Amiri Baraka papers

Biographical and Historical Notes

Amiri Baraka (1934-2014), known early in his career as LeRoi Jones, was a widely published African American writer who produced poetry, drama, fiction, essays, and music criticism. Much of Baraka's work addressed the subjects of Black liberation and white racism.

Baraka's early writing and publishing involved collaborations with his then-wife Hettie (Cohen) Jones, Diane di Prima, and contributions from Beat notables such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Baraka's first collection of poems, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, was published in 1961. His award-winning 1964 play, Dutchman, presents a philosophical exploration of Black and white relations in New York City through a white woman's attack on a Black male passenger during a ride on the subway.

Music permeates both Baraka's creative and critical writing. Throughout his career, Baraka's creative writing experimented with the idioms and aesthetics of African chants, jazz, rhythm and blues, and reggae. In 1963, he published an acclaimed study of jazz and blues, Blues People: Negro Music in White America. The Book of Monk, Baraka's collection of essays and poetry on jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, was published in 2005.

With poet Diane di Prima in 1961, Baraka founded the underground magazine Floating Bear which published work by poets from several important schools of the era including the New York School, the Beats, and the Black Mountain School. Through the early 1960s, however, Baraka began to drift away from the Beat movement he had largely been associated with up to that time. Inspired by artists and intellectuals he met on a trip to Fidel Castro's Cuba as well as Malcom X's preaching, Baraka became increasingly socially and politically active, and by 1964 he came to reject the cultural and political values of the Beats entirely.

With the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, Baraka took up the cause of Black nationalism. He moved to Harlem and founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre School, a short-lived but significant project that influenced similar Black Arts programs throughout the United States. In 1967, he moved to his birthplace, Newark, New Jersey, and changed his birth name LeRoi Jones to Imamu (later dropped) Ameer (later Amiri) Baraka. With his wife Amina Baraka (born Sylvia Robinson), he opened up a spiritual and cultural center in Newark called The Spirithouse. In the 1970s, Baraka became a prominent Black nationalist political leader and was instrumental in the organization of the 1970 Congress of African Peoples and the 1972 National Black Political Assembly. However, by 1974, he had drifted from the movement, redefining himself as "Marxist-Leninist-Maoist."

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Baraka taught in several universities. A native of Newark, New Jersey, Baraka was awarded the post of Poet Laureate for the state in 2002. Criticism of his poem on the September 11th terrorist attacks, "Somebody Blew Up America?," as antisemetic ultimately prompted the Governor and State Legislature to abolish the position as a way of removing him. Baraka stood as a polarizing figure throughout his career, with some critics representing his work as violent, antisemitic, misogynistic, and homophobic, and others championing his art and theories as instrumental in shifting the focus of Black literature away from the integrationist visions of his contemporaries to a literature firmly rooted in the Black experience.

Amiri Baraka died on January 9, 2014.


Amiri Baraka. Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 38, Gale, 2003. Gale In Context: Biography, Accessed 30 Nov. 2021.

The Floating Bear | Penny's poetry pages. Accessed December 1, 2021.

Analysis of Amiri Baraka's Plays | Literary Theory and Criticism. Accessed December 1, 2021.

Home - Amiri Baraka. Accessed December 3, 2021.

Amiri Baraka (1934-2014) exhibition: February 10 - April 30, 2014 | University of Delaware Library. Accessed December 1, 2021

Scope and Contents

The Amiri Baraka papers comprise the author's writings, sketchbooks, and artwork, as well as correspondence and ephemera related to his involvement in theatrical and film productions.

Series I. comprises manuscript and typescript drafts, artwork, and proofs related to Baraka's poetry and nonfiction writing projects from circa 1965-2006, arranged chronologically. The series includes handwritten and typed drafts of several of his poems and draft and proof copies of several of the author's nonfiction works. The series also includes page proofs and original cover art by collagist Theodore A. Harris for Baraka's Malcolm X as Ideology, as well as page proofs and Baraka's original cover art, "Monk Inventing the Break Dance," related to the publication of The Book of Monk.

Series II. comprises four sketchbooks of Baraka's original artwork created in ink, marker, crayon, and pastel, arranged chronologically. The untitled sketchbooks include musings, notes, and memoranda written by Baraka.

Series III. comprises eighteen original works of art by Baraka from 1996-2004, arranged chronologically. The works are predominantly created with paper and cardboard scraps, ink, crayon, and marker, and combine hand-drawn and pasted elements. To distinguish untitled works by Baraka in this series, titles have been supplied in parentheses and derive from the first lines of his inscribed text.

Series IV. comprises ephemera related to Baraka's involvement in theatrical and film productions. The series includes one letter from American playwright Ed Bullins to Baraka regarding the controversial 1978 Broadway production of playwright Phillip Hayes Dean's Paul Robeson. The series also includes promotional posters for a film version of Baraka's play, Dutchman; promotional fliers for two of Baraka's one-act plays; and notes, correspondence, shooting scripts, promotional ephemera, and press clippings related to the 1998 film, Bulworth, in which Baraka had a minor acting role.