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Poet Amiri Baraka passes away

Poet Amiri Baraka passes away

THE American poet and activist Amiri Baraka has passed away at the age of 79.

A controversial figure, Mr. Baraka at times divided public opinion but many of his fans regarded him as a genius and a prophet.

Born Everett LeRoi Jones in New Jersey, he changed his name after a visit to Cuba in 1960. 

His poetry had first been published in the 1950s and he had initially been linked to the Beat generation of poets which included Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. But his radical views saw him move towards support for the militant black separatist movement.

Mr. Baraka played a key role in the formation of the Black Arts Movement in the mid-1960s in the wake of the assassination of Malcolm X. His robust views were reflected in the language he used in the manifesto he wrote for the movement  in which he stated: “We want poems that kill. Poems that shoot guns”.

He was a prolific writer — not only of poetry but he also produced a wide body of work including novels, short stories, plays and even jazz operas.

One of his early plays, Dutchman, was first staged at the height of the civil rights movement and firmly established his reputation for being fearless in his writing.

His books included Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1963) which charted the history of black music. 

Mr. Baraka appeared in a number of films and documentaries over the years and even had an acting credit in the movie Bulworth (1998), in which he appeared as a homeless poet.

In later years, the radical views of his earlier life became more moderate but he remained a controversial figure. In 2002 when he was poet laureate of New Jersey, Mr. Baraka faced accusations of anti-semitism over his poem Somebody Blew Up America (see below) which referenced the 9/11 attacks. 

When he refused to resign because of the controversy, the then Governor of New Jersey was forced to push through a law to axe the post of poet laureate.

For many years, Mr. Baraka was on the faculty of the State University  of New York and he also taught at George Washington University and at Yale.

Mr. Baraka passed away at a hospital in New Jersey. 

He was married twice. His first wife was the writer Hettie Cohen, He later married Sylvia Robinson. He is survived by six children.

To see footage of Mr. Baraka reading Somebody Blew Up America, click here.

To view an excerpt of Mr. Baraka speaking at an event in New York, click here.

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