Amiri Baraka

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Amiri Baraka , then known as LeRoi Jones published his first book of poetry, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, in 1961. In the years that followed, he wrote numerous plays, poems, and short stories, along with commentaries on literature, music, and society. Most of this writing focused on white racism and black liberation. During these decades, Jones moved from Greenwich Village to Harlem, and then to Newark. His political outlook changed from liberalism to black nationalism, then to Marxism-Leninism, and, later, to socialism. Along the way, he joined the Kawaida branch of the Islamic faith and changed his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka.[1]

Early life

LeRoi Jones was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1934, the son of middle-class parents. He was a gifted student who graduated two years early from high school. Although he received a two-year scholarship in 1951 from Rutgers University, he transferred to Howard University in Washington, D.C., after one year. By 1954 he had concluded that "Howard trained blacks for token positions in a white-dominated society, creating only the illusion of significant progress."[1]

Air Force

Jones left Howard University in 1954. Several biographers claim that Jones graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree, but he later asserted that he had "flunked out of school" because of poor academic performance. He joined the U.S. Air Force as a way of fulfilling the military obligations of the day. After completing training, Jones ,..'as assigned to be a member of a bomber crew at an air base in Puerto Rico. There, he read widely. He came to believe that he was a black outsider in a predominantly white world. Again, as had happened at Rutgers and Howard, Jones "came to a sense that there was something about the white way of doing things, of expressing one's self, of being artistic, that limited his ability to reflect himself and his experience in his art."

During his last year in the air force in 1957, Jones developed the goal of living as a writer in New York City. He spent several of his furloughs in Greenwich Village, where he was introduced to the Beat culture movement. When he was prematurely discharged from the military because of a "rumor of communist sympathies", he quickly moved to the Village.[1]

New York

In New York Jones worked as a stock employee in a record shop. He began to review jazz albums for Downbeat magazine, and he occasionally penned the liner notes for new jazz releases.

Together with Hettie Cohen, a white co-worker whom he married in 1958, Jones founded the magazine Yungen. He soon had a creative hand in the literary projects Floating Bear, Fuck You!, and Zazen. As an editor, Jones worked closely with authors such as Diane DiPrima, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

During this period, Jones was also gathering material for his first book of poetry, the 1961 Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note. Between 1958 and 1961-1962, the couple was supported almost entirely by Hettie Cohen's income.[1]

Radical politics

Jones's 1961 visit to Cuba shifted his political outlook. Although he had been a member of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee since 1958, his travel produced a deeper appreciation of the "positive aspects of the Cuban Revolution. Jones witnessed black- and brown-skinned peoples who won their liberation from oppression by force and now enjoyed the dignity that independence had brought."

It was during this trip that Jones met and talked with Robert Williams. Williams had made international news in the 1950s when, as director of the Monroe, North Carolina NAACP, he formed a gun club for Monroe's black residents to oppose Klan terror. After one shoot-out, Williams's group disarmed several members of the local Klan. Williams would later author the book Negroes with Guns.

The militance of Williams, the spirit of the Cuban Revolution, and the examples of African revolutions against European colonization all stimulated Jones to question the nonviolent integrationist struggles in the United States. When he returned, he criticized the pretentiousness of Greenwich Village intellectuals who imagined that they were superior to "in the streets" politics.[1]

Organization of Young Men

Jones' first serious political commitment came in 1961 when he formed the Organization of Young Men. This group was comprised of blacks from the Village such as Archie Shepp, Harold Cruse, and A. B. Spellman. While Jones was the nominal leader, he was unsuccessful in articulating a clear direction for the group. There was no formal political agenda, only a "shared impatience with nonviolent protests, and a preference for an unspecified but more vigorous form of black politics." When Malcolm X referred to the March on Washington in 1963 as the "Farce of Washington," Jones agreed.[1]

Artistic success

In 1964, the same year that his play Dutchman won an Obie Award, Jones founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School in Harlem. Although he remained married to Hettie Cohen, and still lived in the Village, he now split his time between the Harlem school and the remnants of his integrated world in the Village.[1]

Radical art

When Malcolm X was murdered in February of 1965, Jones took the loss personally. The contradiction of being a black nationalist leader with a white wife proved too much to bear, and he separated from Hettie Cohen. By March of 1965, Jones moved to Harlem to fully commit himself to the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School.

The Black Arts School was to function as a cultural liaison between the black community in Harlem and the nationwide struggle for 'black liberation."

Throughout the spring and summer of 1965 the school's members performed plays, poetry readings, dance recitals, and concerts that sought to affirm 'blackness" and the African heritage of black Americans. Jones and the other BARTIS members also tried to use impromptu gatherings to initiate street theatre or poetry readings.

The Black Arts School was an "eclectic gathering of individuals at variouslevels of talent and commitment to the cause." Jones was their leader only in the sense that he had achieved a greater notoriety than the other participants.

The press also centered on him because of the anti-Semitism, homophobia, and anti-white animus contained in many of his works. Jones, in both his poetry and his politics, fostered a highly confrontational style that caused many whites and blacks to dismiss his work as pure invective.

The school was able to survive financially because the rents were low and artists who got money from their work contributed to the expenses. In 1965, Jones and the playwrights Nat White and Charles Patterson had a total of four plays running in Off-Broadway theatres. Jones charged $20 per ticket downtown so that he could repeat the same performance for free in Harlem.[1]

Government funding and fraud

The school,also received about $40,000 in federal money when the Johnson administration tried to end the "disturbances" in northern ghettos by funding local social programs.

While Jones later conceded that some of this money was used illegally by BARTIS members to cover their personal expenses, most of it was spent hiring residents of Harlem as school employees.[1]

Guns and ammo

The School's final crisis came when Jones refused to allow Johnson Administration official Sargent Shriver to enter the school's facilities. Shriver had arrived unannounced to investigate charges that federal assistance was being misused by anti-white extremists. Shortly after that , Jones's OEO assistance was cut off and the school quickly ran out of money. Jones moved back to Newark, where he continued to organize black nationalist artistic and political groups. A subsequent police raid on the Harlem building turned up a "cache of weapons" and ammunition. The project was finished.[1]

Spirit House

In early 1967, Jones founded the Spirit House in New Jersey , a more sophisticated version of the Black Arts School. Newark became a center for black nationalist activities when Jones attracted artistic contributions from the likes of Sonia Sanchez, Yusef Imam, and Ed Bullins.[1]

California activism

After Jones established himself in Newark (and married his second wife, Amina Baraka), he traveled west to accept a teaching position at San Francisco State College, then undergoing a wave of protests sparked by the Black Student Union's agitation for minority cultural and academic programs. Jones soon participated as both advisor and activist. He encouraged black students to use confrontational methods, such as threatening to beat up white student council members.[1]

Karenga and Kawaida

It was during the 1967 protests that Jones met Maulana Karenga a cultural black nationalist and founder of the Islamic inspired Kawaida faith. Jones was impressed by Karenga's organization, which had an almost military discipline and strictly enforced its values.

When Jones became a Kawaida member in late 1967, he discarded his "slave name" for a traditional African or Islamic one. LeRoi Jones became Imamu Amiri Baraka, which one biographer has interpreted as meaning Spiritual Leader-Blessed Prince . After his return to Newark, Baraka sought to implement the central concepts of Kawaida.[1]

Taking over Newark

By 1968, Baraka decided that he would unite all black political organizations in Newark under one umbrella group. Baraka hoped to use this power to help blacks to control the city government. Black nationalists would use the ballot to create their own enclave.

When he had issued his 1965 call for Harlem to "secede from the United States and to nationalize all of the white-owned businesses in the newly independent region", he had no plans to achieve this goal beyond a tacit invitation to begin looting. By 1968, Baraka's goals had been clarified by Karenga. First, he sought to elect many blacks to the city government. Second, he wished to elect a black mayor. These officials, along with black activists who did not hold office, would promote black economic and cultural development. The Committee for a Unified Newark completed this campaign by electing Newark's first black mayor in 1970.[1]

National Black Political Convention

Unity June 22, 1984

Mayor Richard Hatcher, Rep. Charles Diggs, Amiri Baraka, Jesse Jackson at the National Black Political Convention, Gary Indiana 1972.


By 1974 Baraka had adopted a Marxist-Leninist political philosophy. This expressed his desire to elevate economics and class to a level equal to that of race.[1]

Baraka was convinced that capitalism played a large part in the underdevelopment of black Americans and that nationalism contained serious shortcomings as a liberation program because it failed to adequately address economic issues.

Revolutionary Communist League (M-L-M)

In the 1970s Baraka led the African Liberation Support Committee and the Congress of African People, before joining the Maoist Revolutionary Communist League (M-L-M).[2]

League for Revolutionary Struggle

In 1982 Amiri Baraka was the editor of The Black Nation Magazine and a member of the Central Committee of the League of Revolutionary Struggle (M-L).[3]

Backing Jackson

Unity January 25 1984

Socialist Scholars Conference 1990

The Socialist Scholars Conference 1990, held September 6-8, at the Hotel Commodore, New York, included panels such as:[4]

The New African-American Middle Class and the Struggle for Black Empowerment

Malcolm X conference

A conference, Malcolm X: Radical Tradition and a Legacy of Struggle was held in New York City, November 14 1990. A poem was read at the opening by Amiri Baraka[5].

Black Radical Congress

In March 1998 “Endorsers of the Call” to found a Black Radical Congress included Amiri Baraka, Unity & Struggle Newspaper[6].

Socialist Scholars 1997

The Democratic Socialists of America sponsored 1997 Socialist Scholars Conference was held March 28- 30 at the Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York[7].

Speakers included: Mimi Abramovitz, Daniel Singer, Harry Magdoff, Istvan Meszaros, Barbara Epstein, Ruth Sidel, Carlos Vilas, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, L. A. Kauffman, Leo Panitch, Hector Figueroa, David Abdulah, Louise Merriweather, Ngugi wa Thiongo, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Alexandr Buzgalin, Leith Mullings, Axel Queval, Pap Ndale, Jean-Pierre Page, and "dozens more..."

Paul Robeson celebration

On May 31 1998 the Peoples Weekly World held a Paul Robeson birth centennial celebration in New York, at the Henry Winston Auditorium.

Attendees included;

Tributes came from ;

  • Tom Duane authored a City Council proclamation praising Robeson's lifelong fight for a "world at peace, free of racism, inequality and for unity"...and his fight against the erosion of domestic freedom of expression and fanatical anti-communism....Paul Robeson has become a model and an inspiration to all of us..."
  • Richard Gottfried, presented a resolution from the New York State assembly honoring Robeson. Democrat David Paterson introduced the resolution in the State Senate. Republican John Marchi and Democrats Richard Gottfried and Roger Green, introduced it in the State Assembly.[8]

Communist "Manifestivity"

On October 30 and 31, 1998 the Brecht Forum presented the "Communist Manifestivity to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the Communist Manifesto" at Cooper Union's Great Hall, New York.

Individual endorsers of the event included Amiri Baraka.[9]

One of the many workshops at the Manifestivity was;

Can We Go from Cultural Imperialism to World Culture? with Amiri Baraka, Aijaz Ahmad, Joseph Buttigieg, Annette Rubinstein, Sonia Sanchez and N'Gugi Wa Thiongo. Moderator: Colleen Roach

2006 CCDS Convention

Amiri Baraka addressed the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism 5th National Convention, July 21-23, 2006.

A Workshop on Culture, Youth and Hip-Hop:[10]

Black Left Unity

On the weekend of May 31-Jun 1,2008, dozens of African American organizers, artists and activists convened the first Black Left Unity Meeting at the Sonia Hayes Center in Chapel Hill, NC.The gathering was a continuation of the Black Left Unity caucus that meet in Atlanta during the US Social Forum.

Those who attended the conference included Saladin Muhammad, Black Workers for Justice and the Black Workers League; ILWU Local 10 leader Clarence Thomas; activist and poet, Amiri Baraka; Million Worker March leader, Brenda Stokely; Ana Edwards, Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality; Ajamu Baraka, U.S. Human Rights Network; Patrisse Cullors, Labor Strategy Center; Efia Nwangaza; Theresa El-Amin; Kali Akuno from the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement; Jaribu Hill, Mississippi Workers for Human Rights; Vickie White, People’s Organization for Progress; labor organizer, Angaza Laughinghouse; Larry Adams, New York City Labor Against the War (NYCLAW); cultural artist, Luci Murphy; educators Muntu Matsimela, T. Menelik Van Der Meer and Sam Anderson; Yvette Modestin, Afrocaribenas y de la Diaspora; Colia Clark; and activists representing Fight Imperialism-Stand Together (FIST) and the Troops Out Now Coalition.[11]

Supporting Obama

Amiri Baraka speaks about the United States and Barack Obama in June 2009

On July 21 2008 Amiri Baraka prepared a statement "Amiri Baraka challenges Black radicals to "do something" about" "The Parade of Anti-Obama Rascals", for circulation at the upcoming Black Radical Congress meeting in St. Louis Missouri[12];

I mention all this because it is criminal for these people claiming to be radical or intellectual to oppose or refuse to support Obama. I hope we don't have to hear about "the lesser of two evils" from people whose foolish mirror worship wd have us elect the worst of two evils.
For those who claim radical by supporting McKinney or, brain forbid, the Nadir of fake liberalism, we shoud have little sympathy. As much as I have admired Cynthia McKinney, to pose her candidacy as an alternative to Obama is at best empty idealism, at worst nearly as dangerous as when the Nader used the same windy egotism to help elect Bush.
The people who are supporting McKinney must know that that is an empty gesture. But too often such people are so pocked with self congratulatory idealism, that they care little or understand little about politics (i.e. the gaining maintaining and use of power) but want only to pronounce, to themselves mostly, how progressive or radical or even revolutionary they are.
Faced with the obvious that McKinney cannot actually do anything by running but put out lines a solid left bloc shd put out anyway, their pre-joinder is that Obama will be running as a candidate of an imperialist party, or Imperialism will not let Obama do anything different or progressive…that he will do the same things any democrat would do and that the Democrats are using Obama to draw young people to the Democratic party. Also that there is a sector of the bourgeoisie supports Obama to put a new face on the U.S. as alternative to the Devil face Bush has projected as the American image.
Some of these things I agree with, but before qualifying that let me say that no amount of solipsistic fist pounding about "radical principles" will change this society as much as the election of Barack Obama will as president of the US. Not to understand this is to have few clues about the history of this country, its people, or the history of the Black struggle in the US. It is also to be completely at odds with the masses of the Afro-American people, let us say with the masses of black and colored people internationally. How people who claim to lead the people but who time after time tail them so badly must be understood. It is because they confuse elitism with class consciousness...
Even the dumbest things Obama has said re: Cuba and the soft shoe for Israel must be seen as the cost of realpolitik, that is he is not running for president of the NAACP and not to understand that those are the stances that must be taken in the present political context, even though we hold out to support what he said about initiating talks with the Cubans, the Palestinians . After years of Washington stupidity and slavish support for the Miami Gusanos and Israeli imperialism, there is in Obama's raising of talks with the U.S. Bourgeois enemies something that must be understood as the potential path for new initiative. It is the duty of a left progressive radical bloc to be loud and regular in our demands for the changes Obama has alluded to in his campaign. We must take up these issues and push collectively, as a Bloc, or he will be pushed inexorably to the right.
Obama has addressed the Israeli lobby and the Gusano (anti Cuba) lobby. But where is the Black left and general progressive, radical and revolutionary lobby? That is the real job we need to address. We must bring something to the table. It is time for the left to really make some kind of Left Bloc to support Obama...

The Black Scholar

Baraka was a contributor to The Black Scholar.[13]

Meeting with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

On September 21, 2010, Amiri Baraka attended a meeting at a midtown hotel with President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and approximately 130 members of the U.S. "peace and social justice movements", as well as "major figures in the Black activist community."[14]

More than 100 activists and journalists from a variety of organizations, religious groups and media outlets attended a gathering with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the Warwick Hotel here Sept. 21. The leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran was in the city to attend the annual United Nations General Assembly.

These prominent leaders of grassroots social justice and human rights movements within the U.S. consciously rejected a well-funded campaign to demonize Iran and whip up a pro-war climate. Ahmadinejad’s visit had been preceded by incendiary billboards, ads in buses and newspapers, hostile media coverage and demonstrations against Iran, much of it funded by the CIA-connected U.S. Agency for International Development and private corporations.

After an Iranian-style dinner, the gathering moved to a conference room where representatives from various organizations spoke on the plight of people inside the United States. The displacement of African Americans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the burgeoning prison-industrial complex, conditions facing political prisoners, the crisis in U.S.-Iranian relations and the overall economic crisis dominated the discussion.

Among the individuals and organizations in attendance were Cynthia McKinney, a former U.S. House of Representatives member from Georgia and the Green Party’s presidential candidate in 2008; poet and activist Amiri Baraka; MOVE Minister of Information Ramona Africa; International Action Center co-director Sara Flounders; Ardeshir Ommani and Eleanor Ommani, co-founders of the American-Iranian Friendship Committee; former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark; Million Worker March Movement organizer Brenda Stokely; Shafeah M'Balia of Black Workers for Justice; Phil Wilayto of Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality; Larry Holmes of Bail Out the People Movement; Don DeBar of; Ryme Katkhouda of the People’s Media Center; Michael McPhearson of United for Peace and Justice; and Rev. Graylan Hagler.

After listening for an hour and a half to 22 different speakers, President Ahmadinejad addressed the guests for approximately 45 minutes. He touched on the international struggle for peace and justice, saying that “trying to build peace is the most important and comprehensive struggle that mankind can have.”

He added, “Those who are opposed to justice are a few, a minority.”[15]

Celebration of African-American culture and struggle

February 24 2013 14:00 - February 24 2013 16:00, At the Henry Winston Unity Hall, 235 W. 23rd Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues.

The majority voted against racism-unity is the mandate! "We are not going back!"

150 years since the signing of Emancipation Proclamation and 50 years since the great 1963 March on Washington.

Participants; Kahil Almustara, Amiri Baraka & Amina Baraka, People's Chorus, Pearl Granat, Chris Owens, Maria Ramos, Jarvis Tyner.[16]

External links


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 Leaders From the 1960s, A Biographical Sourcebook of American Activism, Edited by David DeLeon, page 21-28
  2. Maoism in the developed world, By Robert Jackson Alexander, page 33]].
  3. [Amiri Baraka Fall/Winter 1982 issue of The Black Nation. Forward]
  4. Second Annual Socialist Scholars Conference program.
  8. PWW Hundreds honor Robeson's communist legacy, June 6, 1998, page 3
  9. Mail Archive website: Communist Manifestivity Conference Schedule, Oct. 28, 1998
  10. CCDS 5th Conference agenda
  11. National gathering discusses Black community's issues By Monica Moorehead Chapel Hill, N.C. Published Jun 5, 2008
  13. The Black Scholar
  14. War Is A Crime .org: Ahmadinejad Meets With U.S. Peace Activists, Sept. 27, 2010 (accessed on Oct. 12, 2010)
  15. [, WW, U.S. activists meet with Iranian president By Abayomi Azikiwe Editor, Pan-African News Wire Published Sep. 30, 2010]
  16. PW, Celebration of African-American culture and struggle