Born in Newark, New Jersey, Baraka moved to Greenwich Village, New York where he came into contact with the avant-garde Beat Generation, Black Mountain poets and New York School poets. In 1958 he married a white woman, Hettie Cohen, with whom he had two daughters. He and Hettie founded Totem Press, which published such Beat icons as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. He (and Hettie) founded a quarterly literary magazine Yugen, while Baraka also worked as editor and critic for the literary and arts journal Kulchur. He also edited the magazine The Floating Bear for two years. In the autumn of 1961 he co-founded the New York Poets Theatre with other artists.
Clearly Baraka's politics were integrationist. But events of the 60s were continuing to radicalize him—the Cuban Revolution, the assassination of Malcolm X, and the Newark riots of 1967. But after the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, Baraka left his family, cut off his white friends, and moved to Harlem. (Baraka divorced Cohen in 1965 and a year later married Sylvia Robinson, whose name became Bibi Amina Baraka.) Breaking away from the predominantly white Beats, Baraka became very critical of the pacifist and integrationist Civil Rights movement, and dismissed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a "brainwashed Negro." He and his poem shifted from the Civil Right movement to the Black Power movement. This gave birth to the Black Arts Movement. For Baraka, poetry became the weapon of action, and his poetry demanded action against those he felt were responsible for an unjust society. The Black Arts movement was a basically a counterpart to Black Power, and Baraka wrote a number of books now seen as foundational for a certain kind of black aesthetic and cultural identity. He scorned art for art's sake and the pursuit of black-white unity. Baraka called for the teaching of Black art and history and producing works that bluntly called for revolution. "The people's struggle influences art, and the most sensitive artists pick that up and reflect that," he said.
In 1967, Baraka generated controversy when he went on the radio with a Newark police captain and Anthony Imperiale, a politician and private business owner, and the three of them blamed the riots on "white-led, so-called radical groups" and "Communists and the Trotskyite persons." This would suggest that he was not a Marxist (yet). Later that year, Baraka visited Maulana Karenga in Los Angeles and became an advocate of his philosophy of Kawaida, a multifaceted, categorized activist philosophy that produced the Nguzo Saba, and Kwanzaa. At this point Baraka converted to Islam, and changed his name to Imamu Amir Baraka, and later just Amiri Baraka. Baraka would bring Kawaida and cultural nationalism to the East Coast and while Karenga was imprisioned he became the chief proponent of cultural nationalism.
In 1970, Baraka founded the Congress of African People (CAP) in order to advance his own vision of cultural nationalism. His vision was inspired by Karenga and influenced by Afrikan leaders such as Julius Nyerere, Amilcar Cabral, and Ahmed Sékou Touré. CAP was a cultural nationalist organization that main objective was the creation of operational unity among Black people. In 1972, Baraka, along with Gary, Indiana, Mayor Richard Hatcher and Michigan congressman Charles C. Diggs Jr., convened the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, arguably the high point of the black freedom movement in the 1960s and 1970s. During that convention, the delegates adopted the National Black Political Agenda (NBA), also known as the Gary declaration, a statement that was a major step toward creating an independent Black political party. During this period ideological conflicts between socialists, communists, and Black nationalists began to divide the NBA. Baraka at the guiding force in this political movement in the mid-1970s abandoned cultural nationalism and began to transformed CAP into a more purely Marxist organization. This created conflict in CAP between the Marxists and the cultural nationalists and eventually led to the disruption of this amazing experiment in operational unity.
Baraka's denouncement of cultural nationalism as reactionary was damning and damaging to the progress and development of our people in our restoration mission. It set up back. But there is no denying Baraka role in the spread and propagation of cultural nationalism. Karenga developed it but Baraka put it on the map.