Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey to a postman and lift operator, Amiri Baraka has undergone many changes in his life and professional career as a writer and poet.
Early Life and Career
Jones studied philosophy and religion at Rutgers, Columbia, and Howard Universities, though he earned no degree. Jones then joined the US Air Force for three years. An anonymous letter to his commanding officer accusing him of being a communist led to the discovery of Soviet agitprop, Baraka was put on gardening duty and given a dishonorable discharge for violation of his oath of duty.
Baraka came to New York's Greenwich Village from the Air Force in 1957 and rented a tenement on East Third Street. Baraka found a job in a record warehouse, which fueled his interest in black music, and brought him into contact with writers such as Nat Hentoff, Martin Williams and Allen Ginsberg. The influences these individuals had on Baraka's early career is reflected in his Beat-era poetry, and can be seen in his Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note poetry collection.
1960's and 1970's
By 1964, he had achieved some notoriety in the New York literary community. He wrote critically acclaimed off-Broadway plays, beginning with "The Dutchman " in 1964, followed by "The Slave " in 1965. In this era, Baraka also recorded and performed with the free jazz group the New York Art Quartet .
After the murder of Malcolm X in 1965, Jones dropped his Beat identity. He left Greenwich Village for Harlem and changed his name from Everett LeRoi Jones to Imamu Amiri Baraka, embracing the new black liberation ideology. In 1965 Baraka divorced Cohen, abandoning her and their two children. Cohen would later write in her autobiography, How I Became Hettie Jones , that Baraka had physically abused both her and the children for years. Malcolm X's murder also marks the point in Baraka's career where charges of racism, homophobia and anti-Semitism were made against him.
"I don't see anything wrong with hating white people," Baraka told a U.S. News and World Report writer. One of Baraka's popular Harlem street performances in 1965 involved a black valet murdering white victims.
From 1965 to 1974, Baraka devoted himself to the black nationalist cause and the Congress of Afrikan Peoples . After moving to Harlem, Baraka and several other associates began The Black Arts Repertory Theater . Its stated goal was to "create an art that would be a weapon in the Black Liberation Movement." BART was a short lived endeavor, lasting only until late 1965. Funding came largely from then-President Lyndon Baines Johnson's Great Society programs. When Jones' senior aid, Sargent Shriver, came to visit BART as part of a public relations campaign, Jones refused him admission to the premises, telling the "jew Shriver" to "go fuck himself."
It was in the 1960s and early 1970s the Baraka penned what many see as his most anti-Semitic works:
Smile, jew. Dance, jew. Tell me you love me, jew. I got something for you, like you dig, I got. I got this thing, goes pulsating through black everything universal meaning. I got the extermination blues, jewboys. I got the hitler syndrome figured.
-- from "For Tom Postell, Dead Black Poet"
We want poems like fists beating niggers out of Jocks or dagger poems in the slimy bellies of the owner-jews. . . . Poems that wrestle cops into alleys and take their weapons leaving them dead with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland. . . . Look at the Liberal Spokesman for the jews clutch his throat & puke himself into eternity. . . Put it on him, poem. Strip him naked to the world! Another bad poem cracking steel knuckles in a jewlady's mouth.
-- from "Black Art"
Atheist Jews double crossers stole our secrets. . . . They give us to worship a dead Jew and not ourselves . . . . Selling fried potatoes and people, the little arty bastards talking arithmetic they sucked from the arab's head.
-- from "Black People"
Baraka has also been criticized over issues of homophobia. Many people, like author Jerry Gafio Watts , believe that Baraka's homophobia stems from his efforts to conceal his own history of homosexuality. Baraka was allegedly afraid that such rumors of his homosexual experience would diminish his standing in the militant community. Baraka's "Civil Rights Poem" is an attack on black civil rights leader Roy Wilkins.
Roywilkins is an eternal faggot His spirit is a faggot his projection and image, this is to say, that if i ever see roywilkins on the sidewalks im gonna stick half my sandal up his ass
After the murder of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968 Baraka was jailed during the riots that broke out in Newark. Baraka then became heavily involved in local electoral politics. Baraka was key member in the campaign to elect a black mayor, drawing people like Jesse Jackson and Harry Belafonte to the Newark. In 1970, Baraka's efforts bore fruit when Kenneth Gibson became Newark's first black mayor. Baraka commented on the election's revolutionary implications: "We will nationalize the city's institutions," he wrote before the vote, "as if it were liberated territory in Zimbabwe or Angola."
1980's and 1990's
In 1980, Baraka claimed to have overcome his hostility to Jews. He wrote in "Confessions of a former Anti-Semite," he should be understood as anti-Zionist. "Zionism is a form of racism. It is a political ideology that hides behind the Jewish religion and the Jewish people, while performing its negative tasks for imperialism." As for Jews, he made it clear that the ones he approved of were those who weren't too Jewish. He praised "the movement among middle-class Jews to become straightup Americans," and said that "shedding their 'Jewishness' represents a progressive trend."
When Rutgers University denied him tenure in 1990, he criticized the tenure committee, denouncing its members as "Ivy League Goebbels," "white supremacists," and "powerful Klansmen," whose "intellectual presence makes a stink across the campus like the corpses of rotting Nazis."
Baraka had a small, though memorable role in the 1998 film Bullworth .
Somebody Blew Up America Controversey
In September and October of 2001 Baraka composed a poem called "Somebody Blew Up America". The poem was read publicly and circulated, and later became the source of controversy when he was named Poet Laureate of New Jersey. The poem was written about the September 11, 2001 attacks. Among other criticisms, some people interpreted sections of the poem as saying that the Israeli government had prior knowledge of the attack or even were responsible:
Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion And cracking they sides at the notion
Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers To stay home that day Why did Sharon stay away?
Folwing the controversy, Baraka stated that the poem was not anti-Semitic and stated further that "I do believe, as I stated about England, Germany, France, Russia, that the Israeli government, certainly its security force, SHABAK knew about the attack in advance."
Governor James McGreevey called for Baraka's resignation as poet laureate, and when he refused, asked the state legislature to abolish the post, which it did in 2003. Note also that many critics have argued that the various 9/11 conspiracy claims regarding Jews or Israel are baseless.
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