By Dwight Hobbes
In 1964, Amiri Baraka (then going by his given name LeRoi Jones) stood the American Theatre on its ear with the wildly controversial, Obie Award-winning drama Dutchman. He never equaled that success again, but his name and lasting fame had been solidly established, enhanced by the 1967 film version starring Al Freeman, Jr. (Malcolm X, Once Upon A Time…When We Were Colored) and directed by Anthony Harvey (The Lion In Winter, The Glass Menagerie).
The story, a rite-of-passage saga for African American males, depicted the explosive self-realization of a young, middle-class man shattering the veneer of social convention to assert his Blackness.
Baraka’s career began in the early ’60s among New York City’s bohemian elite most notably with his book Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note and his founding of Totem Press, which published the works of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. One of the most highly-regarded writers and controversial figures of his generation, he is hailed as a primary architect of the historic Black Arts Movement, which — also in the ’60s — saw the emergence of playwright Ed Bullins, poets Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez, and novelists Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Ishmael Reed.
He spent much of his storied life and career being known less for his artistry and more for such incendiary incidents as being ousted from his post as poet laureate of New Jersey, accused of anti-Semitism for writing the poem “Somebody Blew Up America.” Penned following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it asserted that Israeli and President George W. Bush had advance knowledge of the attacks:
“Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed/Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers/To stay home that day/Why did [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon stay away?/…Who knows why Five Israelis was filming the explosion/And cracking they sides at the notion.”
Baraka enjoyed a sold-out appearance last year in the Twin Cities. Minnesota Spoken Word Association founders e.g. bailey and Shá Cage produced an adaptation of his work Wise Why’s Y’s, for which he performed with area artists, including celebrated poet J. Otis Powell!
Doctors did not immediately disclose the cause of death but revealed that he’d been gravely ill since December. Amiri Baraka has two daughters from his first marriage and four children from his second, including Newark City Council Member Ras Baraka.
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