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Amiri Baraka, poet and activist, dies

Jan. 9, 2014 at 6:07 PM   |   Comments

NEWARK, N.J., Jan. 9 (UPI) -- Amiri Baraka, the controversial New Jersey poet turned political activist, died Thursday, Newark officials said. He was 79.

Baraka had been in Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark for several weeks, the Star-Ledger of Newark reported. The cause of death was not released.

Mayor Luis Quintana paid tribute to one of the city's better-known residents.

"I went to visit him at the hospital about two weeks ago," Quintana told the Star-Ledger in a phone interview. "He was more than poet he was a leader in his own right. He's going to be missed and our condolences go out to his family today."

Baraka was born Everett Leroi Jones in Newark in 1934. He attended several colleges, including Rutgers, Howard and Columbia, without graduating and was dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Air Force for possessing communist literature.

In the 1950s, with his first wife, Hettie Cohen, Baraka was associated with Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac and other writers known as the Beats. He and Cohen founded Totem Press.

When Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, Baraka became a black nationalist. He left his wife and children and, in 1967, changed his name.

Baraka taught at a number of colleges, including Columbia, Rutgers and the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he was professor emeritus of African Studies. But he spent much of his time as a community activist in Newark.

In 2002, Gov. Jim McGreevey named him poet laureate of New Jersey. He quickly became controversial when he read a poem at a literary festival, "Somebody Blew Up America," that suggested Israel was involved in the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Baraka refused to resign and the legislature abolished the poet laureate's position because there was no way to fire him.

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