Poet Amiri Baraka dies, aged 79

Amiri Baraka Baraka called himself "a revolutionary optimist"

Poet and activist Amiri Baraka died on Thursday at the age of 79.

Baraka died in hospital in New Jersey - where he had been since last month - surrounded by his family.

Baraka was initially associated with Beat generation poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. He published his first poetry collection in 1961.

He later became an advocate of a militant black separatist movement. In 1964, he garnered global attention for his explosive play Dutchman.

The play involved a white woman sexually taunting a black man on a subway - it ends with her stabbing him to death.

The New York Times, in a 2007 review of a new production of the play, called it the "singular cultural emblem" of the black separatist movement in the United States.

Black Arts Movement

Baraka wrote prolifically, including poems, short stories, novels, essays, plays and jazz operas.

Among his better-known works are the non-fiction book Blues People: Negro Music in White America and the poetry collection The Dead Lecturer.

He was born Everett LeRoi Jones, but following a radicalising trip to Cuba in 1960, he later adopted the name Amiri Baraka.

After the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X, Baraka played a principal role in the creation of the Black Arts Movement, as the head of a theatre and school in Harlem.

He also divorced his wife, writer Hettie Cohen, with whom he had founded the literary magazine Yugen.

"We want poems that kill,'" Baraka wrote in his landmark Black Art manifesto published that year.

"The Black Artist's role in America is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it."

11 September attacks

Among his accolades were the Rockefeller Foundation Award for Drama and a poetry award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

In later years, he moderated his views on black nationalism, and became an avowed Marxist.

In 2002, as poet laureate of New Jersey, Baraka drew accusations of anti-Semitism over his poem Somebody Blew Up America, which referenced the 11 September 2001 attacks.

Baraka refused then-New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey's request for him to resign and, in response, a state law was passed eliminating the position of poet laureate.

"Poetry is underrated," Baraka told the New York Times in 2012, "so when they got rid of the poet laureate thing, I wrote a letter saying 'This is progress. In the old days, they could lock me up. Now they just take away my title.'"

Latterly, he taught at Yale and George Washington University, and spent 20 years teaching at the State University of New York.

In a statement following his death, Newark Mayor Luis Quintana hailed Baraka as a man who "used the power of the pen to advance the cause of civil rights".

"Amiri Baraka's poetry and prose transcended ethnic and racial barriers, inspiring and energising audiences of many generations," Mr Quintana said.

He is survived by his second wife Amina - whom he married in 1966 - and several children. His daughter, Shani Baraka, was murdered in 2003.

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