Amiri Baraka, the poet and playwright who was one of the central voices in the Black Power movement, died Thursday at age 79.
Baraka, who once went by the moniker Leroi Jones, was also the Poet Laureate of New Jersey from 2002-2003, the Star Ledger reports.
Baraka was known for his social criticism, and used his plays and poetry to confront Americans with the plight of black Americans in the 50s and 60s. He rubbed shoulders with beat poets Allan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac in the Greenwich Village avant-garde movement before moving to Harlem in the 1960s, where he became a Black Nationalist. His most famous play, Dutchman, about a white woman and a black man who vent their hatred on the New York subway, was produced off-Broadway in 1964. He later distanced himself from Black Nationalism and became a Marxist in the 1970s.
Baraka was also instrumental in founding the Black Arts Movement, which encouraged black artists to reject “white” standards of beauty and seek validation within their own culture.
He famously wrote the controversial poem “Somebody Blew Up America” about September 11th, which elicited such a public outcry that New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey tried to remove him as state Poet Laureate. When he realized that there was no such provision to do so, the governor abolished the position.