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Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Amiri Baraka papers, 1945-2015 

Creator: 
Baraka, Amiri, 1934-2014,.
Phys. Desc: 
219.5 linear feet (219.5 linear feet)
Call Number: 
MS#1482
Location: 
Rare Book & Manuscript Library
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Biographical Note

Poet, writer, activist, and teacher Amiri Baraka (born Everett LeRoi Jones) was born October 7, 1934 to Coyt Leverette and Anna Lois Jones in Newark, NJ, a postal supervisor and a social worker, respectively. In 1952 Baraka entered Howard University, leaving before graduating. He subsequently studied at both Columbia University and the New School for Social Research in New York City, also without taking a degree. In 1954, Baraka entered the United States Air Force as a gunner, stationed in Puerto Rico. Reaching the rank of sergeant, Baraka served until 1957 when he was dishonorably discharged for the possession of prohibited political literature. Settling in Greenwich Village, Baraka became active in the Downtown literary, arts, and music scenes, marrying Hettie Cohen in 1958, with whom he would have two children, Kellie Jones (b. 1959) and Lisa Jones (b.1961). Together, Baraka and Jones founded and co-edited the seminal avant-garde literary magazine Yugen in 1958 and, later, Totem Press, which published early works by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and other Beat and Downtown experimental writers. At the same time, Baraka worked as editor and critic for the literary and art journal Kulchur. In 1961, Baraka’s first collection of poetry, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note… was published by Totem/Corinth Press. From 1961 to 1963, Baraka co-edited, with Diane Di Prima, the little magazine The Floating Bear. Baraka and Di Prima later founded the New York Poets Theatre, alongside choreographers Fred Herko and James Waring, and actor Alan S. Marlowe. With Di Prima, Baraka would go on to have a daughter, Dominique Di Prima, born in 1962. In 1960, Baraka took a seminal trip to Cuba as part of a Fair Play for Cuba Committee delegation, which provided the basis for his essay “Cuba Libre.” Upon return, he co-authored the statement of support for Fidel Castro, Declaration of Conscience with Margaret Randall, Marc Schleifer, Elaine de Kooning, Diane Di Prima, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Norman Mailer, which was published in the Monthly Review. The mid-Sixties saw Baraka becoming more prominent in the literary and arts scenes, with the 1963 publication of the major study of blues and African American music, Blues People: Negro Music in White America , and his editorship of The Moderns: An Anthology of New Writing in America. In 1964, the production of his play Dutchman at Cherry Lane Theatre in New York brought him to the attention of the dramatic arts world, and the play later won an Obie for “best off-Broadway play,” and was turned into a film by Anthony Harvey in 1966. Following the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, Baraka left Hettie Jones and their children and moved uptown to Harlem, declaring himself a black cultural nationalist. Here he founded and directed the Black Arts Repertory Theatre-School and published his first and only novel The System of Dante’s Hell, before moving back to the city of his birth, Newark, NJ. In 1966 Baraka married Sylvia Robinson, and the following year they adopted the Bantuized Muslim names of Imamu (“spiritual leader,” subsequently dropped) Ameer (“Prince,” later Amiri) Baraka (“blessed”) and Amina Baraka. Baraka also began teaching at San Francisco State University where he began an association with cultural nationalist leader Ron Karenga. This same year, in the midst of the Newark riots, Baraka was arrested and injured by police on charges of unlawful weapons possession and resisting arrest. Initially convicted of a misdemeanor, the charges were reversed on appeal. During this period, Baraka’s political organizing became more prominent, and his poetry became more overtly political as well, particularly his volume Black Magic and the seminal Black Arts Movement anthology Black Fire , co-edited with Larry Neal. In 1970, Baraka helped mayoral candidate Kenneth Gibson become the first African American mayor of Newark. He also worked as an organizer and participant in the Congress of African Peoples which met in Atlanta and, in 1972, the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana. Another major shift in Baraka’s political beliefs and aesthetics occurred in 1974, when he rejected black nationalism and declared his conversion to “Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse-tung Thought”, or Third World Marxism, in the essay “Toward Ideological Clarity,” published in Black World. The following year saw the publication of his first Marxist poetry collection, Hard Facts. Though Baraka’s politics would continue to develop, he remained a Third World Marxist for the rest of his life and career. In 1979, Baraka became a lecturer in the Africana Studies Department at SUNY-Stony Brook. That same year, Baraka was arrested during an altercation with Amina and sentenced to 48 weekends in a Harlem halfway house, during which he wrote The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, first published in 1984. In this same year, Baraka and Amina found Kimako’s Blues People, a multimedia arts space, located in their basement in Newark. In 1990 Baraka became active in the campaign to achieve major curricular reform in the Newark public schools. He was, in the same year, denied tenure at Rutgers University, which became a major rallying point for anti-racism campus activism. During this period he worked on several major biographical projects, co-writing both the autobiography of Quincy Jones and the unfinished and unpublished Max Roach autobiography, with whom he had previously collaborated on The Life and Life of Bumpy Johnson , a musical drama. In 2002, New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey named Baraka the state’s Poet Laureate. Soon after, he became embroiled in a controversy over his September 11th poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” which critics accused of being anti-American and ant-Semitic. Unable to oust Baraka from the position, Governor McGreevey and the State Legislature ultimately abolished the post of Poet Laureate. Baraka was subsequently named Poet Laureate of the Newark Public School System. Over the course of his career, Baraka received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, the PEN/Faulkner Award, a Rockefeller Foundation Award for Drama, the Langston Hughes Award from The City College of New York, and a lifetime achievement award from the Before Columbus Foundation. Amiri Baraka died on January 9, 2014, in Newark, New Jersey, after being periodically hospitalized for one month prior to his death. After struggling for a long period with diabetes, Baraka died from complications after a recent surgery. His funeral was held at Newark Symphony on January 18, 2014

Scope and Contents

The Amiri Barka Papers contains correspondence, writings, and the personal, political activism and teaching materials related to Amiri Baraka’s career as a poet, writer, editor, activist, and teacher in the New York City Beat, Downtown, and Black Arts literary scenes from the 1960s through the 2000s. Included are manuscripts from Baraka’s numerous books of poetry, non-fiction, fiction, plays, editorial work, and screenplays. The collection also features organizational and documentary materials relating to Baraka’s university teaching and Newark, NJ-based black radical activism, as well as audio/visual material, photographs, and printed material collected and created by Baraka. This collection contains the correspondence, writings, teaching, activist, and personal materials, audio/visual and photographic material relating to Amiri Baraka’s career as a poet, writer, teacher, and activist, as well as items pertaining to his personal life. Correspondence ranges from 1945 to 2007, and comprises a wide variety of correspondents, including business and literary contacts, friends, fans, and family. Among the writings are notes, drafts, correspondence, and publication material pertaining to many of Baraka’s poetry, fiction, plays and screenplays, non-fiction, and editorial projects primarily after 1973, both published and un-published. Also included are drafts and research material for the poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” as well as drafts of essays, correspondence, petitions of support, and clippings about the subsequent Poet Laureate controversy. Finally, there is a large body of writings—fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and plays—by others. Other series included herein are those containing materials relevant to Baraka’s teaching at various colleges and universities, including SUNY-Stony Brook, Rutgers, Columbia, and Naropa. A separate series holds the organizational papers, correspondence, reports, and research materials surrounding Baraka’s political organizing and activism, particularly his work with various black nationalist, Pan-African, and international socialist/Maoist groups. A separate series is comprised of by materials related to Kimako’s Blues People, the club, performance venue, and salon founded by Baraka and his wife Amina in Newark. A series of personal items contains many notebooks and loose notes produced by Baraka, material relating to his family, and financial, legal, and medical documents, as well as Baraka’s FBI files. This collection also encompasses a large body of audio/visual material produced by Baraka and others, including audio cassettes, film reels, DVDs, CDs, and visual art in a variety of mediums. Much of the A/V material relates to Baraka’s work with black nationalist and Pan-African political groups. A final series contains printed material, including flyers about Baraka’s readings, appearances, and performances; political and cultural events organized by Baraka and others; clippings about Baraka; and many literary journals, little magazines, poetry chapbooks, and political newspapers containing work by Baraka.