Amiri Baraka, poet, playwright, essayist and critic, has died at age 79 in Newark, New Jersey. He was hospitalized in December for an unknown illness.
Baraka was a multi-talented, prolific author, a well-regarded teacher, and an internationally known activist. The recipient of—among other honors—the Guggenheim Fellowship, a Langston Hughes Award, and a PEN Open Book Award, Baraka was also the Poet Laureate of New Jersey, and, when that position was eliminated, the Poet Laureate of the Newark Public School System.
Baraka, of course, was a Newark native and a product of that school system, and even as he became a nationally known poet and critic he remained a strong and effective advocate for his city's working class and minorities. In 1970, his activism helped usher in the election of the city's—and the Northeast's—first black mayor, Ken Gibson; a few years later, when Baraka felt that Gibson had turned on Newark's poor and disenfranchised, he became one of the mayor's fiercest critics. (Three decades later he'd be known as an outspoken opponent of star mayor Cory Booker; his son, Ras, is running for mayor this year.)
Born Everett LeRoi Jones in 1934, Baraka spent time at Rutgers and Howard before enlisting in the Air Force. In 1954 he moved to Greenwich Village, where he quickly installed himself in the city's poetry scene as a writer, editor, and publisher. It was there that he also fell in love with jazz, the music that would be the subject of his 1963 collection of criticism and history Blues People, maybe his most widely read book.
In 1965, he broke from the civil rights movement and left the mostly white Greenwich Village poetry scene for Harlem, where he declared himself a black cultural nationalist and began writing militant poetry. Here he became one of the foremost proponents and icons of the Black Arts movement—named after and inspired by his poem "Black Art." In 1967, after meeting with the activist Maulana Karenga, he changed his name to Imamu Amear Baraka, later simplifying it to Amiri Baraka.
By the mid-1970s, having returned to Newark, he shed his identity as a black nationalist for one as an Marxist and advocate for international liberation movements. He repudiated viciously anti-Semitic, anti-gay and misogynist statements he'd made, and continued to teach, lecture and write poetry, at Columbia, Rutgers and SUNY Stony Brook.
In 2002, after being named Poet Laureate of New Jersey, he wrote a poem called "Somebody Blew Up America?" in which he wondered why "4,000 Israeli workers" had "stay[ed] home" from the Twin Towers on September 11. He refused then-governor Jim McGreevey's calls for him to step down, saying the poem was anti-Israel but not anti-Semitic (and pointing to T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound as anti-Semites studied in school). In turn, McGreevey and the State Senate abolished the post. But his hometown was there for him: Newark's public school system named him its poet laureate. ''At the very least,'' he told the Times at the time, ''you can't say I'm not promoting poetry.''
In 1996, Baraka published Eulogies, a collection of short, poetic tributes to the dead. Among them was an obituary for Miles Davis. "No, I mean either this death is the beginning of death in cut time, or it means that one earth has turned and another begun," he writes. "One age, one era, one being. Listening to you now, and knowing that whole of change you went through, from life to life, from music to music, from revelation to revelation, even evolution can be dissolution or devolution."