarrassment to empowerment. More importantly, Baraka's approach has historically forced people to take notice.
Born Everett LeRoi Jones, Baraka was known as LeRoi Jones before changing his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka. He was a writer well-versed in a variety of mediums, though he would come to be particularly well-regarded for his poetry, essays and works of fiction - all of them smoldering with the uncomfortable truths that typified the rebellion of black radicalism and the folkways and freedom songs that would come to define negritude. Amiri Baraka's published works began to surface in the early 60's and found him labeled a firebrand of the same pedigree as James Baldwin; while the comparison may have been issued as an insult or frantic call to arms, it should only offer more legitimacy to the singularity and subsequent impact of Baraka's voice. Blues People, Black Magic, It's Nation Time and Dutchman are a few of his popular early works.
Baraka spent a good portion of his career working as an academic at universities in New York. He received a number of awards and public recognition for his work during this time. The most notable and controversial of them may be his tenure as the Poet Laureate of New Jersey. Baraka was abruptly stripped of the title in 2003 after a public reading of "Somebody Blew Up America?" Public outcry following the reading cited the poem's thematic proximity to the bombing of the World Trade Center towers two years prior, on September 11th, 2001. Baraka has been criticized and lauded for what many consider to be his staunchly militant voice. That voice is the same one that so eloquently closed The Roots' fifth studio LP in 2002, when Baraka performed "Something In The Way Of Things" (In Town) on their Phrenology LP. The recording is a battle hymn for the 'buked that finds Baraka's words as biting, beautiful and relevant today as they were when the record was released. As we celebrate his life, we return to his haunting forecast from the Phrenology LP. Rest in peace, Amiri Baraka.