The brilliant and controversial poet, playright and activist Amiri Baraka, formerly known as LeRoi Jones, died on Thursday at age 79. In works like the poetry collection Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961), the social history Blues People (1963) and the play Dutchman (1964), Jones celebrated the cultural achievements and the dignity of African-Americans while unblinkingly exposing the grave injustice of this country’s condescending attitude towards and often-brutal treatment of his people. A complicated figure, Baraka has also been criticized for elements of anti-Semitism, misogyny and homophobia in his works. As the poet E. Ethelbert Miller, chairman of the board of the Institute for Policy Studies and a friend of The Nation, wrote in e-mail message:
“One cannot talk about black literature, black politics, black music, black theater or even blackness without mentioning the name Amiri Baraka…. He was controversial at times because he was passionate and the times and our social condition demanded nothing less. Baraka taught us how to examine our beauty as well as our ugliness.
The Nation was one of the first major publications to publish Baraka’s work, beginning with poems like “The Invention of Comics” in 1962, “After the Ball” and “Tight Rope” in 1963, and “Morning Purpose” in 1964, and our critics kept a close watch on his work. In a review of Dutchman in April 1964, longtime Nation drama critic Harold Clurman called Baraka, then LeRoi Jones, “an outstanding dramatist” and “a turbulent talent,” noting, but not regretting, the troubling excesses which would later make his work so controversial. “While turbulence is not always a sign of power or of valuable meaning,” Clurman wrote, “I have a hunch that LeRoi Jones’s fire will burn ever higher and clearer if our theatre can furnish an adequate vessel to harbor his flame. We need it.”
Baraka’s most memorable contribution to The Nation was the essay “In the Ring” (June 29, 1964), about the fight between Cassius Clay and defending world champion Sonny Liston at Miami Beach that February. Later included in the collection Burning All Illusions: Writings from The Nation on Race, edited by Paula Giddings, the piece represents the best of Baraka’s writing.
The mock contest [in 1962 and 1963] between Liston and Patterson was a ‘brushfire’ limited war, Neo-Colonial policy to confuse the issue. Patterson was to represent the fruit of the missionary ethic; he had found God, reversed his underprivileged (uncontrolled) violence, and turned it to work for the democratic liberal imperialist state. The hardy black Horatio Alger offering the glad hand of integration to welcome 20 million into the lunatic asylum of white America.