Baraka came of age during the rise of the Beat Generation in the 1950s, a time when widely accepted social values came under fire, leading up to the counter-culture revolution.
Early on, he wrote poetry and became a critic of jazz music in the burgeoning Beat scene in Grefnwhich Village in New York City.
During that time, he began studying the works of black Muslim radical Malcolm X and changed his name from LeRoi Jones to the Muslim name he would become known for.
His lifelong work focused on African-American life, racial politics and later radical separatism preached by Malcolm X and Black Muslims. The central tenet was the African-American should promote their owwn cultural traditions, racial pride and defiance of the white establishment.
He launched the Black Arts Repertory Theatre in Harlem in New York City in 1965 where many of his radical plays were staged. Ironically, it was funded by the federal government.
Among his best known confrontational plays were the “Dutchman,” “The Toilet,” and “Arm Yourself or Harm Yourself.” They focused on racial strife and violence between races.
“I don’t see anything wrong with hating white people,” he said in a controversial interview. “Harlem must be taken from the beast and gain its sovereignty as a black nation.”
Needless to say, critics blasted Baraka for being a polarizing figure at a time when the nation was trying to come together.
As the Civil Rights Movement gained steam leading to landmark legislation that broke down the doctrine of “separate but equal” that defined racial segregation, Baraka moderated his views and later became a Marxist.
But he continued to be outspoken about what he saw as continuing racial injustice in society. His poem, “Somebody Blew Up America,” inspired by the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. reiterated those themes.
The poem was blasted as an anti-Semitic diatribe because he asserted that the Israeli government had foreknowledge of the attacks but only warned Jews to avoid the twin towers that were struck by airliners and collapsed. He defiantly refused to apologize.
In later life, he held prestigious positions at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and lectured at colleges around the country.
He later settled in Newark, NJ, and wasn’t immune from the violence that plagued black communities. His daughter Shani and her companion were murdered in 2003 by the ex-husband of Shani’s sister.
He is survived by his wife of 47 years, Amina Baraka; two daughters from his first marriage and four children from his second, including Newark city council member Ras Baraka.