Amiri Baraka was born in1934 and died recently in 2014. Previously he was called LeRoi Jones. He is a renowned Afro American writer of essays, plays, poetry and a critic of music. The outstanding themes in his works of arts are white racism and black liberation. Amiri Baraka brought a lot of controversy because of his works of art. In 1965, following the assassination of Malcolm X, Jones adopted the name Amiri Baraka (Brenner, np). The changing of his name from a white name to an Arab name and later a Swahili name shows how the Baraka was a rebel and a restless crusader for the black rights and change. This paper seeks to discuss on the conversion of Amiri Baraka as well as the reasons for the process of conversion. The paper will further explain the relationship Islam and Afro Americans.
In 1967 after the Newark riots, Jones developed an interest in the Sunni Muslim. At the time of his assassination, Malcolm X was a Sunni Muslim (Ahmet, np). After his assassination, Jones was approached by a couple of priest of the Sunni Muslim religion asking him to join the faith. Haij Jabeer the priest, who officiated the burial of Malcolm, approached Jones also in an attempt to persuade him to join the Islamic faith. For Jones, this was an honor, and he joined Islam (Simanga, np). This process was followed by Jones changing his name to Ameer Barakat, which meant blessed prince. Under the directive of Mahulana Karenga, the name was changed to Swahili, Amiri Baraka. According to Baraka, changing his name from a white name to a Swahili name was fitting because it gave him a sense of blackness and it eliminated the ambivalence of his African American identity.
The ideologies of Maulana Karenga had significant influence on Baraka's Islamic faith (Simanga, np). Through his efforts on community organizing, Maulana Karenga gained respect as a nationalist leader. Baraka however, was only known for his arts, criticism and had only earned reputation in the Black Nationalist movement. His views were eclectic and not scientific hence making him susceptible to the influence of Karenga's discipline and cultural activism. Karenga influenced Baraka to go Black, and African.
The main attraction of the Islamic religion that led Amiri Baraka to convert was the path that Malcolm X had outlined for the Afro Americans, that is, the way of self-defense, respect and determination. Baraka felt that Islam embodied the black ethos and it produced a new man enlightened by the black consciousness (Ahmet, np). Islam was independent of all the white influence hence it gave very black person who converted a sense of independence and made them feel that they regained their black identity.
Islam as a religion has been associated with Africa. Historically it is estimated that 15% of the slaves taken from west and central Africa believed in the Islam religion. However, because of the brutal American slavery, most were forced to practice Christianity. With the influence of the new Islamic organizations like Nation of Islam and Black Nationalist groups, many Afro Americans have been able to convert to Islam again (Brenner, np). The prominent Afro American who converted include Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Baraka himself.
During the American slavery and the brutal enslavement of Afro Americans, their cultural identity and religious identity was snatched from them. Islam, therefore, meant that they regained their status, and that is why many who joined Islam dropped their white names and adopted black names that were African. Islam felt like home for many back Americas because it provided a platform for black history and culture (Brennor, np). It gave them strength to resist the materialistic and immoral society created by Christianity. Often the Black Americans who converted to Islam led a clean life onwards, without violence, drugs or crime, by following the habits of Muhammad.
Islam fits with the Black Nationalism and socialism in the sense that African Americans or the Black Americans developed the Black consciousness movements. It was done to answer the problems that were as a result of the Afro Americans being treated as citizens who were second class (Ahmet, np). They also looked for an alternative to the racist version of the Christian faith they have been exposed to. The Islamic movement then filled these voids.
Some of the problems the Afro Americans have had include what they should be called; earlier they were called Negros now they are called African Americans. They wanted to rewrite their history to that which fits their view. For example, the founder of the Moonish temple stated that the Ameer tribe from Africa founded America, thus fitting in the Islamic belief that Afro Americans relate to. Also, Islam enables African Americans to drop their slave names, and white people do not get to lord over them anymore. It gave the Black pride by adopting new black names, new religion and unique history that they always had known.
In conclusion, Amiri Baraka decided to convert to Islam due to several factors including establishing a name and a reputation for himself. Several factors by then called for many people to result in changing their faith and joining the Islam religion: these included many cases of mistreatment and the social malpractices that were common.
Ahmet, B. E. S. E., and Bulent Cercis TANRITANIR. "Way to Self Identity: Examples from African-American Cultural Writings on Problems of Integration." Ataturk Universitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitusu Dergisi 20.1 (2016).
Brenner, Louis, ed. Muslim identity and social change in Sub-Saharan Africa. Indiana University Press, 1993.
Simanga, Michael. "Maulana Karenga, Amiri Baraka, and Kawaida." Amiri Baraka and the Congress of African People. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2015.
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