Amiri Baraka died today at the age of 79 after battling an undisclosed illness. Indeed, the world has lost one of its greatest literary giants. While Baraka’s work is widely known and read, there may be a few things that many may not know about him.
Below are ten facts about the writer and activist.
1. He was born Everett LeRoi Jones, in 1934 in Newark, N.J., but changed his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka after the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965.
2. Baraka lead the Black Arts Movement, which encouraged Black writers to take control of the economic power of their own work.
3. While Baraka’s work is known for its Black nationalist tonality, he actually started his literary career in the Beats poetry movement in Greenwich Village but switched gears in 1965 and declared himself a Black cultural nationalist.
4. Rutgers University awarded him a full scholarship in 1951, but he left the institution without earning a degree. He also attended Columbia University and the New School; he did not earn a degree from either school.
5. In 1951, Baraka enlisted into the U.S. Air Force and was promoted to sergeant, but was given a dishonorable discharge for violation of his oath of duty, reportedly for reading communist writings.
6. Scholar Molefi Kete Asante included Amiri Baraka on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
7. Baraka was New Jersey’s first poet laureate in 2002 and 2003, but after he delivered his poem “Somebody Blew Up America?” in which he accused the U.S. government and Israel of orchestrating Sept. 11, just ten months after the attacks, calls for his resignation dogged him. Then-Governor Jim McGreevey tried to remove Baraka from the post, but could not legally do so. Instead, the New Jersey state legislature abolished the position, effectively removing Baraka from the post.
8. He began teaching at the State University of New York-Stony Brook in 1980, retiring from its African Studies department in 1994. Baraka also taught at Rutgers University, George Washington University, Yale University, San Francisco State University, Columbia and the New School for Social Research.
9. There are far too many literary awards on Baraka’s mantelpiece to mention, but an American Book Award, which he won in 2010, is one of his most prestigious.
10. In the 1970s, he lead an effort to to build Kawaida Towers, a planned 100-acre housing project that was meant to embody the Black Power movement. The project never came to fruition.