Everett LeRoi Jones was born in Newark in the state of New Jersey USA. He was born on 7th October 1934 (Baraka, p.4). LeRoi Jones alias Amiri Baraka was known for poetry, theatre, teaching, and activism. Like everyone, Barakas identity was shaped by the events and circumstances throughout his life. After his high school education, Jones enrolled at Rutger and Howard Universities in 1951 and 1952 respectively (Baraka, p.10). Here is where he majored in religion and philosophy (Baraka, p.10). As such, this served as an adequate framework for his future activities as a poet and an activist for black rights.
After his university education, LeRoi Jones joined the United States military in the air force division (Lee, p.371). At one time he was posted in Puerto Rico. Here he took advantage of the library resources and read widely (Lee, p.371). His interest was captured by poems, especially of the Beat poets. In a short while, he began writing poems of his own. His love for literary works, however, got him into trouble when he was found to be in possession of the Soviet Union articles (Lee, p.372). Notably, this earned him a summary discharge from the military. He later on protested against deep-seated racism in the military especially against the blacks (Lee, p.372). The discharge, however dishonorable, presented a good opportunity for Jones to tap into his literary genius.
Jones first significant move was working in Greenwich Village at a music records store. He learned about Jazz music in this store, and this formed a basis of his work as a music critic later on in life. In 1958, Jones married Hettie Cohen (Lee, p. 373). The couple partnered to start a publishing company called Totem Press in the same year. Jones, later on, went to become an editor in various journals and magazines such as The Floating Bear magazine and Kulchur journal (Lee, p.373). These experiences cemented his knowledge in the literary field which he effectively used in his activism.
The turning point of Jones life effectively began in 1960 when he visited Cuba as part of a delegates trip (Smith, p.236). In his visit, he met artists who criticised his reluctance to speak up for the oppressed; most of whom were black. These comments served to awaken a sleeping activist within Jones. His literary works changed significantly to focus on the fundamental rights and freedoms of black people. The effect of Cuba grew on him as evidenced by his works that supported Fidel Castros administration (Smith, p. 236). The 1960s proved to be the time when Jones was actively engaged in the Black Arts Movement (BAM). The movement involved African Americans who used literary works such as poetry and theatre to illustrate the rightful place of blacks in Americas social and political environment. LeRoi Jones was a leading figure in this movement through his iconic poem Black Art (Smith, p. 239).
The assassination of Malcolm X in 1965 brought LeRoi Jones into a moment of introspection. He lamented at the mistreatment of black people at the hands of the white. Presumably, this led him to develop much disdain towards white people and anyone associated with them. The first casualty was his wife, a white woman, and two daughters. Jones separated from them because he felt that they were part of the oppressors (Smith, p. 236). He thought he had a moral obligation not to associate with any white person due to the suffering of black people at that time.
LeRoi Jones then focused much of his time advocating for Black nationalism through the Black Arts Movement. This movement had plenty of Islam influence from its adherents. Jones became particularly close with Sunni Muslims which eventually led to his conversion to Islam in 1967 (Bowen, p. 558). The conversion coincided with a name change to Amiri Baraka. As a Muslim, Baraka added to the already growing Islamic influence in BAM through his play titled "Black Mass." This play demystified the notion that whites were created by Yacub (Bowen, p. 560).
In 1967, Baraka married an African American called Sylvia Robinson alias Amina Baraka. Her wife was also a poet, and together they established the Spirit House Players; a theatre that birthed many plays against police brutality. The 1970s saw Amiri Baraka converting his philosophical ideas to Marxism (Smith, p. 235). He became very vocal against capitalism and advocated for it to be uprooted from the American society. He argued that capitalism laid the ground for the disenfranchisement of poor people, most of whom were African Americans. It was a continuation of the fight between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat that was started by Karl Marx (Lee, p.384).
Throughout his life, Baraka was a polarising figure. From the use of violent words in his poems to controversial stances such as anti-Semitism, Baraka was loved and hated in equal measure (Smith , p.235). It was not just about speaking up to him; he used words as a weapon to stir emotions of Americans, especially the blacks. One of his controversial poems, "Somebody blew up America?", Released in 2002 in response to the 2001 terror attack was heavily criticised (Bowen, p. 570). The poem was a rant about all the historical injustices that occurred to minority groups. The poem was however faulted for anti-Semitic and racist undertones. Notably, this made him lose his post as the national poet laureate. His other works include the award-winning play "The Dutchman" in 1964. Some critics of the play claim that it displayed a misogynist theme. Baraka also wrote "Blue Peoples," a book that signified the introduction of Jazz music in American schools (Smith, p. 237).
Baraka, Amiri. The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones. New York: LAWRENCE HILL BOOKS, 1997. Print.
Bowen, Patrick D. A Cultural Revolution. Bowen, Patrick D. A History of Conversion to Islam in the United States, Volume 2, The African American Islamic Renaissance, 1920-1975. New York: BRILL, 2017. 558-560. Print.
Lee, Ben. LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka and the Limits of Open Form. African American Review (2003): 371-387. Print.
Smith, David L. Amiri Baraka and the Black Arts of Black Art. New York: Duke University Press, 1987. Print.
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