If there is one thing that most people can agree on regarding the life of Amiri Baraka, the renowned poet, playwright and civil rights advocate, it was that he did things in his own distinct way.
Baraka, who died this week at age 79 in Newark, was viewed by many as a powerful voice for the African-American experience, a passionate spokesman for the condition and challenges of a people. Others, however, saw him as a highly controversial figure who tread too close to divisiveness.
To say the least, his passing ends a life that was a major presence in the African-American arts movement in the 20th century and beyond. The man who was born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark in 1934 inspired artists and poets to take on his no-nonsense, direct assault on the issues that he felt crippled life for Black Americans.
To many Black writers, he was one of the seminal figures of his generation and was a widely respected writer. But he clearly lived his life on his own terms. He had a brief tenure as the Poet Laureate of New Jersey from 2002 until 2003. That was a period that placed him in a controversial spotlight when he publicly read a poem he penned, “Somebody Blew Up America.” The reaction to it leveled charges against him as being intolerant and even anti-Semitic.
Baraka was a figure who constantly sought to evolve, not content to remain locked in the style or artistic bent of one particular era. Well into his 60s, he collaborated with the hip hop group The Roots on the song “Something in the Way of Things (In Town)” on the group’s 2002 album Phrenology.
No matter the controversies that periodically followed him, Baraka was widely acclaimed and was included on scholar Molefi Kete Asante’s compilation of the 100 Greatest African Americans.
We will always remember his compelling works, Blues People: Negro Music in White America, as well as The System of Dante’s Hell, A Black Mass and Four Black Revolutionary Plays, among many others. His was a distinctive voice that made an important contribution to the people whose cause he championed so passionately.
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(Photo: Tim Boxer/Getty Images)