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Amiri Baraka dies at 79; provocative poet lauded, chided for social passion

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Never shy about his revolutionary views, Amiri Baraka gave New Jersey's governor fair warning of possible fireworks when he was named the state's poet laureate.

"You're gonna catch hell for this," said Baraka, who began his lengthy literary career as LeRoi Jones.

"I can take it," then-Gov. James McGreevey told Baraka at a ceremony in August 2002.


FOR THE RECORD:
Amiri Baraka: An obituary on writer and activist Amiri Baraka in the Jan. 10 LATExtra section said his daughter Shani and her half sister Wanda Pasha were fatally shot by Pasha's estranged husband in 2003. The shootings occurred in Wanda Pasha's home, but the two women shot were Shani Baraka and her companion Rayshon Holmes. —


A month later, McGreevey was among the many officials angrily calling for Baraka's resignation after the African American poet outraged much of New Jersey with a piece called "Somebody Blew Up America."

Taking its cue from Internet accounts, the poem suggested that Israel knew in advance about the World Trade Center disaster and had warned its citizens working there to stay away on Sept. 11, 2001. Baraka was denounced as anti-Semitic — a charge he denied — and the state, unable to find a legal mechanism to fire him, ended up abolishing his position.

Ever the provocateur, Baraka pointed out to The Times in 2003 that as poet laureate he had been asked to "promote and encourage poetry."

"Well," he said, raising a Miller Lite during an interview in his Newark, N.J., home, "I'm doing a bang-up job."

Baraka, who rose to fame as an impassioned voice in the Beat Generation but later embraced black nationalism and then Marxism, died Thursday at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. He was 79.

His death was confirmed by his booking agent, Celeste Bateman. The cause was not disclosed.

Once called the world's finest living poet by Maya Angelou, he received similar plaudits from Norman Mailer and other writers. In 1964, his one-act drama "Dutchman" won an Obie Award as the season's best off-Broadway American play.

Staged with two main characters, it is the story of an ultimately lethal encounter in a subway car between a reserved young black man and a seductive white woman who taunts him into a rage and then stabs him. Opening just as bloody civil rights struggles were making headlines, "Dutchman" struck a chord.

"If this is the way the Negroes really feel about the white world around them, there's more rancor buried in the breasts of colored conformists than anyone can imagine," critic Howard Taubman wrote in the New York Times. "If this is the way even one Negro feels, there is ample cause for guilt as well as alarm and for a hastening of change."

Baraka wrote "Dutchman" when he was still LeRoi Jones, one of several names he used over the years.

Born Everett Leroy Jones in Newark, N.J., on Oct. 7, 1934, he started using LeRoi in college — a tribute, he wrote in his 1984 autobiography, to African American journalist Roi Ottley.

The son of a postal supervisor and a social worker, Jones grew up comfortably middle-class in a Newark neighborhood that was both black and Italian. He studied at Rutgers University before transferring to Howard University, a black college in Washington, D.C.

In 1954, he flunked out. He later called Howard "a training ground for the black petty bourgeoisie."

But he also acknowledged it as a place where he grew into an intellectual — a status, he contended, that got him booted from the Air Force in 1958.

An anonymous letter to his Air Force superiors accused him of being a Communist, which at the time he was not, and of possessing highbrow literary magazines.

"Among the artifacts the Air Force was amassing as to my offense were copies of the Partisan Review!" he wrote.

The recipient of an "undesirable discharge," Jones headed for New York City's Greenwich Village and married writer Hettie Cohen.

When he and Cohen started a magazine called Yugen, he asked Beat poet Allen Ginsberg to contribute. The invitation was sent on toilet paper, and Jones and Ginsberg, who responded positively, were friends until Ginsberg's death in 1997.

Jones ran in avant-garde circles, published poems and essays, and wrote "Blues People," a highly regarded book about black music. In 1964, he scored his first big success with "Dutchman."

Coming into his own as a writer, he also became more politically radical and detached himself from the Beats.

"Just to celebrate the uselessness of everything began to bore me," he told the Newark Star-Ledger in 1996.

The assassination of Malcolm X prompted him to leave the Village for Harlem, abandoning his wife and their two daughters. He started a black theater company that fell apart in 1966 after police found a cache of weapons in the building.

In the mid-1960s, he changed what he called his "slave name" to Imamu Ameer Bakarat. He later dropped the honorific "Imamu" and settled on Amiri Baraka — roughly translated from Bantu and Swahili as "blessed prince."

Establishing a new life back in his hometown, he married Sylvia Robinson, a writer and activist who became Amina Baraka.

Wed in 1966, the couple had five children and held poetry readings in their basement, but Baraka became no less controversial.

At a forum, he gave a curt answer to a white woman who asked how she could help advance civil rights: "You can help by dying," he said.

A reviewer for the New York Times said a collection of his essays reflected "the unrestrained indulgence of his hate."

In 1967, he was arrested for illegal weapons possession as Newark's race riots swirled around him. He was sentenced to a three-year prison term, but his conviction was reversed on appeal in 1969.

The sentencing judge told Baraka that his writings had helped trigger the riots that killed 26 — an accusation Baraka still found ludicrous in a Times interview decades later.

"Yeah," he said, "as if these black people are out running their mouths and suddenly they say: 'Let me read that poem!' And then they run out and start burning down the town."

In the 1970s, Baraka broke with black nationalism and devoted himself to Communism. In his later years, he said he found it tough to reach an audience.

"When I was saying, 'White people go to hell,' I never had trouble finding a publisher," he told an interviewer in 1996. "But when I was saying, 'Black and white, unite and fight, destroy capitalism,' then you suddenly get to be unreasonable."

In Newark he remained a respected civic figure. In local political campaigns he supported the election of three successive black mayors, and turned against them all.

One of them — Newark's first black mayor, Kenneth Gibson — was the obese, "burpin' black bastard" at the heart of Baraka's satirical short story "Neo-American." Tim Goodson, the character based on Gibson, was surrounded by a greedy clique of "WaBenzis" — a Swahili term, Baraka wrote, for "those who drive Mercedes-Benzes."

Over the years, Baraka taught at a number of colleges, including the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he was a full professor. In 1990, he was denied tenure at Rutgers, where he had lectured for years and where his work was taught.

The English department was concerned about his "sloganeering" in class, its chairman said. At a rally, Baraka called university officials "powerful Klansmen" whose "'intellectual' presence makes a stink across the campus like the corpses of rotten Nazis."

Despite the overwrought rhetoric, he inspired many minority writers.

"He opened tightly guarded doors," Native American author Maurice Kenny wrote in "The Kaleidoscopic Torch," a 1985 collection of essays by writers praising Baraka. "We'd all still be waiting for the invitation from the New Yorker without him."

Over his lifetime, Baraka published more than 50 volumes of poetry, fiction, essays and plays.

Some critics said he started out with great promise but wound up an angry propagandist. But many saw him as a committed artist who was unwilling to pull his punches. Arnold Rampersad, an expert in African American literature and a professor emeritus at Stanford, ranked Baraka with Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and other literary giants.

"His change of heart and head is testimony to his honesty, energy and relentless search for meaning," Rampersad wrote.

Baraka’s survivors include his wife, Amira; sons Obalaji, Amiri Jr., Ahi and Ras Baraka, a Newark Municipal Council member; and daughters Lisa Jones, Kellie Jones, Marie Jones and Dominique DiPrima.

Baraka’s daughter Shani and her half-sister Wanda Pasha were fatally shot in 2003 by Pasha’s estranged husband.

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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