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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   



15. Poetry of Liberation

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- John Ashberry
- Amiri Baraka
- Lorna Dee Cervantes
- Allen Ginsberg
- Joy Harjo
- Audre Lorde
- Sylvia Plath
- Adrienne Rich
- Gary Snyder
- James Wright
- Suggested
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Authors: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) (b. 1934)

LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Allen Ginsberg and John Fles
[6262] Anonymous, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Allen Ginsberg and John Fles (1959), courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) Activities
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Amiri Baraka was born Everett Leroy Jones in Newark, New Jersey. A creative child, he enjoyed cartooning and creative writing, particularly science fiction. Also gifted academically, Jones graduated from high school two years early and attended Howard University, where he was disappointed by what he saw as the school's attempt to train black students to be white. It was during his undergraduate years that Jones changed the spelling of his name to the more Africanized LeRoi. His later stint in the U.S. Air Force as a weatherman and gunner also proved demoralizing, as he realized the extent of white prejudice and, perhaps more disconcertingly, the prevalence of the belief that mistreatment of blacks was justified. These experiences surface in his later writing. While a graduate student at Columbia, Jones knew some of the Beat writers, with whom he shared an impulse toward living on the fringes of American society. In the late 1950s, Jones was visible on the literary scene; he and his first wife, Hettie Jones, published Yugen, a poetry magazine. In 1961, he helped start the American Theater for Poets. Until this point, Jones was known mostly for his poetry, through which he sought a solution to racism in American society.

However, after the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, Jones's views changed dramatically. From that point on, Jones considered racial harmony in America impossible and urged blacks to find other alternatives. The 1960s proved a turning point in his art. Jones became increasingly interested in drama, and his most successful play, Dutchman, premiered on March 24, 1964, at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York, with Jennifer West and Robert Hooks starring in the lead roles.

As racial tensions heightened in the mid-1960s, Jones became a committed activist, leaving his family to move to Harlem, where he quickly became known as a black nationalist. His commitment to the arts strengthened, and in 1965 he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater, which produced militant drama meant for black audiences. For Jones, art was a vehicle for political change, in particular for the liberation of blacks. In 1967 Jones was arrested during the summer riots, but the charges against him were eventually dropped. In 1968 he founded the Black Community Development and Defense Organization. The members wore traditional African dress, conversed in both Swahili and English, and dedicated themselves to Islam. To mark this new political and spiritual transformation, Jones changed his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka. His controversial and radical politics have earned him an important place in the black community, and he has been influential in developing relationships between black Americans and black Africans. Identified with the Black Arts movement, Baraka's work is characterized by an angry voice that frequently calls for violence as a means to achieve liberation for blacks.



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