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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."

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CNN's Cristy Lenz contributed to this report.

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