Poet, Playwright and Political Activist Amiri Baraka (1934-2014) Taught at Stony Brook
The death on January 9 of noted African-American poet, playwright and activist Amiri Baraka brought to an end a career that included teaching on the faculty at Stony Brook University.
Baraka, born Everett LeRoi Jones, came to Stony Brook in the late 1970s at the urging of Leslie Owens, a faculty member in the Department of Africana Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences. Articles about him appeared in Blackworld, The Stony Brook Press and other student campus publications, dating back to 1979. He was featured on page one of the first issue of The Stony Brook Press, dated October 25, 1979, demonstrating against what he perceived as racism in the Africana Studies Department, as evidenced by a dearth of tenured professors.
His career was both celebrated and controversial. During his lifetime, Baraka received both the John Hay Whitney and Guggenheim Fellowships and won an Obie Award in 1964 for Best American Play for his political allegory Dutchman. He was also awarded a Rockefeller Foundation Award in 1981 for playwriting and a PEN/Faulkner Award, and was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
He published many books of poetry, prose and anthologies of African-American writing, as well as plays. Among his best-known works are the poetry collections The Dead Lecturer and Transbluesency: The Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, 1961-1995; the plays Dutchman and The Toilet; and Blues People: Negro Music in White America, a highly regarded historical survey. In the 1960s Baraka founded the Black Repertoire Theatre in Harlem, New York City.
He was also known as a revolutionary and a political firebrand, a reputation he brought with him to Stony Brook when he was hired as an assistant professor in the struggling Africana Studies Department. As a vocal advocate for righting injustices toward African-Americans, he and his wife, Amina Baraka, were jailed in June 1979 after a protest in New York City in which they were charged with resisting arrest after being beaten by police.
As a poet, Baraka was known for his incendiary style and outspoken voice against oppression. At his finest, he was lyrical and elegant. Here is the beginning of the poem “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note,” from his first book of poetry, published under the name LeRoi Jones:
Lately, I’ve become accustomed to the way
The ground opens up and envelopes me
Each time I go out to walk the dog.
Or the broad edged silly music the wind
Makes when I run for a bus...
Several of his poems can be read in their entirety here.
—By Toby Speed