The death of Amiri Baraka this past Thursday at age 79 marks the end of both an extraordinary life and an important cultural and political era when poets did not simply write about political upheavals and revolutions, but at times actively participated and led them. His life’s arc, from poet to black power icon to university professor, offers a portrait of a remarkable if controversial and at times misunderstood public intellectual and activist.
Baraka found beauty in the grotesque histories of slavery and Jim Crow, delivering rapid-fire poems like words of fire that shook the nation during the 1960s. Boldly combining art and activism in ways that inspired and inflamed, he went from being the enfant terrible of the Beat era to black nationalist poet before unapologetically embracing Marxism.
In many ways his life reflects now-vanished opportunities for public engagement in the 20th century. Born Everett LeRoi Jones in 1934, Baraka came of age during the shifting tides of post-war America, when the struggle to end Jim Crow segregation, coupled with stints at Cold War-era Howard University and the U.S. Air Force, helped to shape the ideas that would soon make him one of his generation’s protean figures. A fateful trip to Cuba in 1960 and research on Blues People: Negro Music in White America helped to radicalize the poet then known as LeRoi Jones.
It was the assassination of his friend Malcolm X, however, that transformed the fiery artist into a revolutionary. In short order he relocated to Harlem, where he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater and School—a melding of politics and culture that sparked a national Black Arts Movement.
Reflecting his ambitions for political organizing, three years after being beaten and arrested during Newark, N.J.’s destructive 1967 riot, the newly rechristened Amiri Baraka helped to lead a black and Puerto Rican political coalition that elected the city’s first black mayor, Kenneth Gibson. In 1972, Baraka, who had been know for angry, raging poems designed to purposely rattle the white establishment, became black America’s unofficial prime minister. He presided, along with Michigan Rep. Charles Diggs and Gary, Ind., Mayor Richard Hatcher, over a National Black Political Convention, designed to foster “unity without uniformity” in hopes of consolidating black political power nationwide.
During the early 1970s, Baraka’s political leadership, as head of the Congress of African People and co-convener of the Gary convention, made him one of the most powerful voices in black America. His call for turning urban ghettoes into Pan-African paradises included the pragmatic understanding that blacks required local political and economic control over their lives. Baraka did more than just hurl rhetorical firebombs against the white establishment. He endeavored to utilize black nationalism and Pan-Africanism as tools to organize and transform the black community.
Baraka’s heyday as a national figure bold enough to foster alliances between black power militants, civil rights leaders and elected officials seemed to mark a turning point both personally and politically.
He now rejected the singular focus on race over class advocated by certain black power groups, in favor of anti-imperialist politics, a stance that placed him on the cutting edge of the era’s politics and characterized him as a divisive figure whom some blamed for splintering the movement.
As the revolutionary politics of the 1960s and 1970s faded, Baraka found himself at another crossroads. Like many of his contemporaries, such as former Black Panther Angela Davis, he found refuge in the university, accepting temporary teaching positions at Yale and Rutgers before becoming a tenured professor of Africana Studies at Stony Brook University. Entry into the academy did little to tame his political activism. Professor Baraka’s presence served as a living testament to the political struggles of the 1960s. Amid the conservative resurgence of the Reagan-Bush era, Baraka remained a vibrant, irascible advocate for the revolutionary dreams of the 1960s.
His writings, public speeches and poems frequently sparked controversy, including allegations of anti-Semitism, which he denied, for his controversial poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” while serving as poet laureate of New Jersey, that implied the state of Israel warned Jews about the 9/11 attacks. Unafraid to succeed or fail, he did both, more often than not, spectacularly.
Through more than a half-century as an activist, writer, public intellectual and controversialist, Baraka proved to be one of the most fascinating and committed figures of his generation: the rare artist who successfully fused politics and culture in service of understanding larger truths. One thing is certain, however. We will never see the likes of him again.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael will be published in 2014 by Basic Books. Follow him on Twitter.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.