NEWARK, New Jersey (Reuters) - Amiri Baraka, a controversial playwright, poet and activist who set a new path for fellow African-American artists by bringing militancy and verve to works about race in America, died on Thursday at age 79 at a hospital in his native New Jersey, a representative said.
Baraka had been in failing health and passed away at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, surrounded by family, said his booking agent Celeste Bateman.
Baraka had associated with Beat Generation poets in the 1950s and he published his first collection of poems in 1961. In 1964, he won fame in some circles, notoriety in others and an Obie award for his explosive play “Dutchman.”
In the play, a white woman sexually teases and taunts a black man named Clay on a subway, they clash venomously and he speaks of seething anger at whites. The work ends with the woman stabbing Clay in the heart, then eyeing another black rider.
The New York Times, in a 2007 review of a new production of the play, called it the “singular cultural emblem” of the black separatist movement in the United States.
Among Baraka’s other well-known works are his nonfiction book “Blues People: Negro Music in White America” and the poems “In Memory of Radio” and “An Agony. As Now.”
Born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, he later became known as Amiri Baraka. On his way to increased political militancy, Baraka in 1965 divorced his white wife, Hettie.
After the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X, Baraka played a principal role in the creation of the Black Arts Movement as the head of a theater and school in Harlem, the historic center of African-American creative expression.
The movement served as the cultural wing of the militant Black Power Movement espoused by groups such as the Black Panthers and which had grown out of the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s.
“The Black Artist’s role in America is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it,” Baraka wrote in an essay from the time.
Baraka also embraced Marxism and artists in the developing world who, like himself, made political statements.
Among his accolades were the Rockefeller Foundation Award for Drama and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
The late poet Robert Creeley, in a 1996 piece in the Boston Review on a collection of Baraka’s poems, recognized the author’s “much emphasized antagonism toward the white majority” but also his “shifts of strategy and relationship.”
“Clearly Baraka is always there, wry, often contemptuous, with characteristic quick wit and displacing humor, but what he values is the collective, the ‘we’ which comes again and again into his poems,” Creeley wrote.
In 2002, as poet laureate of New Jersey, Baraka drew accusations of anti-Semitism over his poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” which included material borrowed from conspiracy theories in an account of the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Baraka refused then-New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey’s request for him to resign and, in response, state lawmakers passed a law to eliminate the position of poet laureate.
“Poetry is underrated,” Baraka told the New York Times in 2012, “so when they got rid of the poet laureate thing, I wrote a letter saying, ‘This is progress. In the old days, they could lock me up. Now they just take away my title.’”
Baraka over the decades loomed large as a political figure in his home of Newark, where he returned to live in the 1960s after time spent in New York.
“I always thought Amiri Baraka’s decision to come back to Newark and stay in Newark and engage Newark helped this beleaguered city recover some very important parts of its identity - its self identity - in some periods when the city was spiraling downward,” said Clement Price, a professor of history at Rutgers University.
Newark Mayor Luis Quintana said in a statement that his city mourned the death of Baraka, who he said “used the power of the pen to advance the cause of civil rights.”
“Amiri Baraka’s poetry and prose transcended ethnic and racial barriers, inspiring and energizing audiences of many generations,” Quintana said.
U.S. Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, said in a statement, “My thoughts and prayers are with his children and the whole Baraka family after their loss.”
Baraka is survived by his wife, Amina, and several children. His son, Ras Baraka, is on the Municipal Council of Newark and is a candidate to be mayor.
Additional reporting by Eric Kelsey in Los Angeles, Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Gunna Dickson, Cynthia Osterman and Lisa Shumaker