Happy birthday to the great poet, playwright, critic, and activist Amiri Baraka!
Baraka was born on this day in 1934 in Newark, the same New Jersey city where eight years earlier Allen Ginsberg had been born. His given name was Everett LeRoi Jones, and he went by LeRoi, eventually changing his name in the late 1960s to Amiri Baraka. Baraka had studied at Rutgers University and Howard University before, like Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, studying at Columbia University. Also like Kerouac, he took classes at The New School. However, while Ginsberg and Kerouac could be found in the English departments, Baraka’s major fields of study were philosophy and religion. It is not surprising, then, that he became known for his social criticism.
As his website states:
Baraka started his professional career by joining the US Air Force in the early fifties. Destined to be an accomplished author, he did not serve the military for long and switched to a completely different domain by opting to work in a warehouse for music records. This is where his social circle expanded and added the Black Mountain Poets, New York School Poets and the Beat Generation to it. Also, it developed his interest in Jazz music which later matured in making him one of the most sought after music critics.
Around that same time, in 1958, he married Hettie Cohen. Together they founded the short-lived lit mag Yugen. He also edited the lit mag Floating Bear with Diane DiPrima. His first book of poems, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, was published in 1961. Perhaps the book he is best known for is the 1963 jazz criticism Blues People: Negro Music in White America.
Baraka has gone on to receive the PEN Open Book Award, the James Weldon Johnson Medal for contributions to the arts, an Obie Award (for Dutchman), and the American Academy of Arts & Letters award, and become Professor Emeritus at the State university of New York at Stony Brook and the Poet Laureate of New Jersey.
This is barely even scraping the surface of who Baraka is and the importance of his work. My emphasis on his connection to Ginsberg, Kerouac, DiPrima, and the Beat Generation is an artificial construct, simply to navigate my usual Kerouac readers. Baraka’s literature and activism is integral to our nation’s history and development. The Poetry Foundation offers a more thorough biography.
Read an excerpt from Blues People on Barnes & Noble.
Find out more on Amiri Baraka’s website.