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Poet, Playwright, Activist: Still agitating after all these years

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As much an activist as a writer, poet and playwright Amiri Baraka laid the foundation for the Black Arts Movement, rekindled the fire of politics in poetry and helped elevate vernacular verse to high-brow art.

After growing up in New Jersey, Baraka, who performs this weekend at Bohemian Caverns, studied at Rutgers, Howard, Columbia and the New School, but never obtained a degree. Never one to back down from a controversy, Baraka changed his name (he was born LeRoi Jones) and embraced a militant form of Black Nationalism for much of the late 1960s and early ’70s until he became a Marxist. Still, his strongly worded poetry and commitment to black empowerment has evoked accusations of everything from misogyny to anti-Semitism.

“I don’t care about being controversial, I care about being misquoted,” says the 78-year-old poet. “To be attacked as an anti-Semite is bizarre, and it shows you how evil forces who are against you anyway can make up something and people will believe it.”

Less than a year after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Baraka penned the poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” in which he claimed that government leaders had prior knowledge about the terrorist attacks. It generated so much backlash that New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey, unable to legally revoke Baraka’s title of poet laureate of New Jersey, abolished the state position altogether.

Baraka doesn’t mince words when talking about what he sees as the prevalence of racism in American politics. “I think slavery has ruined many people’s power of thought,” he says. “A lot of the most right-wing people can’t understand citizens’ wealth has largely come from efforts of poor whites and negroes. . . . Slavery was engineered by people and done for profit — that’s what capitalism comes from.”

The divisive politics of race and power continue to motivate his poetry. “I wrote a poem today about how the Klan sneaked into the House of Representatives,” he says. To Baraka, the vital connection between art and politics couldn’t be more clear: “There’s a great flock of lies, millions and millions of lies that have to be refuted, and only poetry can do that.”

Of course, the election of an African American president hasn’t gone unnoticed. “In the ’60s, we lost two great leaders, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X,” Baraka says. “To lose both of them and still have so much force [and momentum] to have an African American president now [is impressive].”

Baraka believes that President Obama has failed on many foreign policy issues, but the poet believes the president has proven to be an absolute success on various social issues.

“The distance between ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and the president saying all people deserve marriage rights, that’s a forceful declaration of human rights,” he says. “That dovetails into the Afro-American struggle for equal rights [and] the struggle for women’s rights.”

For his performances at Bohemian Caverns, Baraka will be accompanied by a jazz band, including his wife, Amina Baraka, a singer and poet. While the night will include recitations of familiar works, the poet will leave plenty to the moment.

“Your mind is a great gatherer. Whether you know it or not, you perceive all kinds of things that, in a certain context, are gonna come out in ways you hadn’t planned,” Baraka says. “At that point, if you’re performing, you’re open to influences you didn’t plan.”

Amiri Baraka Friday and Saturday at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. at Bohemian Caverns, 2001 11th St. NW. 202-299-0800. bohemiancaverns.com. $22 in advance, $28 at the door.

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