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Amiri Baraka, former N.J. poet laureate and prolific author, dead at 79

Posted by David Giambusso on Friday, January 10, 2014 Under: #EssexCounty




Poet Amiri Baraka reads a poem about Sarah Vaughan Author Amiri Baraka, who turns 75 next week, reads his poetry at Skippers Pub in Newark. The poem entitled, "The Lullabye of Avon Avenue" is about American jazz singer and Newarker, Sarah Vaughan. Starting tomorrow, several commemorative events are planned in the city to examine his career as an artist and activist. (Video by Noah K. Murray / The Star-Ledger)

NEWARK — Amiri Baraka, the longtime activist and former poet laureate of New Jersey died today, officials confirmed. He was 79 years old.

Baraka was placed in intensive care at Beth Israel Medical Center last month for an unknown reason, but a spokesman for his son's mayoral campaign said his condition was improving late in December.

Newark Mayor Luis Quintana said Baraka will be sorely missed.

"I went to visit him at the hospital about two weeks ago," Quintana said by phone. "He was more than poet he was a leader in his own right. He's going to be missed and our condolences go out to his family today."

Quintana recalled Baraka's role in the 1969 Black and Puerto Rican convention, a landmark political meeting that resulted in the election of Ken Gibson, Newark's first black mayor.

"We're going to remember him always for his contributions to Newark, New Jersey and America," Quintana said. "In this time of pain, the citizens of Newark and I are with him."

Baraka had long struggled with diabetes, but it was not immediately clear what the cause of death was.

A Newark native and resident formerly known as Leroi Jones, Amiri Baraka has published dozens of poems, essays and works of non-fiction. In 1963 Amiri Baraka wrote "Blues People," an in-depth history of music from the time of slavery throughout the various incarnations of blues and jazz, with integrated social commentary. The book's 50th anniversary was recently celebrated during an event at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

In 1964, Baraka published the book of poetry, "Dead Lecturer" that marked a significant transition in his career. Also written under the name Leroi Jones, the book featured more traditional poems but also laid the groundwork for the more radical, experimental work that would come to define his later career.



"He was able to put music into the work, even reading the work," said Maria Maziotti Gillan, a poet and the director of the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College. "Mostly he was able to capture an audience when he spoke. He was a able to capture an audience through his poetry but also through what he had to say."

Kenneth Gibson, Newwark's first African American mayor said Baraka was the spiritual leader that helped enfranchise Newark's black and Hispanic community in the city's

"He was really a man ahead of his time in many ways," Gibson said by phone. "He was a spiritual leader of the group that we put together to develop the black and Puerto Rican convention."

Gibson and Baraka were close allies when Gibson was elected mayor in 1970 but Gibson said governance was not something Baraka took to easily.

"He was much more artistic than political and that was his nature," Gibson said. "But I never lost respect for him and he never lost respect for me."

Gibson said despite his outspoken nature, Baraka "kept a lot of things internal," but added, "He was a visionary. A visionary is sometimes misunderstood and sometimes they are understood, but he was in a class by himself."

Former Newark Mayor and U.S. Senator Cory Booker, who's own father died in October expressed his condolences.

"Having lost a father recently, I know how painful this time can be," Booker said in a statement. "My thoughts and prayers are with his children and the whole Baraka family after their loss.”

Baraka was the state's second poet laureate for a short time in 2002 and 2003.

In 2002, Gov. James E. McGreevey called for Baraka’s resignation as New Jersey’s Poet Laureate after a Jewish group condemned “Somebody Blew Up America.” The poem, written shortly after 9/11, included a passage claiming thousands of Israelis knew there was going to be an attack and stayed home from work — an Internet rumor not based in fact.

In typical fashion, Baraka defended his free speech and wrote an essay entitled, “I will not apologize, I will not resign.”

Newark City Council President Mildred Crump, a longtime friend of the Baraka family, said the world lost one of its pre-eminent literary figures today.

“Not only has New Jersey, but the United States of America, has lost a great human being. He was a legend in his own lifetime," Crump said. "It is such a loss, such a great loss."

Crump said Baraka's condition had been improving, and he was breathing on his own when she last visited him on Sunday. The Baraka family has been lining Beth Israel Medical Center for weeks, according to Crump.

“He fought a good fight. I was there the first night he went into the hospital," Crump said. "I was there when he was breathing on his own, I was there Sunday."

Crump said her first association with Baraka came in the 1970s, when he led the charge to build Kawaida Towers, a planned 100-acre housing project that was meant to embody the Black Power movement that Amiri had long been a champion of.

"That's when he became my hero," Crump said.

Editor's note: This breaking news story will be updated throughout the evening.

Star-Ledger Staff Writer James Queally contributed to this report.

RELATED COVERAGE:

Amiri Baraka, former N.J. poet laureate, hospitalized in critical condition




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