|Born||Everett LeRoi Jones
October 7, 1934
Newark, New Jersey, U.S.
|Died||January 9, 2014
Newark, New Jersey, U.S.
|Pen name||LeRoi Jones, Imamu Amear Baraka|
|Occupation||Actor, teacher, theater director, theater producer, writer, activist, poet|
|Children||Kellie Jones, Lisa Jones, Dominique di Prima, Maria Jones, Shani Baraka, Obalaji Baraka, Ras J. Baraka, Ahi Baraka, Amiri Baraka, Jr.|
|Service/branch||United States Air Force|
|Years of service||1954-1957|
Amiri Baraka (born Everett LeRoi Jones; October 7, 1934 – January 9, 2014), formerly known as LeRoi Jones and Imamu Amear Baraka, was an African-American writer of poetry, drama, fiction, essays and music criticism. He was the author of numerous books of poetry and taught at a number of universities, including the State University of New York at Buffalo and the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He received the PEN Open Book Award, formerly known as the Beyond Margins Award, in 2008 for Tales of the Out and the Gone.
Baraka’s career spanned nearly fifty years, and his themes range from Black liberation to White racism. Some poems that are always associated with his name are “The Music: Reflection on Jazz and Blues,” “The Book of Monk,” and “New Music, New Poetry", works that draw on topics from the worlds of society, music, and literature. Baraka's poetry and writing have attracted both extreme praise and condemnation. Within the African-American community, some compare Baraka to James Baldwin and recognize him as one of the most respected and most widely published Black writers of his generation. Others have said his work is an expression of violence, misogyny, homophobia and racism. Regardless of viewpoint, Baraka’s plays, poetry, and essays have been defining texts for African-American culture.
Baraka's brief tenure as Poet Laureate of New Jersey (2002–03) involved controversy over a public reading of his poem "Somebody Blew Up America?" and accusations of anti-semitism, and some negative attention from critics, and politicians.
Early life (1934–65)
Baraka was born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, where he attended Barringer High School. His father, Coyt Leverette Jones, worked as a postal supervisor and lift operator. His mother, Anna Lois (née Russ), was a social worker.
He won a scholarship to Rutgers University in 1951, but a continuing sense of cultural dislocation prompted him to transfer in 1952 to Howard University, which he left without obtaining a degree. His major fields of study were philosophy and religion. Baraka subsequently studied at Columbia University and the New School for Social Research without obtaining a degree.
In 1954, he joined the US Air Force as a gunner, reaching the rank of sergeant. His commanding officer received an anonymous letter accusing Baraka of being a communist. This led to the discovery of Soviet writings in Baraka's possession, his reassignment to gardening duty and subsequently a dishonorable discharge for violation of his oath of duty.
The same year, he moved to Greenwich Village working initially in a warehouse for music records. His interest in jazz began during this period. At the same time he came into contact with avant-garde Beat Generation, Black Mountain poets and New York School poets. In 1958 he married Hettie Cohen, with whom he had two daughters, Kellie Jones (b. 1959) and Lisa Jones (b.1961). He and Hettie founded Totem Press, which published such Beat icons as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. They also jointly founded a quarterly literary magazine Yugen, which ran for eight issues (1958–62).
Baraka also worked as editor and critic for the literary and arts journal Kulchur (1960–65). With Diane di Prima he edited the first twenty-five issues (1961–63) of their little magazine The Floating Bear. In the autumn of 1961 he co-founded the New York Poets Theatre with di Prima, choreographers Fred Herko and James Waring, and actor Alan S. Marlowe. He had an extramarital affair with Diane di Prima for several years; their daughter, Dominique di Prima, was born in June 1962.
Baraka visited Cuba in July 1960 with a Fair Play for Cuba Committee delegation and reported his impressions in his essay "Cuba libre". In 1961 Baraka co-authored a Declaration of Conscience in support of Fidel Castro's regime. Baraka also was a member of the Umbra Poets Workshop of emerging Black Nationalist writers (Ishmael Reed, and Lorenzo Thomas among others) on the Lower East Side (1962–65).
In 1961 a first book of poems, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, was published. Baraka's article "The Myth of a 'Negro Literature'" (1962) stated that "a Negro literature, to be a legitimate product of the Negro experience in America, must get at that experience in exactly the terms America has proposed for it in its most ruthless identity." He also states in the same work that as an element of American culture, the Negro was entirely misunderstood by Americans. The reason for this misunderstanding and for the lack of black literature of merit was according to Jones:
|“||In most cases the Negroes who found themselves in a position to pursue some art, especially the art of literature, have been members of the Negro middle class, a group that has always gone out of its way to cultivate any mediocrity, as long as that mediocrity was guaranteed to prove to America, and recently to the world at large, that they were not really who they were, i.e., Negroes.||”|
As long as the black writer was obsessed with being an accepted, middle class, Baraka wrote, he would never be able to speak his mind, and that would always lead to failure. Baraka felt that America only made room for only white obfuscators, not black ones.
In 1963 Baraka (under the name Jones) published Blues People: Negro Music in White America, his account of the development of black music from slavery to contemporary jazz. When the work was re-issued in 1999, Baraka wrote in the Introduction that he wished to show: "The music was the score, the actually expressed creative orchestration, reflection of Afro-American life.... That the music was explaining the history as the history was explaining the music. And that both were expressions of and reflections of the people." Baraka argued that though the slaves had brought their musical traditions from Africa, the blues were an expression of what black people became in America: "The way I have come to think about it, blues could not exist if the African captives had not become American captives."
Baraka (under the name Jones) authored an acclaimed, controversial play Dutchman, in which a white woman accosts a black man on the New York subway. The play premiered in 1964 and received the Obie Award for Best American Play in the same year. A film of the play, directed by Anthony Harvey, was released in 1967. The play has been revived several times, including a 2013 production staged in the Russian and Turkish Bathhouse in the East Village, Manhattan.
After the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, Baraka left his wife and their two children and moved to Harlem. In Harlem, Baraka founded The Black Arts Repertory/Theater School since the Black Arts Movement created a new visual representation of art. Baraka became a leading advocate and theorist for the increase in black art during this time. Now a "black cultural nationalist," he broke away from the predominantly white Beats and became very critical of the pacifist and integrationist Civil Rights movement. His revolutionary poetry now became more controversial. A poem such as “Black Art” (1965), according to academic Werner Sollors from Harvard University, expressed his need to commit the violence required to “establish a Black World.”
Baraka even uses onomatopoeia in “Black Art” to express that need for violence: “rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr . . . tuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuht . . .” More specifically, lines in “Black Art” such as “Let there be no love poems written / until love can exist freely and cleanly” juxtaposed with “We want a black poem. / And a Black World” demonstrate Baraka’s cry for political justice during a time when racial injustice was rampant – despite the Civil Rights Movement.
"Black Art" quickly became the major poetic manifesto of the Black Arts Literary Movement and in it, Jones declaimed "we want poems that kill," which coincided with the rise of armed self-defense and slogans such as "Arm yourself or harm yourself" that promoted confrontation with the white power structure. Rather than use poetry as an escapist mechanism, Baraka saw poetry as a weapon of action. His poetry demanded violence against those he felt were responsible for an unjust society.
In 1966, Baraka married his second wife, Sylvia Robinson, who later adopted the name Amina Baraka. In 1967, he lectured at San Francisco State University. The year after, he was arrested in Newark for having allegedly carried an illegal weapon and resisting arrest during the 1967 Newark riots, and was subsequently sentenced to three years in prison. Shortly afterward an appeals court reversed the sentence based on his defense by attorney Raymond A. Brown.
Not long after the 1967 riots, Baraka generated controversy when he went on the radio with a Newark police captain and Anthony Imperiale, a politician and private business owner, and the three of them blamed the riots on "white-led, so-called radical groups" and "Communists and the Trotskyite persons." That same year his second book of jazz criticism, Black Music, came out, a collection of previously published music journalism, including the seminal Apple Cores columns from Down Beat magazine. Around this time he also formed a record label called Jihad, which produced and issued only three LPs, all released in 1968: Sonny's Time Now with Sunny Murray, Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, Louis Worrell, Henry Grimes, and Baraka; A Black Mass, featuring Sun Ra; and Black & Beautiful – Soul & Madness by the Spirit House Movers, on which Baraka reads his poetry.
In 1967, Baraka (still Leroi Jones) visited Maulana Karenga in Los Angeles and became an advocate of his philosophy of Kawaida, a multifaceted, categorized activist philosophy that produced the "Nguzo Saba," Kwanzaa, and an emphasis on African names. It was at this time that he adopted the name Imamu Amear Baraka. Imamu is a Swahili title for "spiritual leader", derived from the Arabic word Imam (إمام). According to Shaw, he dropped the honorific Imamu and eventually changed Amear (which means "Prince") to Amiri. Baraka means "blessing, in the sense of divine favor."
In 1970 he strongly supported Kenneth A. Gibson's candidacy for mayor of Newark; Gibson was elected the city's first Afro-American Mayor. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Baraka courted controversy by penning some strongly anti-Jewish poems and articles, similar to the stance at that time of the Nation of Islam.
Prior to this time, Baraka prided himself on being a forceful advocate of black cultural nationalism; however, by the mid 1970s, he began finding its racial individuality confining. Baraka's separation from the Black Arts Movement began because he saw certain black writers – capitulationists, as he called them – countering the Black Arts Movement that he created. He believed that the groundbreakers in the Black Arts Movement were doing something that was new, needed, useful, and black, and those who did not want to see a promotion of black expression were "appointed" to the scene to damage the movement.
Around 1974, Baraka distanced himself from Black nationalism and became a Marxist and a supporter of third-world liberation movements. In 1979 he became a lecturer in Stony Brook University's Africana Studies Department. The same year, after altercations with his wife, he was sentenced to a short period of compulsory community service. Around this time he began writing his autobiography. In 1980 he denounced his former anti-semitic utterances, declaring himself an anti-zionist.His changing viewpoint can be seen in his 1972 poem “When We’ll Worship Jesus.” Asserting that “when Jesus do / something / When jesus blow up / the white out / or blast Nixon down . . .” that is when they will worship Him.
During the 1982–83 academic year, Baraka was a visiting professor at Columbia University, where he taught a course entitled "Black Women and Their Fictions." In 1984 he became a full professor at Rutgers University, but was subsequently denied tenure. In 1985, Baraka returned to Stony Brook, eventually becoming professor emeritus of African Studies. In 1987, together with Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, he was a speaker at the commemoration ceremony for James Baldwin.
In 1989 Baraka won an American Book Award for his works as well as a Langston Hughes Award. In 1990 he co-authored the autobiography of Quincy Jones, and 1998 was a supporting actor in Warren Beatty's film Bulworth. In 1996, Baraka contributed to the AIDS benefit album Offbeat: A Red Hot Soundtrip produced by the Red Hot Organization.
In July 2002, Baraka was named Poet Laureate of New Jersey by Governor Jim McGreevey. Baraka held the post for a year mired in controversy and after substantial political pressure and public outrage demanding his resignation. During the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Stanhope, New Jersey, Baraka read his 2001 poem on the September 11th attacks "Somebody Blew Up America?", which was criticized for anti-Semitism and attacks on public figures. Because there was no mechanism in the law to remove Baraka from the post, the position of state poet laureate was officially abolished by the State Legislature and Governor McGreevey.
In 2003, Baraka's daughter Shani, aged 31, and her lesbian partner, Rayshon Homes, were murdered in the home of Shani's sister, Wanda Wilson Pasha, by Pasha's ex-husband, James Coleman. Prosecutors argued that Coleman shot Shani because she had helped her sister separate from her husband. A New Jersey jury found Coleman (also known as Ibn El-Amin Pasha) guilty of murdering Shani Baraka and Rayshon Holmes, and he was sentenced to 168 years in prison for the 2003 shooting.
His son, Ras J. Baraka (born 1970), is a politician and activist in Newark, who served as principal of Newark's Central High School, as an elected member of the Municipal Council of Newark (2002–06, 2010–present) representing the South Ward. Ras J. Baraka became Mayor of Newark, July 1, 2014. See 2014 Newark mayoral election.
Amiri Baraka died on January 9, 2014, at Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey, after being hospitalized in the facility's intensive care unit for one month prior to his death. The cause of death was not reported initially, but it is mentioned that Baraka had a long struggle with diabetes. Later reports indicated that he died from complications after a recent surgery. Baraka's funeral was held at Newark Symphony Hall on January 18, 2014.
Baraka's writings, and the covers of his early notebooks with large images of erect penises which were on open display in the Greenwich Village cafes where he sat, have generated controversy over the years, particularly his advocacy of rape and violence towards, at various times, women, gay people, white people, and Jews.
Author Jerry Gafio Watts contends that Baraka's homophobia and misogyny stem from his efforts to conceal his own history of same-sex encounters. Watts writes that Baraka "knew that popular knowledge of his homosexuality would have undermined the credibility of his militant voice. By becoming publicly known as a hater of homosexuals, Jones was attempting to defuse any claims that might surface linking him with a homosexual past." Critics of his work have alternately described such usage as ranging from being vernacular expressions of Black oppression to outright examples of the sexism, homophobia, antisemitism, and racism they perceive in his work.
The following is from a 1965 essay:
Most American white men are trained to be fags. For this reason it is no wonder their faces are weak and blank.…The average ofay [white person] thinks of the black man as potentially raping every white lady in sight. Which is true, in the sense that the black man should want to rob the white man of everything he has. But for most whites the guilt of the robbery is the guilt of rape. That is, they know in their deepest hearts that they should be robbed, and the white woman understands that only in the rape sequence is she likely to get cleanly, viciously popped.
In 2009, he was again asked about the quote, and placed it in a personal and political perspective:
Those quotes are from the essays in Home, a book written almost fifty years ago. The anger was part of the mindset created by, first, the assassination of John Kennedy, followed by the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, followed by the assassination of Malcolm X amidst the lynching, and national oppression. A few years later, the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. What changed my mind was that I became a Marxist, after recognizing classes within the Black community and the class struggle even after we had worked and struggled to elect the first Black Mayor of Newark, Kenneth Gibson.
September 11 attacks
In July 2002, ten months after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Baraka wrote a poem entitled "Somebody Blew Up America?" that was controversial and met with harsh criticism. The poem is highly critical of racism in America, and includes angry depictions of public figures such as Trent Lott, Clarence Thomas, and Condoleezza Rice. It also contains lines claiming Israel's involvement in the World Trade Center attacks:
Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion
And cracking they sides at the notion
Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?
Baraka said that he believed Israelis and President George W. Bush had advance knowledge of the September 11 attacks, citing what he described as information that had been reported in the American and Israeli press and on Jordanian television. He denied that the poem is antisemitic, and points to its accusation, which is directed against Israelis, rather than Jews as a people. The Anti-Defamation League though, denounced the poem as antisemitic, though Baraka and his defenders defined his position as anti-Zionism.
After the poem's publication, then-governor Jim McGreevey tried to remove Baraka from the post of Poet Laureate of New Jersey, to which he had been appointed following Gerald Stern in July 2002. McGreevey learned that there was no legal way, according to the law authorizing and defining the position, to remove Baraka. On October 17, 2002, legislation was introduced in the State Senate to abolish the post which was subsequently signed by Governor McGreevey and became effective July 2, 2003.
Baraka ceased being poet laureate when the law became effective. In response to legal action filed by Baraka, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that state officials were immune from such suits, and in November 2007 the Supreme Court of the United States refused to hear an appeal of the case.
Honors and awards
Baraka served as the second Poet Laureate of New Jersey from July 2002 until the position was abolished on July 2, 2003. In response to the attempts to remove Baraka as the state's Poet Laureate, a nine-member advisory board named him the poet laureate of the Newark Public Schools in December 2002.
Baraka received honors from a number of prestigious foundations, including: fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, the Langston Hughes Award from the City College of New York, the Rockefeller Foundation Award for Drama, an induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Before Columbus Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award.
I have seen many suns
the endless succession of hours
piled upon each other
Carved in marble, this installation features excerpts from the works of several New Jersey poets (from Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, to contemporary poets Robert Pinsky and Renée Ashley) and was part of the renovation and reconstruction of the New Jersey Transit section of the station completed in 2002.
- 1961: Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note
- 1964: The Dead Lecturer: Poems
- 1969: Black Magic
- 1970: It's Nation Time
- 1970: Slave Ship
- 1975: Hard Facts
- 1980: New Music, New Poetry (India Navigation)
- 1995: Transbluesency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones
- 1995: Wise, Why’s Y’s
- 1996: Funk Lore: New Poems
- 2003: Somebody Blew Up America & Other Poems
- 2005: The Book of Monk
- 1964: Dutchman
- 1964: The Slave
- 1967: The Baptism and The Toilet
- 1966: A Black Mass
- 1969: Four Black Revolutionary Plays
- 1970: Slave Ship
- 1978: The Motion of History and Other Plays
- 1965: The System of Dante's Hell
- 1967: Tales
- 2006: Tales of the Out & the Gone
- 1963: Blues People
- 1965: Home: Social Essays
- 1968: Black Music
- 1971: Raise Race Rays Raize: Essays Since 1965
- 1979: Poetry for the Advanced
- 1981: reggae or not!
- 1984: Daggers and Javelins: Essays 1974–1979
- 1984: The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka
- 1987: The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues
- 2003: The Essence of Reparations
- 1968: Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing (co-editor, with Larry Neal)
- 1969: Four Black Revolutionary Plays
- 1983: Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women (edited with Amina Baraka)
- 1999: The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader
- 2000: The Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka
- 2008: Billy Harper: Blueprints of Jazz, Volume 2 (Audio CD)
- The New Ark (1968)
- One P.M. (1972)
- Fried Shoes Cooked Diamonds (1978) .... Himself
- Black Theatre: The Making of a Movement (1978) .... Himself
- Poetry in Motion (1982)
- Furious Flower: A Video Anthology of African American Poetry 1960–95, Volume II: Warriors (1998) .... Himself
- Through Many Dangers: The Story of Gospel Music (1996)
- Bulworth (1998) .... Rastaman
- Piñero (2001) .... Himself
- Strange Fruit (2002) .... Himself
- Ralph Ellison: An American Journey (2002) .... Himself
- Chisholm '72: Unbought & Unbossed (2004) .... Himself
- Keeping Time: The Life, Music & Photography of Milt Hinton (2004) .... Himself
- Hubert Selby Jr: It/ll Be Better Tomorrow (2005) .... Himself
- 500 Years Later (2005) (voice) .... Himself
- The Ballad of Greenwich Village (2005) .... Himself
- The Pact (2006) .... Himself
- Retour à Gorée (2007) .... Himself
- Polis Is This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place (2007)
- Revolution '67 (2007) .... Himself
- Turn Me On (2007) (TV) .... Himself
- Oscene (2007) .... Himself
- Corso: The Last Beat (2008)
- The Black Candle (2008)
- Ferlinghetti: A City Light (2008) .... Himself
- W.A.R. Stories: Walter Anthony Rodney (2009) .... Himself
- Motherland (2010)
- Shaw, Lytle. Fieldworks: From Place to Site in Postwar Poetics. (Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 2013), 107.
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He served in the Air Force from 1954 until 1957...
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- In cooperation with Corinth, Totem published books by LeRoi Jones and Diane DiPrima, Ron Loewinsohn, Michael McClure, Charles Olson, Paul Blackburn, Frank O'Hara, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Ed Dorn, Joel Oppenheimer and Gilbert Sorrentino. An anthology of four young woman poets featured Carol Berge, Barbara Moraff, Rochelle Owens, Diane Wakoski.
- Birmingham, Jed. "Yugen", RealityStudio, April 30, 2006. Accessed January 18, 2010
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- The Fair Play for Cuba Committee was brought to nation-wide attention through an April 1960 advertisement in the New York Times funded by Castro. FPCC's founder and first leader was CBS newsman Robert Taber. The FPCC fast had 7,000 members in 25 adult chapters and 40 student councils. The July trip included writers Julian Mayfield, Harold Cruse, historian John Henrik Clarke and militant NAACP leader Robert F. Williams. In December 1960, a 326-member-strong FPCC delegation visited the island. "Cuba libre" was first published in the Evergreen Review, Vol. 4, No. 15, November–December 1960.
- The Declaration of Conscience was written and signed by Margaret Randall, Marc Schleifer (now a Jewish convert to Islam), Elaine de Kooning, Leroi Jones, Diane DiPrima, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Norman Mailer and published in the Monthly Review.
- Martin, Reginald. “Historical Overviews of The Black Arts Movement”, in The Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States. New York: Oxford UP, 1995. Modern American Poetry: An Online Journal and Multimedia Companion to Anthology of Modern American Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson. Department of English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2002.
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- LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Blues People, 2002, p. 17.
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- Nelson, Cary (2000). Modern Anthology of American Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 998–999.
- Harris, William J. The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic. University of Missouri Press, 1985.
- See back cover of his book Funk Lore.
- Berger, Joseph. "Raymond A. Brown, Civil Rights Lawyer, Dies at 94", The New York Times, October 11, 2009. Accessed October 12, 2009.
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- "Various US labels (2) - jazz album covers". Birkajazz.com. Retrieved December 14, 2014.
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- Rowell, Charles H. "An Interview With Henry Louis Gates, Jr", Callaloo. Vol. 14, No. 2 (Spring, 1991), pp. 444–463.
- Ross, Marlon B. "Camping the Dirty Dozens: The Queer Resources of Black Nationalist Invective", Callaloo. Vol. 23, No. 1, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender: Literature and Culture (Winter, 2000), pp. 290–312.
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- New Jersey State Legislature, Laws of the State of new Jersey, P.L.2003, c.123.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Amiri Baraka.|
- Works by or about Amiri Baraka in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- Amiri Baraka at the Internet Movie Database
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- Modern American Poetry page about Amiri Baraka
- Pulse Magazine Berlin Interview with Andrea Hiott
- Site dedicated to Amiri Baraka
- Amiri Baraka Discography Project
- Amiri Baraka obituary from the New York Times by Margalit Fox
- Obituary in The Independent by Marcus Williamson
- Amiri Baraka interview with J.K. Fowler on The Mantle
- Democracy Now January 10, 2014 Amiri Baraka (1934-2014): Poet-Playwright-Activist Who Shaped Revolutionary Politics, Black Culture
- Amiri Baraka video interview at underyourskin on YouTube