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Amiri Baraka (1934-2014)

February 10 – April 30, 2014

curated by
Jaime Margalotti

Amiri Baraka Poster

 

Amiri Baraka, known early in his career as LeRoi Jones, was one of the most widely published African-American writers, producing provocative poetry, drama, fiction, essays, and music criticism.

Baraka’s early writing and publishing involved collaborations with (then wife) Hettie (Cohen) Jones, Diane di Prima, and contributions from Beat notables such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Baraka’s first collection of poems, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, was published in 1961. His award-winning 1964 play, Dutchman, presents a philosophical exploration of black and white relations in New York City through a white woman’s attack on a black male passenger during a ride on the subway.

 

1.   Baraka, Imamu Amiri, 1934-
Preface to a twenty volume suicide note / by Le Roi Jones.
New York : Totem Press in association with Corinth Books, c1961.

2.  Baraka, Imamu Amiri, 1934-
Dutchman and The slave : two plays / by LeRoi Jones.
New York [N.Y.] : Morrow, 1964

Music permeates both Baraka's creative and critical writing. In 1963 he published the acclaimed study of jazz and blues, Blues People: Negro Music in White America. The drawing "Monk Inventing the Break Dance" was made by Baraka for the cover of The Book of Monk, his collection of essays and poetry on jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk.

3. Baraka, Imamu Amiri, 1934-
Blues people : Negro music in white America / by LeRoi Jones.
New York : W. Morrow, 1963.

4. “Monk Inventing the Break Dance,” Amiri Baraka, circa 2004.  Book of Monk collection.

 

With the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, Baraka took up the cause of Black Nationalism.  This philosophy advocated for unity and self-determination of identity among African-Americans, as opposed to the multicultural approach which prevailed during the earlier civil rights movement.  Baraka was highly involved with the Black Arts aspect of the group, which viewed literature and poetry as weapons.  He grew dissatisfied with the results in the 1970s and began to subsequently define himself as a “Marxist-Leninist-Maoist.” 

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Baraka taught in several different universities.  A native of Newark, New Jersey, Baraka was awarded the post of Poet Laureate for the state in 2002.  Criticism of Anti-Semitism in his poem on the September 11th terrorist attacks, “Somebody Blew Up America?,” ultimately prompted the Governor and State Legislature to abolish the position as a way of removing him. Baraka stood as a polarizing figure throughout his career, with some critics representing his work as violent, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, and homophobic.

Amiri Baraka died on January 9, 2014. Baraka contemporary Ishmael Reed occasionally clashed with the fellow African American writer, but took exception to the many obituaries which focused on the controversial aspects of Baraka’s writing.  Reed described Baraka as “the kind of writer who comes along once in a generation or so. I once said that he did for the English syntax what Monk did with the chord. He was an original.” (“Ishmael Reed on the Life and Death of Amiri Baraka.” The Wall Street Journal, January 12, 2014. http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2014/01/12/ishmael-reed-on-the-life-and-death-of-amiri-baraka/ (accessed February 6, 2012).)

5.  “A Guerilla Handbook,” Amiri Baraka.  Fair copy typescript, 1974.  From Imamu Amiri Baraka collection.

6.  Original unused artwork for Malcolm X as Ideology, Ted Harris, circa 2008.  From Malcolm X as Ideology collection.

7. Baraka, Imamu Amiri, 1934-
Somebody blew up America / by Amiri Baraka.
[Newark, N.J.?] : The author, c2001 ([S.l.] : Oakland layout by blackdotpress).

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02/10/14

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