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Remembering Amiri Baraka

In the News, Rare Books
Cover of Blues People by LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka)

Cover of Blues People by LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka)

Poet, playwright, and the generally prolific and polarizing Amiri Baraka passed away in his hometown of Newark, NJ on January 9th, 2014.

Standing at the early vanguard of the Beat Generation, Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) settled in Greenwich Village in the 1950s, striking up early dialogues with Beat luminaries like Allen Ginsberg.  In the early 1960s he published Blues People:  Negro Music in White America and won an Obie Award for his controversial play, Dutchman.  Issues of race and divergent political leanings often found themselves boiling to the top of his writings, but it was the 1965 assassination of Black Nationalist Malcolm X that served as the crucible of radicalization for the Amiri Baraka that would emerge from the violence of the 1960s.  Literally and symbolically leaving The Village for Harlem, and as more and more progressive leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy found themselves felled by assassins’ bullets, a poetry of radical self-defense began to ring out from Baraka and the hundred blocks.

Signed copy of "Jimmy," eulogy given at the funeral of James Baldwin.

Signed copy of “Jimmy,” eulogy given at the funeral of James Baldwin.

But, for Baraka, this was not a method and manner of simply courting controversy.  It was a necessity to his writing.  In a 1986 interview with Terri Gross, discussing the hard edges of race and violence that have defined himself and his family, themes that thereby push themselves to the forefront of his writings, Baraka states, “To talk about those things in America is to be radical.  Just to talk about them.”

Baraka’s greatest controversy may have come in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, while he was Poet Laureate of New Jersey and penned “Somebody Blew Up America.” Lines dripping with anti-imperialist rhetoric, that even elicited accusations of anti-Semitism, did not sit well with New Jersey Governor James McGreevey.  Failed attempts to remove Baraka from the post of Poet Laureate finally resulted in the state’s legislature abolishing the position outright, only four years after establishing it, rather than allow Baraka to retain the title.

Cover of "Jimmy" by Amiri Baraka

Cover of “Jimmy” by Amiri Baraka

Here at the University of Houston Special Collections we celebrate the writing and life of Baraka with a handful of items representing his literary legacy.  Of particular note is a copy of his breakthrough Blues People as well as a signed copy of “Jimmy,” the eulogy Baraka gave at the funeral of James Baldwin (#119 of 150 copies printed to mark the occasion) back in 1987.

Baraka’s funeral will be held in his hometown of Newark on January 18th.  He was 79 years old.

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