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Amiri Baraka (Imamu Amiri Baraka) (originally LeRoi Jones) Biography

(1934– ), (Imamu Amiri Baraka) (originally LeRoi Jones), Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note

African-American playwright and social activist, born in Newark, New Jersey, educated at Howard and Columbia Universities. Baraka exerted a profound influence on the development and direction of black writing and culture. His first published work was the long sardonic poem Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961) with its vivid imagery and infusion of black culture and reference. This was followed by The Dead Lecturer (1964) with its call for black political commitment. Associated with the Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg and with the poets of the New York School such as Frank O'Hara, he explored new metrics and ways of notation on the page. He turned for models to the ‘Projective Verse’ of Charles Olson and to the other rhythms he knew from black music like the blues. In 1958 he established the little magazinesYugen and Floating Bear, and Totem Press, printing work by such writers as Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, Gary Snyder, and Frank O'Hara. His predominant focus was on the divided self, whose pain emerges from being a black intellectual in a white world. Feeling the pressures of racism, he became increasingly outspoken and separate from the white literary circles in which he had been a significant participant. After the acclaimed play Dutchman (1964), a stylized treatment of inter-racial hostility, there followed a series of influential plays in the 1960s, The Slave (1964), The Baptism and The Toilet (both 1967), and Four Black Revolutionary Plays (1969), where he turned to explore the violent basis of relationships between whites and blacks, with the employment of extremely harsh images and stage techniques. He was a founder of the Black Arts Repertory Theatre in Harlem in 1965, which became the model for further black theatres throughout the country. During the 1960s he moved towards the black nationalism of the Nation of Islam, converting to Islam in 1968, changing his name to Imamu (later Amiri) Baraka. His poetry in Black Art (1966) and Black Magic: Poems 1961–1967 (1969) continued to demand a black art and culture; whilst in his prose, the autobiographical novel The System of Dante's Hell (1965), Home: Social Essays (1966), the collection of short stories Tales (1967), and Raise, Race, Rays, Raze (1972), he analysed and commented upon the issues of race in American culture. In the 1970s he moved closer to the politics of Marxist-Leninism, producing Marxist poetry collections such as Hard Facts (1975) and the Marxist essays Daggers and Javelins (1984). He has continued to write poetry, publishing In the Tradition: For Black Arthur Blythe (1980) and Reggae or Not! Poems (1982), and embarked on an epic poem entitled Why's/Wise. Collections of his poetry and prose appeared in 1979, and The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka was published in 1984. In addition, Baraka has written two influential accounts of black music, analysing its development from slave songs to the avant-garde jazz of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane in Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1963) and Black Music (1968). Recent work includes Shy's Wise, Y's: The Griot's Tale (1994).

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Houston A. Baker (Houston Alfred to Sally Beauman Biography