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Playwright, poet and activist Amiri Baraka dies at 79

Amiri Baraka, a controversial playwright, poet and activist who set a new path for fellow African-American artists by bringing militancy and verve to works about race in America, died on Thursday at age 79 at a hospital in his native New Jersey, a representative said.

Baraka had been in failing health and passed away at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, surrounded by family, said his booking agent Celeste Bateman.

Baraka had associated with Beat Generation poets in the 1950s and he published his first collection of poems in 1961. In 1964, he won fame in some circles, notoriety in others and an Obie award for his explosive play "Dutchman."

In the play, a white woman sexually teases and taunts a black man named Clay on a subway, they clash venomously and he speaks of seething anger at whites. The work ends with the woman stabbing Clay in the heart, then eyeing another black rider.

The New York Times, in a 2007 review of a new production of the play, called it the "singular cultural emblem" of the black separatist movement in the United States.

Born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, he later became known as Amiri Baraka. On his way to increased political militancy, Baraka in 1965 divorced his white wife, Hettie.

After the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X, Baraka played a principal role in the creation of the Black Arts Movement as the head of a theater and school in Harlem, the historic center of African-American creative expression.

The movement served as the cultural wing of the militant Black Power Movement espoused by groups such as the Black Panthers and which had grown out of the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s.

"The Black Artist's role in America is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it," Baraka wrote in an essay from the time.

Baraka also embraced Marxism and artists in the developing world who, like himself, made political statements.

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