Amiri Baraka

A figure of both praise and controversy, Amiri Baraka was a renowned activist and writer of poetry, drama, and essays. He was born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey on October 7, 1934. He was an avid academic, having enrolled in Rutgers University, Howard University, Columbia University, and New School for Social Research. Although he never completed his studies to earn a degree, his literary and sociological studies nonetheless influenced his beliefs and his work. Baraka was active in the Civil Rights movement and penned several essays and plays about race relations, such as the polarizing play "Dutchman" (1964) in which a white woman harasses a black man in a subway station. His attitudes often reflected an absolutist and militaristic view, especially after the assassination of Malcolm X. In 1967, he embraced the Africa-centric view of Kawaida and adopted the name Imamu Amear Baraka, later changed to Amiri. He continued to write thought-provoking essays as well as teach in higher education. He lectured at San Francisco State University, served as a visiting professor at Columbia University, and became a full-fledged professor at Rutgers University in 1984. In July 2002, New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey appointed Baraka as the state's second Poet Laureate, a distinguished position created in 1999 in order to promote and encourage poetry throughout the state. However, Baraka's brief tenure as the Poet Laureate of New Jersey was quickly mired in controversy. On the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Baraka publically read an inflammatory poem titled "Somebody Blew Up America?" during the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, in which he espoused several conspiracy theories that implied the state of Israel was complicit in the attacks. The ensuing public and media backlash called for his resignation, but Baraka stubbornly refused to step down. Without any legal recourse to force Baraka from the position as Poet Laureate, Governor McGreevey abolished the position in July 2003. In his later years, Baraka had a long struggle with diabetes and was placed in the intensive care unit at the Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, NJ in early December 2013. Deteriorating health and apparent complications from a recent surgery finally took their toll when Baraka passed away on January 9, 2014.