Gerald William Barrax Sr. was born on June 21, 1933, in Attalla, Alabama, to Aaron and Dorthera Barrax. Barrax’s family lived in rural Alabama until 1944, then moved to Pittsburgh. He became interested in poetry when, in his senior year of high school, he was hospitalized for a tonsillectomy and a girl wrote him a poem to help him feel better. Barrax graduated from high school in 1951. He took a job at U.S. Steel in Homestead, Pennsylvania to save money for college tuition. A co-worker who had formerly been imprisoned introduced Barrax to Walter Benton’s love poems. Benton’s work later influenced Barrax’s style. Barrax enrolled at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh as a pharmacy major, but dropped out due to financial difficulties. He then joined the Air Force, where he worked as a radio mechanic. He spent his free time reading poetry and used Clement Wood’s Poet’s Handbook to teach him about the craft of writing poetry. After Barrax was discharged in 1957 as Airman First Class, he reenrolled at Duquesne and funded his education with the G.I. Bill. He earned his BA in 1963. He next enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh, where he completed an MA in English in 1969. He later pursued PhD work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but left the program to focus on writing.
Barrax was the author of five poetry collections: From a Person Sitting in Darkness: New and Selected Poems (LSU Press, 1998); Leaning Against the Sun (University of Arkansas Press, 1992); The Deaths of Animals and Lesser Gods (University of Virginia Press, 1984); An Audience of One: Poems (University of Georgia Press, 1980); and Another Kind of Rain: Poems (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970), which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the National Book Award. Thematically, Barrax’s poetry has been divided into three distinct periods: the first has been characterized by his interests in existentialism, the Black Arts Movement, and experimental poetry; the second concerns itself with confessional themes, particularly Barrax’s second marriage; and the third expands on his confessional style, but also examines concerns within the African American community.
In 1983, Barrax won the Callaloo Creative Writing Award for Non-Fiction Prose. In 2006, he was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame. Three years later, he received the North Carolina Literature Award. He was also awarded a grant from the Ford Foundation.
Barrax taught for nearly thirty years at North Carolina State University, where he was the first African American professor. Barrax was also editor of the literary magazine Obsidian: Literature and Arts in the African Diaspora and served as poetry editor of Callaloo. He retired from his posts as professor of English and poet-in-residence at North Carolina State in 1997.
Barrax died in Raleigh on December 7, 2019, after being struck by a vehicle while crossing the street. He was eighty-six years old.