Amiri Baraka is arguably one of the greatest, most important and — depending on who you ask — one of the most controversial and offensive writers of the past half century in American and world literature. You think not, then why has he been trending non-stop on Twitter, and the topic of conversation by so many Internet spaces from all angles? We say that a big and bold life such as his must be looked at as a whole, from his early upbringing in segregated America (he was born and raised and lived much of his life in Newark, New Jersey); to his brief time both at Howard University (he never graduated) to his unceremonious stint in the U.S. Air Force. Then there were his early years as a writer, very much influenced by the Beat Generation writers and the avant-garde scene of New York City’s Greenwich Village. It was there that Baraka (then known as LeRoi Jones) engaged in inter-racial relationships, fathered biracial children, and penned some of his greatest work ever: the explosive short play Dutchman and the forever timely study of African Americans and their music, Blues People.
But like many Black artists of the first part of the 1960s, Baraka was transformed by the Civil Rights Movement–including the speeches and the work of figures like Malcolm X. In fact it was Malcolm’s assassination that led Amiri Baraka to leave his family and the Greenwich Village scene behind, landing first in Harlem, then back to his beloved Newark.
It was there he would become Imamu Amiri Baraka, shedding his “slave name” of LeRoi Jones. And it was during this time that he became of one of the chief architects of what became known as the Black Arts Movement in America — an incredible flowering of poetry, fiction, plays, music, dance, paintings, and other art forms — that embraced a Black consciousness in mass form never witnessed before in the United States. Black art for Black people, as Amiri Baraka might have said.
Ever restless, Baraka did not stop there: in his lifetime he was an integrationist, a Black nationalist, a Marxist or socialist, and someone who has been accused of being — among many other things, racist, sexist, homophobic, violent, angry, anti-Semitic, anti-American — a walking contradiction, and more things than we can list here. But he is also someone whose own children were the victims of things like violence (one son was shot in the head) and homophobia. (His lesbian daughter Shani and her lover were brutally murdered in the last decade.)
At his core, Amiri Baraka was a writer, an artists–someone who told the truth, his truth, as he saw it. Amiri Baraka was about freedom, for himself, for his people, for all people, and he was unwavering, uncompromising, and fearless in that quest, even if it rubbed others the wrong way.
And he was a master of words and doubly a master of performance poetry, inspiring and confounding multiple generations of writers, scholars, and thinkers. Our suggestion is that people not only read the obituaries and praises and condemnations of this very short man who became a giant of his time, but that you go find his poems and essays and plays and books and absorb them. For yourself. We guarantee that you will come away with a different understanding of yourself, of your community, of America, of this planet. And of the man many in his Newark ‘hood simply called Mr. Baraka. As did many admirers, including the writers gathered here in remembrance of Amiri Baraka. — BK Nation editorial team