Amina Baraka

Undated photograph of Amina and Amiri Baraka. (AAIHS)

Amina Baraka was born Sylvia Robinson in Newark, NJ. Her mother and grandfather were two of the first African American union organizers in Newark in the 1940s and the apartment where they lived was a regular gathering place for people in the neighborhood. Her grandmother was known for her community mothering, and would prepare meals and clothing for neighbors and ensure that children were bathed. The apartment was also a place for musical performances, as her grandparents played blues tunes on the guitar, harmonica, and piano. Amina saw the community roles that her family played as “cultural work” and sought to build upon these legacies in her own political and cultural organizing as she grew.

After graduating from Arts High School, Robinson became a talented dancer, actress, and poet in Newark’s homegrown Black Arts Movement. She regularly performed at a club called the Cellar, which housed the Jazz Arts Society. In 1965, the playwright, poet, and activist LeRoi Jones returned to his hometown of Newark to build a Black political and cultural movement. In 1966, he founded Spirit House, a renovated apartment building at 33 Stirling Street that housed a theatre, meeting spaces, and living spaces. That same year, Sylvia Robinson and LeRoi Jones were married. LeRoi Jones soon changed his name to reflect his embrace of Black cultural nationalism, and became Amiri Baraka (“Blessed Prince”). According to Baraka, “Sylvia was named Amina (‘faithful’) after one of Muhammad’s wives.”

In the wake of the National Black Power Conference in 1967, Amina Baraka began organizing a circle of Black women at Spirit House to discuss Black liberation and African culture. This group of women grew to form the United Sisters, a parallel organization to the United Brothers, a Black political organization formed by Amiri Baraka to spearhead the election of Newark’s first Black mayor.

As the Barakas began organizing the community in their Stirling Street neighborhood, they soon discovered that many of the children that frequented Spirit House were not able to read. Amina Baraka and the United Sisters began to bring children from the neighborhood into the center for academic tutoring. Interested in both childhood education and promoting nationalist consciousness, Amina developed a version of the alphabet that matched each letter to a word associated with the black freedom struggle. From the tutoring program, Amina and the United Sisters formed an after-school class at Spirit House which eventually became the African Free School.

Amina Baraka (holding her son, Obalaji) and Amiri Baraka walk to trial in 1968. (Neal Boenzi/The New York Times)

When the Committee For Unified Newark (CFUN) was formed, Amina and the United Sisters became the leaders of the women’s division of the organization. The women’s division took the initiative to tighten up CFUN’s organizational and administrative structure and became the largest section of CFUN with the “most original and enthusiastic activists” in the organization, according to Woodard. Their leadership experience with CFUN primed Amina and others for central roles in the Congress of African People (CAP).

Following the 1974 International Afrikan Women’s Conference in Newark, Amina led over 800 men and women in the Congress of African People, the African Liberation Support Committee, and National Black Assembly in forming the Black Women’s United Front (BWUF). The goal of the organization, according to Woodard, was to develop “an autonomous political and ideological agenda for African American women.” The BWUF held several meetings to analyze the causes behind the oppression and exploitation of Black women, as well as to set an agenda for women’s liberation in the US from the perspective of Black women.

In addition to their vital community work in Newark, Amina and Amiri Baraka gave birth to five children: Obalaji, Ras, Amiri Jr., Ahi, and Shani. Ras Baraka is presently Mayor of Newark and Amina continues to be active in struggles for human rights and social justice.

References:

Zenzele Isoke, Urban Black Women and the Politics of Resistance

Russell Rickford, We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination

Komozi Woodard, A Nation Within a Nation

Komozi Woodard, “Message from the Grassroots: The Black Power Experiment in Newark, New Jersey,” in Groundwork: Local Black Freedom Movements in America

Mwanamke Mwananchi (The Nationalist Woman)

Mwanamke Mwananchi (The Nationalist Woman)

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Booklet distributed by the Mumininas of the Committee For Unified NewArk on the roles of women in a nationalist organization. — Credit: The Freedom Archives

Black NewArk (Sept. 1972)

Black NewArk (Sept. 1972)

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Volume 2, Number 9 of Black NewArk, the local newspaper of the Committee For Unified Newark (CFUN), published in September 1973. This edition includes coverage of the African Free School, as well as a column written by Amina Baraka. — Credit: NYU Tamiment Library

Flyer for Afrikan Free School Awards (1974)

Flyer for Afrikan Free School Awards (1974)

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Flyer for an awards ceremony and fundraising event for the Afrikan Free School, an independent school established by Amina Baraka in 1967. One of the Committee For Unified Newark’s (CFUN) most successful program, the African Free School was initially formed to improve literacy for children in Newark, and grew to earn national recognition. — Credit: Newark Public Library

Explore The Archives

African American Repairman

African American Repairman

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Photograph from the PSEG archives of an African American repairman at work. — Credit: PSEG

22 Clayton Street Stove

22 Clayton Street Stove

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A look inside the apartment of an African American family at 22 Clayton Street in Newark. — Credit: WPA Photographs, NJ State Archives

22 Clayton Street Bathroom

22 Clayton Street Bathroom

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A look inside the apartment of an African American family at 22 Clayton Street in Newark. — Credit: WPA Photographs, NJ State Archives

African American Stoker

African American Stoker

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Photograph from the PSEG archives of an African American stoker at work. — Credit: PSEG