(Adds quotes from Baraka and details on his works)
By David Jones
NEWARK, N.J. Jan 9 Amiri Baraka, a
controversial playwright, poet and activist who set a new path
for fellow African-American artists by bringing militancy and
verve to works about race in America, died on Thursday at age 79
at a hospital in his native New Jersey, a representative said.
Baraka had been in failing health and passed away at Newark
Beth Israel Medical Center, surrounded by family, said his
booking agent Celeste Bateman.
Baraka had associated with Beat Generation poets in the
1950s and he published his first collection of poems in 1961. In
1964, he won fame in some circles, notoriety in others and an
Obie award for his explosive play "Dutchman."
In the play, a white woman sexually teases and taunts a
black man named Clay on a subway, they clash venomously and he
speaks of seething anger at whites. The work ends with the woman
stabbing Clay in the heart, then eyeing another black rider.
The New York Times, in a 2007 review of a new production of
the play, called it the "singular cultural emblem" of the black
separatist movement in the United States.
Among Baraka's other well-known works are his nonfiction
book "Blues People: Negro Music in White America" and the poems
"In Memory of Radio" and "An Agony. As Now."
Born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, he later became known as
Amiri Baraka. On his way to increased political militancy,
Baraka in 1965 divorced his white wife, Hettie.
After the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X, Baraka played a
principal role in the creation of the Black Arts Movement as the
head of a theater and school in Harlem, the historic center of
African-American creative expression.
The movement served as the cultural wing of the militant
Black Power Movement espoused by groups such as the Black
Panthers and which had grown out of the civil rights struggle of
the 1950s and 1960s.
"The Black Artist's role in America is to aid in the
destruction of America as he knows it," Baraka wrote in an essay
from the time.
Baraka also embraced Marxism and artists in the developing
world who, like himself, made political statements.
Among his accolades were the Rockefeller Foundation Award
for Drama and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the
The late poet Robert Creeley, in a 1996 piece in the Boston
Review on a collection of Baraka's poems, recognized the
author's "much emphasized antagonism toward the white majority"
but also his "shifts of strategy and relationship."
"Clearly Baraka is always there, wry, often contemptuous,
with characteristic quick wit and displacing humor, but what he
values is the collective, the 'we' which comes again and again
into his poems," Creeley wrote.
In 2002, as poet laureate of New Jersey, Baraka drew
accusations of anti-Semitism over his poem "Somebody Blew Up
America," which included material borrowed from conspiracy
theories in an account of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Baraka refused then-New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey's
request for him to resign and, in response, state lawmakers
passed a law to eliminate the position of poet laureate.
"Poetry is underrated," Baraka told the New York Times in
2012, "so when they got rid of the poet laureate thing, I wrote
a letter saying, 'This is progress. In the old days, they could
lock me up. Now they just take away my title.'"
Baraka over the decades loomed large as a political figure
in his home of Newark, where he returned to live in the 1960s
after time spent in New York.
"I always thought Amiri Baraka's decision to come back to
Newark and stay in Newark and engage Newark helped this
beleaguered city recover some very important parts of its
identity - its self identity - in some periods when the city was
spiraling downward," said Clement Price, a professor of history
at Rutgers University.
Newark Mayor Luis Quintana said in a statement that his city
mourned the death of Baraka, who he said "used the power of the
pen to advance the cause of civil rights."
"Amiri Baraka's poetry and prose transcended ethnic and
racial barriers, inspiring and energizing audiences of many
generations," Quintana said.
U.S. Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, said
in a statement, "My thoughts and prayers are with his children
and the whole Baraka family after their loss."
Baraka is survived by his wife, Amina, and several children.
His son, Ras Baraka, is on the Municipal Council of Newark and
is a candidate to be mayor.
(Additional reporting by Eric Kelsey in Los Angeles, Writing by
Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Gunna Dickson,
Cynthia Osterman and Lisa Shumaker)