Amiri Baraka

African-American writer (1934–2014)

Amiri Baraka (October 7, 1934 – January 9, 2014), previously known as LeRoi Jones and Imamu Amear Baraka, was an African-American writer of poetry, drama, fiction, essays and music criticism.

Amiri Baraka in 2007


  • One of the most persistent traits of of the Western white man has always been his fanatical and almost instinctive assumption that his systems and ideas about the world are the most desirable, and further that people who do not aspire to to them, or at least think them admirable, are savages or enemies. The idea that Western thought might be exotic if viewed from another landscape never presents itself to most Westerners.
    • Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1963), p. 8
  • The poor Negro always remembered himself as an ex-slave and used this as the basis of any dealings with the mainstream of American society. The middle class black man bases his whole existence on the hopeless hypothesis that no one is supposed to remember that for almost three hundred years there was slavery in America, that the white man was a master, the black man a slave. This knowledge, however, is at the root of the legitimate black culture of this country. It is this knowledge, with its attendant muses of self-division, self-hatred, stoicism, and finally quixotic optimism, that informs the most meaningful of Afro-American music.
    • Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1963), p. 136
  • The Black Artist's role in America is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it. His role is to report and reflect so precisely the nature of the society, and of himself, in that society, that other men will be moved by the exactness of his rendering, and if they are black men, grow strong through this moving, having seen their own strength, and weakness, and if they are white men, tremble, curse, and go mad, because they will be drenched with the filth of their evil.
  • I guess I was the most unbohemian of all bohemians. My bohemianism consisted of not wanting to get involved with the stupid stuff that I thought people wanted you to get involved with — ... namely America...
  • So he gave me an Arab name; he gave me the name Amir Barakat. But I didn't want an Arab name ... [so] I took the name and Swahili-ized it and Bantu-ized it, and changed it from Amir to Amiri and from Barakat to Baraka to make it a Swahili name — the same kind of name you'd find in Tanzania or Uganda or Kenya. Now, of course I'm no longer in a cultural nationalist movement, but I'd be the only one in my family with an American name.

Quotes about Baraka

  • ("In the early 70s, Amiri Baraka wrote such things as the woman's role was to be feminine and submissive. How far do you think black male attitudes have changed since then, since the Black Panther movement?") MA: That was an aberration which took place and black women for a while said: 'Okay, we'll see what you do with this,' and it didn't happen. Black women said: 'No babe we don't take it like that,' and we don't, we haven't. We were sold together, bought together on the African continent, lay spoon fashion in the filthy hatchets of slave ships together, got up on the auction block together, stood together, sold again together, got up before sunrise, got up after sunset, together, worked those cane fields and cotton fields and the mines and all that together. Please, we are equal.
  • I remember the first time I met Amiri Baraka, who was then Leroi Jones. I was doing The Amen Corner and he was a student at Howard University. I liked him right away. He was a pop-eyed little boy poet. He showed me a couple of his poems. I liked them very much. And then he came to New York a couple of years later. He came to New York when I came back to New York from Paris. And by this time I knew the business. I'd been through the fucking business by that time. I was a survivor. And I remember telling him that his agent wanted him to become the young James Baldwin. But I told him you're not the young James Baldwin. There's only one James Baldwin and you are Leroi Jones and there's only one Leroi Jones. Don't let them run this game on us, you know? You're. Leroi Jones, I'm James Baldwin. And we're going to need each other. That's all I said. He didn't believe it then but time took care of that. ("He believes it now?") Yes he knows it now.
    • 1988 interview in Conversations with James Baldwin edited by Louis H. Pratt and Fred L. Standley (1989)
  • (At National Black Theater performance) I was in awe of the words I witnessed that day. It was the first time that I heard the works of writers like Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka. I heard poetry that was about me, that was very immediate. I connected to it in a visceral way. That experience moved me so profoundly that I went home and that night I wrote my first batch of poems. It was like the floodgates opened. That reading empowered me with a voice and gave me permission to express everything that had been festering in me for years. So I just started experimenting with language and writing all kinds of things.
  • I think Amiri Baraka’s work made me want to write poems too. Especially his beautiful poem, “An Agony. As Now.” A really, really beautiful poem.
  • Marcus Garvey, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, Amiri Baraka and other black male leaders have righteously supported patriarchy. They have all argued that it is absolutely necessary for black men to relegate black women to a subordinate position both in the political sphere and in home life.
  • LeRoi Jones was also one of the popular poets of the 1968 generation. His most famous line was fast becoming “Up against the wall motherfucker this is a stick-up.” A 1967 East Village “affinity group” named themselves “the Motherfuckers” after the Jones poem. An affinity group used intense intellectual debates as an underpinning for carrying out the kind of media-grabbing street theater that Abbie Hoffman could do so well. During the New York City garbage strike, the Motherfuckers hauled garbage by subway from the redolent mountains of it left on the sidewalks to the newly opened Lincoln Center.