One of America's most important — and controversial — literary
figures, Amiri Baraka, died on Thursday January 9, 2014. Baraka was well
known for his strident social criticism, often writing in an incendiary
A long term Newark resident, Baraka co-founded the Black Arts
Movement of the 1960s. His literary legacy is as complicated as the
times he lived through, from his childhood — where he recalled not being
allowed to enter a segregated library — to the 2001 attack on the World
Trade Center. His poem about that attack, "Somebody Blew Up America,"
quickly became infamous and is probably the first time that many people
became aware of him.
Baraka served as the second Poet Laureate of New Jersey from July
2002 until the position was abolished on July 2, 2003. In response to
the attempts to remove Baraka as the state's Poet Laureate, a
nine-member advisory board named him the poet laureate of the Newark
Public Schools in December 2002. Baraka received honors from a number of
prestigious foundations, including: fellowships from the Guggenheim
Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, the Langston Hughes
Award from the City College of New York, the Rockefeller Foundation
Award for Drama, an induction into the American Academy of Arts and
Letters, and the Before Columbus Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award.
Our paths began to cross during those tumultuous times in the 1960’s. Forty six years ago in 1967, Newark erupted and exploded as did many
cities across the United States, in spontaneous uprisings by
disaffected African American communities. These rebellions were met with
brutal violence by police and National Guardsmen. In Newark, 26 people
were killed and 43 in Detroit. Thousands more were injured.
My wife and I were married one month before that disturbance. I was a
graduate student at the New School for Social Research in New York.
Several months later I was a part of a joint team Federal-State
Taskforce to enhance the employability of Newark male residents.
Ironically, Amiri and many others had been picketing a police
station, the day before the Newark disturbances started. They were
involved in civil disobedience because a black cab driver, named John
Smith had been beaten up by local police. Also for the two months prior
to that, many local activists were expressing contentions over the
location and size of the projected new medical school. The state wanted
160 acres for a medical school. Amiri’s research group determined that
the largest medical school in the United States, Johns Hopkins, only
occupied one-and-a-half acres.
I became aware of him in 1967 several months after the Newark
rebellion when he was leading a movement to bring decent and affordable
housing to Newark through a proposal and model known as the Kawaida
Project. The model involved a cultural paradigm at the heart of the
housing development. I watched their protest from the windows of our
I started employment at Seton Hall in 1978 and he was invited on
several occasions to give lecture-performance type events by the Black
Studies Center. These were powerful presentations and every student left
his presentations transformed by his riveting insights and committed to
do more work in the humanities. During those presentations, at Seton Hall, I discovered that he and I
had something else in common. We both had attended the New School for
Social Research. We would spend lots of time comparing notes on how the
New School’s environment shaped our intellectual analysis. We also
discussed, as W.E.B. DuBois stated…” America’s persistent issues with
the “color line”. As fathers we also compared notes on how to raise our
sons as young strong intelligent African American men and how to keep
One statement that I heard him say once provoked an interest, within
me for an understanding of the social context of and for the production
of intellectual matter:
Thought is more important than art. To revere art and have no
understanding of the process that forces it into existence, is finally
not even to understand what art is.
One of Amiri’s four sons, Ras, is a politician and community
activist who currently serves on the Municipal Council of Newark,
representing the South Ward and is principal of the city's Central High
School. Seton Hall’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. scholars have designed
and teamed up with Principal Baraka to facilitate an after school
mentoring program, at Central High School, called “Skooled”.
From an African cultural philosophical viewpoint, Amiri has simply
transitioned to be with the ancestors, to dispense wisdom from the great
We extend our regards to the Baraka family for sharing his genius with the world.
Rev. Dr. Forrest Pritchett, Sr. is the Program Director of the Dr.
Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Program and a Faculty Mentor in the
award winning Freshman Studies Program at Seton Hall University, South
Orange, NJ. The MLK Leadership Program involves leadership development
activities and scholarships for its participants.
For more information please contact: Forrest Pritchett (862) 452-7590 Forrest.Pritchett@shu.edu