Skip to main content

Poet Amiri Baraka, political activist, dead at 79

By Alan Duke, CNN
January 10, 2014 -- Updated 0029 GMT (0829 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Baraka was considered a founder of the 1960s Black Arts movement
  • He was a self-described "poet icon and revolutionary political activist"
  • His poem "Somebody Blew Up America" created controversy

(CNN) -- Poet Amiri Baraka, who lost his post as New Jersey's poet laureate because of a controversial poem about the 9/11 terror attacks, died Thursday, his agent said. Baraka was 79.

Baraka, considered a founder of the 1960s Black Arts movement, died in New Jersey's Beth Israel Medical Center after a short illness, according to agent Celeste Bateman.

His official website said that Baraka "adopted a confrontational style for his poetry, drama, fiction and essays. With intent to create awareness about the concerns of African-Americans, his writings ... on one hand have been praised as a voice against oppression, on the other hand, have also incited controversies."

A self-described "poet icon and revolutionary political activist," he was named poet laureate by then-Gov. James McGreevey, on the recommendation of the state's Council for the Arts, in 2002.

Two months after his appointment, Baraka read the poem "Somebody Blew Up America" before a local arts festival.

Among the poem's lines:

"Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed

"Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers

"To stay home that day

"Why did Sharon stay away?"

Despite the public outrage over a poem suggesting that Jewish workers had advance notice of the terror attacks, McGreevey did not have the legal authority to fire the poet from his appointed $10,000-a-year post.

Baraka refused the governor's request to resign, saying his work was neither anti-Semitic nor racist. The position was eliminated by the New Jersey legislature in July 2003.

In an open letter after the vote, Baraka called it a "confirmation of the ignorance, corruption, racism, and criminal disregard for the U.S. Constitution."

He unsuccessfully sued the state of New Jersey over the matter.

A federal appeals court wrote in rejecting his complaint: "Baraka, like any person, was free to speak his views. But he had no protected legal interest in the maintenance of the position of poet laureate of New Jersey."

"Amiri Baraka believed poetry to be a process of discovery of one's inner feelings," his website said. "Like the projectivist poets, he has always been of the opinion that the poetic writings should follow the shape of writer's own breath. During the African-American Civil Rights Movement, Baraka's politically charged essays and writings proved to be extremely influential for the local audiences."

People we've lost in 2014

CNN's Cristy Lenz contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1215 GMT (2015 HKT)
Click through our gallery to remember those we lost this year.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Don Pardo, the announcer whose velvety baritone voice introduced "Saturday Night Live" hosts on NBC for decades, has died at age 96.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1934 GMT (0334 HKT)
Jim Jeffords, who shifted the balance of power in the Senate when he bolted from the Republican Party in 2001, died at age 80.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2132 GMT (0532 HKT)
Former Z-Boys skater Jay Adams died after a heart attack while vacationing in Mexico with his wife. He was 53.
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Actress Arlene Martel, who "Star Trek" fans know as Spock's bride-to-be, died of complications from a heart attack. Martel was 78.
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Ed Nelson, best known for playing a doctor in the 1960s nighttime soap opera "Peyton Place," has died at 85.
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 0308 GMT (1108 HKT)
Actress Lauren Bacall, known for her distinctive, husky voice and sultry sensuality, has died at age 89.
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 0219 GMT (1019 HKT)
Robin Williams, who first made America laugh and eventually touched "every element of the human spirit" in a remarkable range of performances, died at age 63.
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Charles Keating, best known for his role as villain Carl Hutchins on the NBC soap opera "Another World," has died at 72.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
JJ Murphy, an actor who was set to join the "Game of Thrones" cast, died at age 86.
August 6, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Actress Marilyn Burn, a "scream queen" in the original "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," has died at age 64.
August 5, 2014 -- Updated 1150 GMT (1950 HKT)
James Brady, former press secretary to Ronald Reagan who was severely wounded in a 1981 assassination attempt on the President, has died at age 73.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 1325 GMT (2125 HKT)
Nearly 69 years ago, Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk navigated a U.S. B-29 Superfortress called the Enola Gay over Hiroshima, Japan, on a sunny August day.
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2139 GMT (0539 HKT)
James Shigeta, a prolific and pioneering Asian-American actor whose 50-year career includes the movies "Die Hard" and "Flower Drum Song," has died at age 81.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Actress Skye McCole Bartusiak, who played Mel Gibson's youngest daughter in "The Patriot," has died at age 21.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1334 GMT (2134 HKT)
James Garner, the understated, wisecracking everyman actor who enjoyed multi-generational success on both the small and big screen, has died. He was 86.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Actress Elaine Stritch, known for her brash persona, gravelly voice and versatility over seven decades on Broadway, has died at age 89.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1628 GMT (0028 HKT)
American blues guitarist and singer Johnny Winter died in a hotel room in Switzerland at age 70.
July 14, 2014 -- Updated 2159 GMT (0559 HKT)
Nadine Gordimer, the Nobel Prize-winning South African author and anti-apartheid activist, has died at age 90.
ADVERTISEMENT