Amiri Baraka, the poet, playwright, and activist, died last week at the age of 79. Befitting a man with such a long, complicated and controversial career, not even his obituaries could agree. The New York Times calls him "polarizing," while the Jerusalem Post opted, among other qualifiers, for "hateful." The Anti-Defamation League, which once said his work had "a long history of hostility to Judaism and Jewish concerns," didn't weigh in on his passing. And the Washington Post noted: "Perhaps no writer of the 1960s and '70s was more radical or polarizing than the former LeRoi Jones, and no one did more to extend the political debates of the civil rights era to the world of the arts."
Photo by James Hamilton Baraka in the Voice, 1980.
For Eugene B. Redmond, the famous East St. Louis poet and academic, Baraka's death was the end of a 53-year friendship. On a recent afternoon, Redmond's mind was on everything Baraka gave up to become a leader of the Black Arts Movement, black power's cultural and artistic twin.
"LeRoi Jones was poised to become the first black playwright or screenwriter that would've gone onto just unlimited success," Redmond says, using Baraka's former name (he was born Everett Leroy Jones in Newark in 1934). But instead, "He gave it all up and went into the movement. He went from a larger white bohemian world into the black world."More »