NEW YORK - Amiri Baraka, the New Jersey poet laureate whose works were
celebrated by blacks but often condemned by Jews, has died.
writings, lectures and poetry brought him national renown beginning in
the 1960s, and the one-time black nationalist was celebrated by many
African Americans as a voice of the disenfranchised. He was a winner of
the PEN/Faulkner Award. But Baraka, who died Thursday at age 79, also
could be hateful.
In September 2002, not long after he was named
the poet laureate of New Jersey, Baraka penned a poem called “Somebody
Blew Up America” that suggested Israel knew in advance about the 9/11
attacks. He wrote, “Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get
bombed/Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers/To stay home
that day/Why did Sharon stay away?”
The poem prompted calls for
Baraka’s dismissal as New Jersey’s poet laureate, including by
then-governor James McGreevey. Baraka refused. After it became clear
that there was no way to force him to resign, New Jersey’s legislature
voted in 2003 to eliminate the position entirely.
Baraka was born
Everett Leroy Jones in Newark, NJ, in 1934. He later attended Howard
University, but was expelled from the historically black college he
derided as “an employment agency” where “they teach you to pretend to be
white,” according to The New York Times.
After spending several
years in the Air Force, Baraka moved to New York, joined the beatniks
and began writing, publishing his first major book, Blues People, in
1963. He won acclaim the following year for his play Dutchman, about a
white woman who stabs a black man to death aboard a subway train while
the passengers sit idly by.
As his radicalism grew and he became a
black nationalist, Baraka left his wife and two daughters because he
believed that being married to a white woman was wrong, according to the
In a book published in 1969, Baraka wrote, “Smile, jew.
Dance, jew. Tell me you love me, jew,” and, “I got the extermination
blues, jewboys. I got the hitler syndrome figured.”
continued to inspire and outrage over the ensuing decades, mixing
teaching with activism. When Rutgers University denied Baraka tenure in
1990, he called members of its English department Nazis and Klansmen.
is survived by four sons and four daughters, according to the Times;
another daughter, Shani Baraka, was murdered in 2003 by the estranged
husband of her half-sister.