Amiri Baraka Biography

Poet and political activist, Amiri Baraka was one of the most influential African-American writers. Explore this biography to learn more about his childhood, life, works, achievements and timeline.

Quick Facts

Birthday: October 7, 1934

Nationality: American

Famous: Quotes By Amiri Baraka Black Poets

Died At Age: 79

Sun Sign: Libra

Born in: Newark

Famous as: Writer

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Spouse/Ex-: Amina Baraka (m. 1966), Hettie Jones (m. 1958–1965)

father: Coyt Leverette Jones

mother: Anna Lois Jones

children: Ahi Baraka, Amiri Baraka Jr., Dominque DiPrima, Kellie Jones, Lisa Jones, Maria Jones, Obalaji Baraka, Ras Baraka, Shani Baraka

Died on: January 9, 2014

place of death: Newark, New Jersey, U.S.

Ideology: Communists

U.S. State: New Jersey

Founder/Co-Founder: Totem Press

More Facts

education: Columbia University, The New School, Howard University, Rutgers University, Barringer High School

awards: 1989 - American Book Award for his works
1989 - Langston Hughes Award
2008 - PEN Open Book Award

- Rockefeller Foundation Award for Drama
- Before Columbus Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award

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Amiri Baraka was an African-American writer, essayist, playwright and music critic, known for his abstruse writing style which has often been difficult for the readers to comprehend. His poems and essays mostly reflected the social issues concerning African-Americans and he was also famous as the founder of the ‘Black Arts Movement’. His writings encompassed African-American music viz. Jazz and Blues and their history. His political standpoint changed several times as he went from being a part of the avant-garde ‘Beat Generation’, to being a Black Nationalist. His prolific career was also marred with several controversies, especially owing to his anti-Semitic poems and articles. He was also known for his upfront views and blunt comments on political matters like national oppression and racism. Apart from writing, he was also hailed for his social commitment and was bestowed with several prestigious literary awards and honors. Baraka had also taught at several universities and had played a powerful role in defining ‘Black Literature’ thereby inspiring countless others. Along with James Baldwin, Baraka was also one of the most published Black writers of his generation.

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Childhood & Early Life
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  • In 1958, after marrying Hettie Cohen, the co-founder of ‘Yugen’, a literary magazine, he became the magazine’s editor. Later, they founded the ‘Totem Press’ that went on to publish works of famous ‘Beat writers’ like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.
  • In 1961, his first volume of poetry, ‘Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note’ got published.
  • From 1961-1963, he worked alongside Diane Di Prima as an editor of ‘The Floating Bear’, a literary newsletter. During this period, he also joined the ‘Umbra Poets Workshop’, a group of African-American writers from Manhattan.
  • In 1963, his criticisms on African-American music, ‘Blues People: Negro Music in White America’, was published.
  • From 1963-1965, he taught creative writing at the Columbia University. During this time, he became a playwright and came to limelight with the production of the highly-acclaimed and controversial play, ‘Dutchman’. Ever since, he has written several plays like ‘The Slave-1964’ and ‘The Death of Malcolm X-1969’.
  • In 1965, after the assassination of Malcolm X, an African-American human rights activist, he became sceptical about the ‘white community’ and consequently left the ‘white Beat movement’ and Greenwich Village.
  • In 1965, after moving to Harlem, he founded the ‘Black Arts Repertory Theatre’, where the members used their plays to attack the prevalent racism.
  • In 1967, he worked as a visiting professor at the San Francisco State College and a year later published ‘Black Music’, a collection of his criticisms on music, which were previously published in various magazines.
  • In the early 1970s, he wrote numerous poems and articles that were viewed by critics as anti-Jewish.
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  • In 1974, he embraced Communism, believing that the declining economic condition was the root cause of various problems faced by the American society.
  • In 1979, he became a lecturer in Africana Studies at Stony Brook University.In 1984, his autobiography, ‘The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka’ was published.
Major Works
  • ‘Dutchman’ is a highly controversial yet critically-acclaimed play, written at a time when Baraka embraced ‘Black Nationalism’, a group that advocated ‘separatism’ for the African-Americans. This play narrates the story of a chance-meeting of a white woman with a black man on a subway. On March 24, 1964, it was staged at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York and was adapted into a film in 1967.
Awards & Achievements
  • In 1964, his play, ‘Dutchman’ won the ‘Obie Award’ or ‘Off-Broadway Theatre Award’ for the ‘Best Off-Broadway play’.
  • In 1989, he was awarded the ‘American Book Award’ for his literary works.
  • In 1999, he was honored as the ‘Poet Laureate of New Jersey’.
  • He is the recipient of several fellowships from prominent institutions like ‘the Guggenheim Fellowship-1965’, ‘Rockefeller Foundation Award for Drama’ and National Endowment for the Arts.
  • He also received the ‘Before Columbus Foundation’ Lifetime Achievement Award.In 2002, he was included in the list of ‘100 Greatest African-Americans’.
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Personal Life & Legacy
  • In 1958, he married a Jewish woman, Hettie Roberta Cohen and the couple had to two children. They got divorced after he left for Harlem, following the assassination of Malcolm-X.
  • In 1966, he met his second wife, Sylvia Robinson, a black woman who changed her name to Bibi Amina Baraka. The couple got married in same year and remained together till his death in 2014.
  • He died on January 9, 2014 due to complications from a recent surgery.
  • This prolific African-American author has appeared in several documentary films like ‘Black Candle’ and ‘Motherland’.

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- Amiri Baraka Biography
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Last Updated
- September 17, 2016
Amiri Baraka

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