Amiri Baraka was born Everett LeRoy Jones on October 7, 1934 in Newark, New Jersey. He went to Rutgers University in Newark and then transferred to Howard University, where he earned a BA in English. While in college, he changed his name for the first time to LeRoi Jones. After college, he joined the Air Force and was dishonorably discharged after he was discovered reading communist texts.
After the Air Force, he moved to Greenwich Village in New York City. Being in Greenwich Village during the 1950s and 1960s offered Baraka the chance to be part of the intensely rich avant-garde literary scene that was flourishing there. Baraka became involved with three different poetic schools: The New York School, which included poets like Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery; Black Mountain Poetics, which included poets like Charles Olson; and the Beat poets, including Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Allen Ginsberg and Amiri Baraka were very close friends during the years that Baraka lived in Greenwich Village. During his time in the Village, Baraka also started two literary magazines, Totem Press and Yugen. In 1958, he married Hettie Cohen, a white Jewish woman, and had two daughters with her, Kellie and Lisa. Under the name LeRoi Jones, he published his first volume of poetry in 1961, entitled Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, which generated interest about his work and received positive reviews.
During these years, Baraka was interested in communism and even visited Cuba in July 1959 to support Fidel Castro's regime. He also worked to promote African-American literature, which had been held back by racism. In 1964, Dutchman, written by Baraka, was performed off-Broadway. It was widely considered to be the best play of the year and earned the Village Choice Obie Award later that year. The play centered on the story of a middle-class black man and a white woman having an altercation on the subway in which they express their hatred for one another. The play is known to have extremely violent and sexual overtones; it culminates in the murder of the black man at the hands of the woman. It is clear that even during his Greenwich Village years, Baraka was thinking deeply about issues of race in America and the aesthetic representation of those struggles in art. Baraka's political involvement during his literary career soon culminated into a complete metamorphosis of self.
When Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, Baraka decided to completely repudiate everything of his Greenwich Village years. He left his family and moved to Harlem. In Harlem, he became a black radical nationalist, making art that turned away from the Western tradition and worked to invent a wholly new, black aesthetic. It was in this year that Baraka officially changed his name from LeRoi Jones to Imamu Amiri Baraka and converted to Islam. Imamu means "spiritual leader," Amiri means "blessed," and Baraka means "prince" in Arabic. In later years, he decided to drop the "Imamu" and called himself Amiri Baraka until his death in 2014.
In 1965, Baraka established the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School in Harlem. He published Black Magic in 1965, which was an official testament to his break from Western, white culture and values. He was the forerunner of a huge literary movement flourishing in Harlem that was focused on black aesthetics and values rather than white ones. One of the greatest endeavors of this literary movement was to portray the struggles of minorities as accurately and honestly as possible in order to help inspire the masses. Baraka's involvement in the revolutionary African American literary scene in Harlem coincided with the greater Civil Rights activism of the 1960s in the United States. It was an intensely charged and volatile political environment. Fascinatingly, Baraka came to see black nationalism as destructive and racist by 1974. He renounced it in favor of Marxism and the efforts of what were then called third-world liberation movements. His new political goal was to spread socialism, and he attempted to do so by publishing anthologies of socialist poetry and other works in 1974.
After the terrorist attack on 9/11, Baraka wrote a poem called “Somebody Blew Up America” that many believed to be anti-Semitic since it seemed to suggest that Jews had prior knowledge of the attacks on the twin towers. The poem was extremely inflammatory when it was published, causing a riot in Newark, New Jersey and leading to a court proceeding. This eventually led to Baraka being stripped of his title of Poet Laureate of the United States in 2003. Despite this, Baraka is remembered as a highly influential activist and poet who helped to pave the way for great advancements in African American literature and arts. He died on January 9, 2014 in Newark, New Jersey.