Amiri Bakara Resigned Controversial Poem

March 7, 2012 by staff 

Amiri Bakara Resigned Controversial Poem, Amiri Baraka was born on this date in 1934. He is an African-American writer, probably best known as a playwright and poet.

Born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, NJ, his father was a postman and fork-lift operator and his mother, Anna Lois Russ, was a social worker. Jones studied philosophy and religion at Rutgers, Columbia, and Howard Universities, though he earned no degree.

After these experiences, Jones joined the US Air Force for three years. An anonymous letter to his commanding officer accusing him of being a communist led to the discovery of Soviet writings, for which Jones was put on gardening duty and given a dishonorable discharge for violation of his oath of duty.

From there, Jones went to New York’s Greenwich Village in 1957. He began working in a record warehouse, which fueled his interest in Black music, and brought him into contact with writers such as Nat Hentoff, Martin Williams, and Allen Ginsberg. The influences these individuals had on Jones’ early career affected his Beat-era poetry. One year later, he founded Totem Press. Jones also spent time in Fidel Castro’s Cuba in the early 1960s.

Jones married Hettie Cohen in 1960, a Jewish woman he had been working with while writing for Yugen magazine. By 1964, he had achieved some fame in the New York literary community. He wrote critically acclaimed off-Broadway plays, beginning with “The Dutchman” in 1964, followed by “The Slave” in 1965. In this era, Jones also recorded and performed with the free jazz group the New York Art Quartet.

After the murder of Malcolm X in 1965, Jones dropped his Beat identity. He left Greenwich Village for Harlem and changed his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka, embracing the new Black liberation ideology. Amiri Baraka has undergone many changes in his life and professional career as a writer and poet. In 1965 Baraka divorced Cohen, abandoning her and their two children. Cohen would later write in her autobiography, “How I Became Hettie Jones,” that Baraka had physically abused both her and the children for years. Malcolm X’s murder also marks the point in Baraka’s career where charges of racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism were made against him. “I don’t see anything wrong with hating white people,” Baraka told a U.S. News and World Report writer. One of Baraka’s popular Harlem street performances in 1965 involved a Black valet murdering white victims. From 1965 to 1974, Baraka devoted himself to the Black Nationalist cause and the Congress of Afrikan Peoples.

After moving to Harlem, Baraka and several other associates began The Black Arts Repertory Theater (BART). Its stated goal was to “create an art that would be a weapon in the Black Liberation Movement.” BART was a short lived endeavor, lasting only one year. Funding came largely from then-President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society programs. When Jones’ senior aid, Sargent Shriver, came to visit BART as part of a public relations campaign, Jones refused him admission to the premises, telling the “Jew Shriver” to “go /*#* himself.” It was in the 1960s and early 1970s that Baraka penned what many see as his most anti-Semitic works: After the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, Baraka was jailed during the riots that broke out in Newark. Baraka then became heavily involved in local electoral politics.

He was key member in the campaign to elect a Black mayor, drawing people like Jesse Jackson and Harry Belafonte to Newark. In that election year, Baraka’s efforts helped Kenneth Gibson became Newark’s first Black mayor. Baraka commented on the election’s revolutionary implications: “We will nationalize the city’s institutions,” he wrote before the vote, “as if it were liberated territory in Zimbabwe or Angola.” Unfortunately, Gibson was later thrown out of office on fraud and conspiracy charges. Around 1974, Baraka abandoned Black Nationalism, Marxism, and Third Worldism, dropping the Muslim Imamu from his name.

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