Amiri Baraka died on January 9, 2014, as the last poet laureate for the state of New Jersey. He was a powerful and eloquent writer who refused to allow anything to stop him from telling the truth. An entire position was abolished in order to remove him from the poet laureate post because he spoke his mind. Many people are asking if the state of New Jersey will honor Baraka as they did Whitney Houston who was also a native of New Jersey. Whitney was loved for her voice; however, Amiri Baraka was also loved for his mind.
“When Baraka’s first volume of poetry was published, M.L. Rosenthal said in the The Reporter: “He has a natural gift for quick, vivid imagery, and spontaneous humor, and his poems are filled with sardonic sensuous or slangily knowledgeable passages.” In The Dead Lecturer, the poems range from short lyrics to long major poems, and the vivid, startling images still about. “I must be completely free to do what I want in the poem,” Baraka said. The Dead Lecturer is a stunning confirmation of this declaration of artistic independence,” from Three Books by Imamu Amiri Baraka.
Baraka had the courage to publish the truth regardless of the personal attacks that were launched against him. He wrote what he wanted to write. Ironically, the memoir that gives one of the most honest portraits of a very complicated and brilliant mind came from Baraka’s Jewish first wife, Hettie Jones. Her book How I Became Hettie Jones was published in 1990 and provides an intimate portrait of Greenwich Village in the 1950’s.
“Greenwich Village in the 1950’s was a haven to which young poets, painters, and jazz musicians flocked. Among them was Hettie Cohen, who’d been born in a Jewish middle-class family in Queens and who’d chosen to cross racial barriers to marry the controversial black poet LeRoi Jones. Theirs was a bohemian life in the awakening East Village of underground publishing and jazz lofts, through which drifted such icons of the generation as Allen Ginsberg, Thelonious Monk, Jack Kerouac, Frank O’Hara, Billie Holiday, James Baldwin, and Franz Kline,” from How I Became Hettie Jones.
Stephen Henderson in his landmark work Understanding the New Black Poetry wrote, “Imanu Amiri Baraka is the central figure of the new Black literary awakening. He is a prolific writer and speaker, and an effective political organizer. Baraka’s work is marked by a restless linguistic inventiveness, a tough and subtle mind, and a deep spirituality. This spirituality is especially evident single influence on the young artists who emerged in the 1960’s.”
From Daniel Alexander Payne in 1832 to Amiri Baraka in 2014 the role of the black writer in America was always a difficult task of telling the truth in a society based on a lie of racial supremacy and intellectual inferiority that held both slaves and freedman in a second class prison. Baraka refused to be enslaved. His declaration of artistic independence made his mind free. On January 9, 2014, his physical body became free as well.
Amiri Baraka (1934-2014) will be laid to rest in peace on January 18, 2014, in Newark, New Jersey.