Justice for Jazz Artists is saddened to learn of the death of supporter Amiri Baraka. Mr. Baraka, 79, was a playwright, poet, critic, activist, and one of the most respected and most controversial African-American voices in American literature. A courageous and uncompromising voice for justice, he marched beside Justice for Jazz Artists during our 2009 push for musician pensions.
Baraka, a major force in the Black Arts movement of the 60s and 70s, was born Everett LeRoi Jones on Oct. 7, 1934, in Newark, N.J. After attending New York University and Howard University and spending time in the military, Baraka moved to New York City and become involved in the beat poetry scene here. In 1958, he founded the avant-garde poetry magazine Yugen which he co-edited with Hettie Cohen, to whom he was married from 1960 to 1965. Together they helped Yugen publish works by William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac, Diane Di Prima, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Gary Snyder, Gilbert Sorrentino, Barbara Guest, William Carlos Williams and more.
Baraka also founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre and School and led the Black Arts Movement, which included authors Gwendolyn Brooks, Eldridge Cleaver, Gil-Scott Heron, Nikki Giovanni, Ishmael Reed and Quincy Troupe.
Mr. Baraka also had a career as an educator beginning in the 80s; he taught at SUNY Stony Brook, Rutgers University, George Washington University, Yale University, San Francisco State University, Columbia and the New School for Social Research.
His artistic achievements included fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, a PEN/Faulkner Award, a Rockefeller Foundation Award for Drama, the Langston Hughes Award from City College of New York, and the 1964 Obie Award for Best American Play for “The Dutchmen.”
As the New York Times reminds us, he saw himself fundamentally as an optimist: “’I’d say I’m a revolutionary optimist,’ he told Newsday in 1990. ‘I believe that the good guys — the people — are going to win.’”