← Back

Sharing the Literary Legacy of a Powerful Poet: Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka National Black Political Convention in 1972
Amiri Baraka National Black Political Convention in 1972.
Photo credit: Gary Settle of The New York Times.

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.

Amiri Baraka at home in Newark in 2007
Amiri Baraka at home in Newark in 2007.
Photograph courtesy of Ruth Fremson of The New York Times

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

rain.

            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

beautiful?

                  It is slow unto meaning for

any life. If I am an animal, there

is proof of my living. The fawns

and calves

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

with.

            “Changed my life?” As the dead man

pacing at the edge of the sea. As

the lips, closed

for so long, at the sight

of motionless

birds.

            There is no one to entrust with

meaning. (These sails go by, these small

deadly animals.)

                        And meaning? These words?

Were there some blue expanse

of world. Some other

flesh, resting

at the roof

of the world

                        you could say of me,

that I was truly

Simpleminded.

A plaque placed by Village Preservation on 27 Cooper Square to honor the building’s incubation of Jazz music as well as Beatnik art and literature.
The plaque placed by Village Preservation on 27 Cooper Square to honor the building’s incubation of Jazz music as well as Beat art and literature.

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

Further Reading:

One response to “Sharing the Literary Legacy of a Powerful Poet: Amiri Baraka

  1. 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.