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
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1647 GMT (0047 HKT)
Click through our gallery to remember those we lost this year.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 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.
July 13, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Grammy-winning jazz bassist Charlie Haden, whose music career spanned seven decades and several genres, has died at age 76.
July 13, 2014 -- Updated 2030 GMT (0430 HKT)
Renowned conductor Lorin Maazel died from complications of pneumonia at age 84.
July 13, 2014 -- Updated 1350 GMT (2150 HKT)
Drummer Tommy Ramone was 65 and the last living original member of The Ramones. Ramone was also one of the band's composers.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 2321 GMT (0721 HKT)
Rosemary Murphy, an Emmy Award-winning actress, has died. She was 89.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 2259 GMT (0659 HKT)
"Harry Potter" actor David Legeno has died at age 50, a California sheriff's office said.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 0017 GMT (0817 HKT)
Eileen Ford, who founded Ford Model Agency 70 years ago and helped modernize the modeling industry, has died at the age of 92.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1928 GMT (0328 HKT)
The actor who gave voice to Pinocchio in Walt Disney's 1940 animation movie has died. He was 87.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Eduard Shevardnadze, whose political career seesawed between two extremes, has died at age 86.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1306 GMT (2106 HKT)
Former Real Madrid star Alfredo Di Stefano, widely regarded as one of the greatest footballers of all time, has died at the age of 88.
July 4, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Richard Mellon Scaife, the billionaire publisher and banking heir who financed conservative causes that included attempts to discredit Bill Clinton while he was president, has died.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Louis Zamperini, the Olympic runner and World War II officer who survived a horrific plane crash, a seven-week raft journey, near starvation and unspeakable torture, has died at age 97.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1323 GMT (2123 HKT)
Walter Dean Myers, a beloved author of children's books, died following a brief illness. He was 76.
ADVERTISEMENT