By Paul Milo
Amiri Baraka, the controversial former state poet laureate and father of Newark mayoral candidate Ras Baraka, died Thursday, NJ.com reported.
A spokeswoman for Ras Baraka said Thursday the family would be releasing a statement in the coming days.
"The entire city of Newark is in mourning right now over the passing of Amiri Baraka, a city native and fellow Barringer High School alumnus who used the power of the pen to advance the cause of civil rights for Newarkers, New Jerseyans, and all Americans," Mayor Luis Quintana said in a statement.
Quintana, who himself has long been active in the Latino political movement in Newark, also praised Baraka for bringing two of the city's communities together as the city transitioned from white governance in the late 1960s.
"Amiri Baraka's poetry and prose transcended ethnic and racial barriers, inspiring and energizing audiences of many generations. We will never forget how instrumental Amiri was in the Black-Puerto Rican Convention of 1970, a landmark political event that resulted in the election of Kenneth A. Gibson as Newark's first African-American mayor," Quintana said.
"Amiri was more than a poet...and he was a powerful leader in his own right. In this time of pain, the citizens of Newark and I stand with his family. Amiri Baraka is going to be missed by the entire city of Newark," he added.
"While he is known around the world as a poet, author and intellectual, he will also be remembered in Newark for his contributions as a community activist who was a strong and articulate advocate of his beliefs," said Stephen Adubato, the founder of the North Ward Center.
“I want to express my sincere condolences to the family of Amiri Baraka. Amiri’s passing is not only a loss to his family, but to the many Newarkers who were touched by his community activism,” said North Ward Councilman and mayoral candidate Anibal Ramos.
Baraka, who was 79, fell ill in December and had been hospitalized in intensive care at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. The longtime Newark activist and nationally prominent writer’s works include a 1963 history of black music, Blues People. Baraka also remained active in various social movements beginning in the 1960s and remained engaged in city politics right up until last year, routinely speaking out on issues at city hall.
A Newarker for most of his life, Baraka, a poet, actor, author and activist who was born LeRoi Jones in Newark in 1934, played a prominent role in the black consciousness movement of the 1960s. He was also a celebrated artist who won an Obie award for his play The Dutchman and was a leader of the Black Arts Movement, which was aligned with the Black Panther Party. In the late 1950s, he co-founded a magazine, Yugen, that published works by some of the era’s most renowned poets and writers, including William S. Burroughs, William Carlos Williams and Jack Kerouac.
The acclaimed artist won fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, a PEN/Faulkner Award, a Rockefeller Foundation Award for Drama, and the Langston Hughes Award from City College of New York.
Baraka was also a university instructor at a number of schools throughout his career, including Rutgers, Yale, Columbia, the New School for Social Research and San Francisco State.
But while winning acclaim from thinkers within and outside the African-American community, Baraka also took on positions and produced writings that challenged or offended many others. In the early 1960s, he wrote tracts in support of the regime of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. He was dishonorably discharged from the military in the 1950s for reading communist literature and would later become a Marxist.
At points in his career, Baraka was also accused of anti-Semitism, a stance he formally renounced decades ago. But controversy continued to dog Baraka well into his later years, most recently and famously when he was named New Jersey’s second poet laureate in 2002, in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. His poem, "Somebody Blew Up America," spotlighted instances of white aggression around the world and included phrases perceived by some as anti-Semitic. The ensuing controversy led to the elimination of the poet laureate position before Baraka’s two-year tenure was scheduled to end.
Baraka was married twice, to Hettie Cohen in the early 1960s and later to Sylvia Robinson, who changed her name to Amina after Baraka’s own name change.
Funeral arrangements were still pending Thursday.