Poet and playwright Amiri Baraka died Thursday in Newark. He was 79.
Baraka’s son and Newark Municipal Council member Ras Baraka confirmed that the former Poet Laureate of New Jersey died at Beth Israel Medical Center. Baraka did not specify a cause of death, but said that his father had been hospitalized since December 21.
Born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark on October 7, 1934, Amiri Baraka was one of the most widely published black writers of his generation. His works included It’s Nation Time, Hard Facts, A Black Mass, The System of Dante’s Hell, and Blues People: Negro Music in White America.
But Baraka wasn’t with his controversies. In July 2002, Baraka wrote a poem called “Somebody Blew Up America” in response to the September 11 attacks. The poem is highly critical of racism in America, but has also been criticized for being anti-Semitic. When the Anti-Defamation League denounced the poem, Baraka clarified his position as anti-Zionist. The poem also called out Associate Justice Clarence Thomas and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Amiri Baraka had been appointed the second Poet Laureate of New Jersey in July 2002, but then-governor Jim McGreevey tried to remove him from the position after the publication of “Somebody Blew Up America.” McGreevey learned that there was no legal way for him to remove Baraka from the position, but on October 17, 2002, legislation was introduced in the State Senate to abolish the post entirely. McGreevey signed the legislation, which became effective July 2, 2003. A nine-member advisory panel named Baraka the poet laureate of Newark Public Schools in December 2002.
Baraka was asked if he had any regrets about the poem almost five years later by News & Notes host Farai Chideya.
“I have regrets, no. I have regrets that they didn’t pay me my money. You know, the cheap criminals. I have regrets about that, you know, naturally,” he said.
“But I don’t have regrets about writing that poem, because the poem was true and it’s accurate and will be proved to be true and accurate. And no matter how much lies these people tell it will still be true.”
[Photo credit: T. Carrigan / Flickr]