Amiri Baraka Biography

A prominent 20th-century writer and political activist, Amiri Baraka has dedicated himself to the advancement of black culture. Distancing himself from white culture, especially after the assassination of Black Muslim leader Malcolm X in 1965, Baraka turned to black themes in his writings and advocated increased political power for blacks. His poems, plays, novels, and essays have helped move African American literature toward a focus on the black experience.

Amiri Baraka, born in 1934, American playwright, poet, and political activist, whose poems, novels, plays, and essays were a major force throughout the late 1960s in pushing African American literature away from themes of integration toward a focus on the black experience. Originally named Everett LeRoi Jones, he changed his name to Imamu Ameer Baraka in 1967. In the 1970s he altered this name to Amiri Baraka.

Born in Newark, New Jersey, Baraka earned a scholarship to Rutgers University in 1951 but transferred a year later to Howard University, where he earned his bachelor's degree in 1954. After serving three years in the Air Force, he settled in New York City's Greenwich Village, where he befriended several prominent Beat Generation poets, including Allen Ginsberg.

In 1958 Baraka and his wife, Hettie Cohen, founded Yugen, an influential Beat literary journal. In 1964 his first major play, Dutchman, opened in New York and won an Obie Award (an off-Broadway award given by the Village Voice newspaper). Both Dutchman and Baraka's second major play, The Slave (1964), dealt with the corrosive effects of racism. In 1964 he also founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater.

During the early 1960s Baraka slowly distanced himself from the Beats and white culture in general, and after black Muslim leader Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, Baraka turned his back on the white world entirely. He divorced his wife (who was white), changed his name, became a black nationalist, moved to Harlem, and dedicated himself to creating black culture through art. In the 1970s he turned more toward politics, founding the Congress of African People and organizing the Black National Political Convention in 1972. In 1974 he abandoned the black nationalist movement in favor of Marxism and Leninism. Transbluesency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1961-1995) was published in 1995. Eulogies (1996) is a collection of his essays.

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