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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones)
(b. 1934)

Amiri Baraka, born Everett LeRoy Jones to Coyt LeRoy and Anna Lois Jones in Newark, New Jersey, grew up in a middle-class environment. He attended a predominantly black elementary school, but his college-prep high school, from which he graduated with honors in 1951, was mainly white. About 1951, the first of his name changes occurred with the spelling of his middle name from “LeRoy” to “LeRoi.” From 1952 to 1954 he attended Howard University, where he studied with Sterling Brown and Nathan Scott. After he flunked out of school, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force until 1957. These were years of intellectual commitment and poetry writing. In 1957, however, he was dishonorably discharged because of suspicions of communism and such “suspicious activities” as voracious reading, journal-keeping, poetry writing, and subscribing to avant-garde journals.

Free to live the avant-garde life that had become his preference, Baraka moved to New York’s Greenwich Village. Among his associates there were Charles Olson, Frank O’Hara, and Allen Ginsberg. In 1958 he married Hettie Cohn, a Jewish woman also much a part of the Beat scene, and together they edited Yugen, a literary journal which published the work of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and many others.

The next decade was marked by a significant change from things aesthetic to things political. His 1960 visit to Cuba marks the genesis of political awareness of blackness and a new frame of reference: the third world. Although the year after his trip saw the inauguration of another avant-garde journal, this time co-edited with poet Diane di Prima, and the publication of his first volume of poetry, by 1964 the tensions inherent along the spectrum of early poetic asceticism and racial didacticism become apparent in the poems of The Dead Lecturer, as well as his play Dutchman, for which he won an Obie Award for its off-Broadway production.

Radically affected by the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, Baraka left Hettie and the bohemian life of the Village and moved to Harlem, where he established the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School. In 1966, returning to Newark, he founded a similar venture, Spirit House, and married Sylvia Robinson, a black woman. Again a change of name signaled a re-shaping of identity: LeRoi Jones became Imamu Amiri Baraka, as he was known through the racial upheavals of the 60s. By the early 70s he had dropped the title “Imamu,” yet another indication of a shift: this one from black nationalism to international socialism, a stance obviously not tolerant of titles. His published poetry of the late 70s reflects this shift in thought.

In 1979 he joined the African Studies Department at SUNY Stony Brook, was promoted to associate professor with tenure in 1982, and to full professor in 1984 following the publication of Autobiography and Daggers and Javelins. He continues to work on Wise/Whys, an African American poetic-historical odyssey.

The sense of flux and process, of intensity and explosion, of rebellion and reconstruction, and always the SOUND of it, are everywhere present in his poetry and in his prose. Dutchman, included in the book, has come to be seen as his signature work.

Marcellette Williams
University of Massachusetts, Amherst

In the Heath Anthology
An Agony. As now. (1964)
Dutchman (1964)
A Poem Some People Will Have to Understand (1969)
Black People: This Is Our Destiny (1969)
Ka 'Ba (1969)
Numbers, Letters (1969)

Other Works
Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note . . . (1961)
The Dead Lecturer (1964)
Home: Social Essays (1966)
Black Magic (1969)
In Our Terribleness (1970)
It's Nation Time (1970)
Jello (1970)
Spirit Reach (1972)
Hard Facts (1975)
Selected Essays of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, and Selected Prose of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1979)
In the Tradition, Greenfield Review (1980)
Daggers and Javelins: Essays, 1974-1979 (1984)
The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka (1984)

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Amiri Baraka
Biographical sketch.

Modern American Poetry
Offers a biography with historical context, criticism, some works online, links, and more.

Original Beat
An essay about Baraka's impact on contemporary "rap and rant."

Playwright, Author, Poet, Activist, Critic, Educator
Provides a chronology, specific info about his play Dutchman, and a bibliography.

Secondary Sources