Sharing the Literary Legacy of a Powerful Poet: Amiri Baraka
Amiri Baraka (October 7, 1934 – January 9, 2014), born Everett Leroy “LeRoi” Jones in Newark, was one of Greenwich Village’s most outspoken poets of the Black Arts Movement during the 1960s and ’70s. His political advocacy was both illuminating and confrontational, as he attempted to use his writing to document his experience of blackness in America. Originally joining the military in 1954, Jones quickly found its treatment of African Americans unbearable, and he moved to New York City to attend Columbia University and the New School for Social Research. Through the 1950s, he resided in Greenwich Village, where he encountered the Beat poets, like Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac, and became inspired to write poetry to process his experiences. His poetry is methodically confrontational in tone, meant to shock and awaken audiences to the political concerns of black Americans and the larger civil rights movement. Together with his partner, Hettie Jones (née Cohen), they founded Totem Press and Yugen Magazine, both of which focused on printing Beat and Beat-influenced literature during the 1950s and ’60s.
Later, following the Murder of Malcolm X in 1965, Jones formally changed his name to Amiri Baraka and moved to Harlem, where he founded the Black Arts Theatre and Repertory School and the Black Arts Movement. Black Arts sought to redefine creative standards of beauty and value to celebrate “blackness” and allow black creatives to find self-validation. Through the ‘70s and ‘80s, Baraka’s politics grew more radical and shifted further towards Black Nationalism and Marxist Third-World Liberation. Baraka was still writing poetry into the 1990s, and his work has been lauded and recognized with a PEN/Faulkner Award, a Rockefeller Foundation Award for Drama, the Langston Hughes Award from City College of New York, while Baraka himself was been awarded honorary fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He passed away in 2014 at the age of 79.
His “A Footnote to a Pretentious Book,” first published in 1964 for his collection The Dead Lecturer, was written during his time in both the Greenwich Village and Harlem, inspired by Beat and other social and artistic movements he participated in while living here:
“A Footnote to a Pretentious Book”
By Amiri Baraka, 1964
Who am I to love
so deeply? As against
a heavy darkness, pressed
against my eyes. Wetting
my face, a constant trembling
A long life, to you. My friend. I
tell that to myself, slowly, sucking
my lip. A silence of motives / empties
the day of meaning.
What is intimate
enough? What is
It is slow unto meaning for
any life. If I am an animal, there
is proof of my living. The fawns
of my age. But it is steel that falls
as a thin mist into my consciousness. As a fine
ugly spray, I have made
some futile ethic
“Changed my life?” As the dead man
pacing at the edge of the sea. As
the lips, closed
for so long, at the sight
There is no one to entrust with
meaning. (These sails go by, these small
And meaning? These words?
Were there some blue expanse
of world. Some other
at the roof
of the world
you could say of me,
that I was truly
Honoring Baraka’s literary legacy and the influence other Beat poets had on our neighborhoods, Village Preservation placed a plaque on his residence at 27 Cooper Square in 2017. To discover even more people, places, and stories that helped build our neighborhood’s distinct cultural character, dive deeper into our Historic Plaque Program. If you’re interested in learning more about how our neighborhoods influenced civil rights and social justice movements around the world, then check out our Civil Rights and Social Justice Map.
- Literary Website: www.AmiriBaraka.com
- “31 Literary Icons of the Greenwich Village” by Andrew Berman
- A Profile of “Amiri Baraka” by the Poetry Foundation
- “Amiri Baraka, Polarizing Poet and Playwright, dies at 79” by Margalit Fox of The New York Times (2014)
- “What Country is This? Rereading LeRoi Jones’ The Dead Lecturer” by Adrienne Rich of The Boston Review (2009)
One response to “Sharing the Literary Legacy of a Powerful Poet: Amiri Baraka”
I pretty sure when I was very young kid in late 1958 or so both Hittie & Leroy Jones and two daughters lived on Saint Marks place mid block near Ave A , They lived in the area for a short period.