Poet, author, educator, critic and political activist are just a few of the titles carried by LeRoi Jones, better known to the world as Amiri Baraka. The Newark, NJ native is the embodiment of a radical thinker, never letting his race, upbringing, or the prejudices shown against him silence his voice and movements.
Calling Baraka a controversial figure would be putting it mildly. Never one to bite his tongue, Baraka often spoke aggressively and unapologetically of his viewpoints on race and class, and how the two intersect in America. Along with ex-wife Hettie Cohen, Baraka founded Totem Press, which published such icons as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. While his earlier work was reflective of his fellow Beat poets, after a trip to Cuba and a move to Harlem his work turned into the militant works he is better known for today.
Over time Baraka’s writings became even more controversial and aggressive. Poetry compilations such as Black Magic, It’s Nation Time, and Slave Ship made no apologies for its accusatory nature, with a tone that was seen as refreshing for some and too brash and borderline hateful to others. It was at this point that Baraka was established as a writer who believes that poetry could actively change our environment, if only we were not afraid to act on the words printed.
The fight is not over. Baraka is still exciting audience with his sharp wit, fierce tongue and fearless words of truth. In 2001, his poem “Somebody Blew Up America” caused a great stir for what many took to be anti-American statements. Upon listening to it just once, that is a fair assumption, but Baraka is not one to speak without explanation, and while poetry, as it is an art form, is subject to critique, he is one to back up his strong words with facts. He understands the power of language, and while his life is too complicated to explain here, his effect on poetry, literature, history and American culture is solidified. This National Poetry Month, we salute Amiri Baraka.