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Amiri Baraka's Legacy Both Controversial And Achingly Beautiful
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Amiri Baraka's Legacy Both Controversial And Achingly Beautiful



One of America's most important and controversial literary figures has died. Amiri Baraka co-founded the black arts movement of the 1960s. He called himself a poet and activist; and wrote plays, essays, short stories, a novel as well as several books about African-American music.

Baraka died today of undisclosed causes at a New Jersey hospital. He was 79 years old. NPR's Neda Ulaby has this look back.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Amiri Baraka's literary legacy is as complicated as the times he lived through - from his childhood where he recalled not being allowed to enter a segregated library, to the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.


AMIRI BARAKA: Somebody blew up America. They say it's some terrorist, some barbaric Arab in Afghanistan.

ULABY: In that poem, which quickly became infamous, Baraka hurls indictments at forces of oppression throughout history.


BARAKA: Who the biggest terrorists, who changed the Bible, who killed the most people, who do the most evil, who don't worry about survival, who have the colonies, who stole the most land, who rule the world, who say they good but only do evil.

ULABY: The poem is a furious blaze of references, from the invasion of Granada to the Jewish Holocaust, and conspiracies ranging from who shot Malcolm X to who killed Princess Di. Then, critics said, Amiri Baraka took it way too far.


BARAKA: Who knew the World Trade Center was going to get bombed? Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers to stay home that day? Why did Sharon stay away? Who? Who? Who? Who? Who? Who?

ULABY: The poem had immediate consequences. Baraka was reviled even by former fans. And his post as the official state laureate of New Jersey was dissolved. A few years later, the host of the NPR show "News and Notes" pressed him about the incident.


FARAI CHIDEYA: So you've got no regrets, though? No regrets about the poem, no regrets about...

BARAKA: I don't have regrets, no. I have regrets that they didn't pay me my money. You know, the cheap criminals, I have regrets about that, you know, naturally. But I don't have regrets about writing that poem because the poem was true.

ULABY: Over his life, Amiri Baraka would express an extremely broad range of beliefs - some offensive, some achingly beautiful. He was born in 1934 in Newark, N.J., as Everett LeRoi Jones. As a child, he was transfixed by poetry and music. He remembered the passing of musician Miles Davis for NPR, saying he wanted to be just like Davis as a teenager.


BARAKA: I wanted to look like that, too, that green shirt and rolled-up sleeves on Milestones, that cat in seersucker, I always wanted to look like that. And be able to play "On Green Dolphin Street" or "Autumn Leaves" or "Walkin'" or "Blue Haze" or "'Round About Midnight" or yeah, yeah, yeah, hey.

That gorgeous chilling sweet sound, that's the music you wanted playing when you was coming in a joint or just looking up at the sky with your baby by your side, that mixture of America and them changes, them blue African magic chants.

ULABY: As a young man, the writer was part of New York's then-mostly white Bohemian community. He hung out with Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac and wrote a book called "Blues People" that emphasized the importance of African-American culture, says scholar Kumozie Woodard.

KUMOZIE WOODARD: I think the "Blues People" might be his signature work, and that introduced jazz studies to the American academy.

ULABY: Then in 1964, the writer still known as LeRoi Jones wrote a play: the "Dutchman."


SHIRLEY KNIGHT: (As Lula) What do you think you're doing?

AL FREEMAN JR.: (As Clay) What?

KNIGHT: (As Lula) You think I want to pick you up?

ULABY: The "Dutchman" won a prestigious Obie Award, and established the playwright as a literary star. It's set on a subway train, where this 1967 version was filmed. In it, a beautiful white woman strikes up a conversation with a young black man, and begins to tease him mercilessly.


KNIGHT: (As Lula) You look like you live in New Jersey with your parents. You're trying to grow a beard, that's why. Look like you've been reading Chinese poetry.

ULABY: But the teases become taunts and the interaction grows ugly. Eventually, she stabs him in the heart. The play, said critics, expressed deep hostility towards women, a charge that followed the playwright for much of his life. After the murder of Malcolm X, he left his white wife and two daughters to live by radical black nationalist ideals.


BARAKA: In the '60s, after Malcolm's death, black artists met and decided we were going to move into Harlem and bring our art and bring what we thought the most advanced art by black artists into the community.

ULABY: That's Baraka on NPR in 2007. The black arts movement was basically a counterpart to Black Power, and Baraka wrote a number of books now seen as foundational for a certain kind of black aesthetic and cultural identity. He converted to Islam, changed his name and in 1970s, turned towards Marxism. His work would always emphasize social and political issues.


BARAKA: The people's struggle influences art. It's what the people are doing on the ground and the most sensitive artists pick that up and reflect it.

ULABY: Baraka's work galvanized generations of younger artists even as his stridency alienated him from the mainstream. But he managed to work in both worlds. He was a full professor for decades at SUNY Stony Brook and recognized by the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

At the same time, he ran a community arts center in Newark with his second wife. Professor Kumozie Woodard says all of these roles - teacher, activist, artist, leader - came together as soon as you walked into Amiri Baraka's front door.

WOODARD: One time, I came to his house and there was all this noise downstairs and I asked him what it was. And he said it was a group of students, junior high school students who had a jazz history class downstairs. And then I heard noise upstairs and I said what's that, and he said, well, the kids have taken over my office and they have a newspaper, so...

ULABY: In Amiri Baraka's house - and throughout his life - the black arts movement never stopped. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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