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
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 2142 GMT (0542 HKT)
Click through our gallery to remember those we lost this year.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1204 GMT (2004 HKT)
Gabriel García Márquez, the influential, Nobel Prize-winning author of "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and "Love in the Time of Cholera," has died at age 87.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jose Luis "Cheo" Feliciano, a giant of salsa music and Puerto Rican legend, died in a car crash in San Juan, police said. He was 78.
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 0801 GMT (1601 HKT)
Born James Hellwig, before legally changing his name to Ultimate in 1993, he is fondly remembered by many for his rivalries in the ring and for his trademark vivid face paint.
April 7, 2014 -- Updated 2050 GMT (0450 HKT)
Actor Mickey Rooney, one of Hollywood's brightest stars in the 1930s and 1940s, died in California at age 93.
April 8, 2014 -- Updated 2223 GMT (0623 HKT)
Model and TV personality Peaches Geldof, daughter of Irish musician and Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof, has died at age 25.
April 7, 2014 -- Updated 1557 GMT (2357 HKT)
Comedian John Pinette was found dead in a Pittsburgh hotel room. He was 50 years old.
April 3, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
DJ Frankie Knuckles, who died at 59, is remembered as a legendary producer, remixer and house music pioneer.
April 3, 2014 -- Updated 1306 GMT (2106 HKT)
Kate O'Mara, the British actress best known for playing Joan Collins' sister Caress on the 1980s show "Dynasty," has died. She was 74.
March 26, 2014 -- Updated 1203 GMT (2003 HKT)
Ralph C. Wilson Jr. -- the founder and longtime beloved owner of the Buffalo Bills, not to mention a leading figure in the NFL's rise to prominence -- has died.
March 25, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
Gwar lead singer Dave Brockie has died at age 50.
March 25, 2014 -- Updated 1952 GMT (0352 HKT)
James Rebhorn, whose acting resume includes a long list of character roles in major films and TV shows, has died at age 65.
March 23, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Former Spanish Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez died at age 81 after long illness.
March 25, 2014 -- Updated 0606 GMT (1406 HKT)
Fred Phelps, the founding pastor of a Kansas church known for its virulently anti-gay protests at public events, including military funerals, has died.
March 18, 2014 -- Updated 1910 GMT (0310 HKT)
L'Wren Scott, a noted fashion designer who has been Mick Jagger's companion for more than a decade, was found dead in her apartment of an apparent suicide. She was 49.
March 17, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Scott Asheton, who co-founded and played drums for the influential proto-punk band the Stooges, has died. He was 64.
ADVERTISEMENT