Baraka, Amiri 1934- (Fundi, a joint pseudonym, Everett LeRoi Jones, LeRoi Jones)
Baraka, Amiri 1934- (Fundi, a joint pseudonym, Everett LeRoi Jones, LeRoi Jones)
Born Everett LeRoi Jones, October 7, 1934, in Newark, NJ; name changed to Imamu ("spiritual leader") Ameer ("prince") Baraka ("blessed"); later modified to Amiri Baraka; son of Coyette Leroy (a postal worker and elevator operator) and Anna Lois Jones; married Hettie Roberta Cohen, October 13, 1958 (divorced, August, 1965); married Sylvia Robinson (Bibi Amina Baraka), 1966; children: (first marriage) Kellie Elisabeth, Lisa Victoria Chapman; (second marriage) Obalaji Malik Ali, Ras Jua Al Aziz, Shani Isis, Amiri Seku, Ahi Mwenge. Ethnicity: African American. Education: Attended Rutgers University, 1951-52; Howard University, B.A., 1954; Columbia University, M.A. (philosophy); New School for Social Research, M.A. (German literature).
Office—Department of Africana Studies, Social and Behavioral Sciences Bldg., Rm. S-249, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY 11794-4340. Agent—Celeste Bateman & Associates, P.O. Box 4071, Newark, NJ 07114-4071.
State University of New York at Stony Brook, assistant professor, 1980-83, associate professor, 1983-85, professor of African studies, 1985—, professor emeritus. New School for Social Research (now New School University), New York, NY, instructor, 1962-64; visiting professor, University of Buffalo, summer, 1964, Columbia University, fall, 1964, and 1966-67, San Francisco State University, 1967, Yale University, 1977-78, George Washington University, 1978-79, and Rutgers University, 1988. Founded Yugen magazine and Totem Press, 1958; coeditor and founder of Floating Bar magazine, 1961-63; editor of Black Nation. Founder and director, Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School, 1964-66; director of Spirit House (black community theater; also known as Heckalu Community Center), 1965-75, and head of advisory group at Treat Elementary School, both in Newark; Kimako Blues People (community arts space), codirector. Founder, Congress of African People, 1970-76. Member, Political Prisoners Relief Fund, and African Liberation Day Commission. Candidate, Newark community council, 1968. National Black Political Assembly, former secretary general and co-governor; National Black United Front, member; Congress of African People, cofounder and chair; League of Revolutionary Struggle, member. Military service: U.S. Air Force, 1954-57; weather-gunner; stationed for two and a half years in Puerto Rico with intervening trips to Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.
National Academy of Arts & Letters, All-African Games, Pan African Federation, Black Academy of Arts and Letters, Black Writers' Union, United Brothers (Newark), Newark Writers Collective.
Longview Best Essay of the Year award, 1961, for "Cuba Libre"; John Whitney Foundation fellowship for poetry and fiction, 1962; Village Voice Best American Off-Broadway Play ("Obie") award, 1964, for Dutchman; Guggenheim fellowship, 1965-66; Yoruba Academy fellow, 1965; second prize, International Art Festival (Dakar), 1966, for The Slave; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1966; D.H.L. from Malcolm X College, 1972; Rockefeller Foundation fellow (drama), 1981; Poetry Award, National Endowment for the Arts, 1981; New Jersey Council for the Arts award, 1982; American Book Award, Before Columbus Foundation, 1984, for Confirmation: An Anthology of African-American Women; Drama Award, 1985; PEN-Faulkner Award, 1989; Langston Hughes Medal, 1989, for outstanding contribution to literature; Ferroni award (Italy), and Foreign Poet Award, 1993; Playwright's Award, Winston-Salem Black Drama Festival, 1997; James Weldon Johnson Medal, James Weldon Johnson Foundation and the Schomburg Center, 2001; Lifetime Achievement Award, Los Angeles Pan African Film Festival, 2002; appointed poet laureate of State of New Jersey (position abolished, 2003).
(Under name LeRoi Jones) A Good Girl Is Hard to Find, produced in Montclair, NJ, 1958.
(Under name LeRoi Jones) Dante (one act; excerpted from novel The System of Dante's Hell; also see below), produced in New York, NY, 1961, produced as The Eighth Ditch, 1964.
(Under name LeRoi Jones) Dutchman (also see below; produced Off-Broadway, 1964; produced in London, 1967), Faber & Faber (London, England), 1967.
(Under name LeRoi Jones) The Baptism: A Comedy in One Act (also see below; produced Off-Broadway, 1964, produced in London), Sterling Lord (New York, NY), 1966.
(Under name LeRoi Jones) The Toilet (also see below; produced with The Slave: A Fable Off-Broadway, 1964), Sterling Lord (New York, NY), 1964.
Dutchman [and] The Slave: A Fable, Morrow (New York, NY), 1964.
(Under name LeRoi Jones) J-E-L-L-O (one act comedy; also see below; produced in New York, NY, by Black Arts Repertory Theatre, 1965), Third World Press (Holt, MI), 1970.
(Under name LeRoi Jones) Experimental Death Unit #1 (one act; also see below), produced Off-Broadway, 1965.
(Under name LeRoi Jones) The Death of Malcolm X (one act; produced in Newark, NJ, 1965), published in New Plays from the Black Theatre, edited by Ed Bullins, Bantam (New York, NY), 1969.
(Under name LeRoi Jones) A Black Mass (also see below), produced in Newark, NJ, 1966.
Slave Ship (also see below; produced as Slave Ship: A Historical Pageant at Spirit House, 1967; produced in New York, NY, 1969), Jihad (Newark, NJ), 1967.
Madheart: Morality Drama (one act; also see below), produced at San Francisco State College, 1967.
Arm Yourself, or Harm Yourself, A One-Act Play (also see below; produced at Spirit House, 1967), Jihad (Newark, NJ), 1967.
Great Goodness of Life (A Coon Show) (one act; also see below), produced at Spirit House, 1967; produced Off-Broadway at Tambellini's Gate Theater, 1969.
The Baptism [and] The Toilet, Grove (New York, NY), 1967.
Home on the Range (one-act comedy; also see below), produced at Spirit House, 1968; produced in New York, NY, 1968.
Junkies Are Full of SHHH …, produced at Spirit House, 1968; produced with Bloodrites (also see below), Off-Broadway, 1970.
Board of Education (children's play), produced at Spirit House, 1968.
Resurrection in Life (one-act pantomime), produced as Insurrection in Harlem, NY, 1969.
Four Black Revolutionary Plays: All Praises to the Black Man (contains Experimental Death Unit #1, A Black Mass, Great Goodness of Life (A Coon Show), and Madheart), Bobbs-Merrill (New York, NY), 1969.
Black Dada Nihilism (one act), produced Off-Broadway, 1971.
A Recent Killing (three acts), produced Off-Broadway, 1973.
Columbia the Gem of the Ocean, produced in Washington, DC, 1973.
The New Ark's A-Moverin, produced in Newark, NJ, 1974.
The Sidnee Poet Heroical, in Twenty-nine Scenes (one act comedy; also see below; produced Off-Broadway, 1975), Reed & Cannon, 1979.
S-1: A Play with Music (also see below), produced in New York, NY, 1976.
(With Frank Chin and Leslie Siko) America More or Less (musical), produced in San Francisco, CA, 1976.
The Motion of History (four acts; also see below), produced in New York, NY, 1977.
The Motion of History and Other Plays (contains Slave Ship and S-1), Morrow (New York, NY), 1978.
What Was the Relationship of the Lone Ranger to the Means of Production? (one act; also see below; produced in New York, NY, 1979), Anti-Imperialist Cultural Union, 1978.
Dim Cracker Party Convention, produced in New York, NY, 1980.
Boy and Tarzan Appear in a Clearing, produced Off-Broadway, 1981.
Money: Jazz Opera, produced Off-Broadway, 1982.
Song: A One-Act Play about the Relationship of Art to Real Life, produced in Jamaica, NY, 1983.
General Hag's Skeezag, 1992.
Also author of plays Police, published in Drama Review, summer, 1968; Rockgroup, published in Cricket, December, 1969; Black Power Chant, published in Drama Review, December, 1972; The Coronation of the Black Queen, published in Black Scholar, June, 1970; Vomit and the Jungle Bunnies, Revolt of the Moonflowers, 1969, Primitive World, 1991, Jackpot Melting, 1996, Election Machine Warehouse, 1996, Meeting Lillie, 1997, Biko, 1997, and Black Renaissance in Harlem, 1998.
Plays included in anthologies, including Woodie King and Ron Milner, editors, Black Drama Anthology (includes Bloodrites and Junkies Are Full of SHHH …), New American Library (New York, NY), 1971; and Rochelle Owens, editor, Spontaneous Combustion: Eight New American Plays (includes Ba-Ra-Ka), Winter House, 1972.
Dutchman, Gene Persson Enterprises, Ltd., 1967.
Black Spring, Jihad Productions (Newark, NJ), 1968.
A Fable (based on The Slave: A Fable), MFR Productions, 1971.
Supercoon, Gene Persson Enterprises, Ltd., 1971.
April 13 (broadside), Penny Poems (New Haven, CT), 1959.
Spring and So Forth (broadside), Penny Poems (New Haven, CT), 1960.
Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, Totem/Corinth (New York, NY), 1961.
The Disguise (broadside), [New Haven, CT], 1961.
The Dead Lecturer (also see below), Grove (New York, NY), 1964.
Black Art (also see below), Jihad (Newark, NJ), 1966.
Black Magic (also see below), Morrow (New York, NY), 1967.
A Poem for Black Hearts, Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1967.
Black Magic: Sabotage; Target Study; Black Art; Collected Poetry, 1961-1967, Bobbs-Merrill (New York, NY), 1969.
It's Nation Time, Third World Press (Holt, MI), 1970.
Spirit Reach, Jihad (Newark, NJ), 1972.
Afrikan Revolution, Jihad (Newark, NJ), 1973.
Hard Facts: Excerpts, People's War, 1975, 2nd edition, Revolutionary Communist League (Newark, NJ), 1975.
Spring Song, Baraka, 1979.
AM/TRAK, Phoenix Bookshop (New York, NY), 1979.
Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (includes "Poetry for the Advanced"), Morrow (New York, NY), 1979.
In the Tradition: For Black Arthur Blythe, Jihad (Newark, NJ), 1980.
Reggae or Not!, Contact Two (New York, NY), 1982.
LeRoi Jones—Amiri, Thunder's Mouth Press (New York, NY), 1991.
Transbluesency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1961-1995), Marsilio (New York, NY), 1995.
Funk Lore: New Poems, 1984-1995, Sun & Moon Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1996.
Beginnings and Other Poems, House of Nehesi (Fredericksburg, VA), 2003.
Somebody Blew up America and Other Poems, House of Nehesi (Philipsburg, St. Martin, Caribbean), 2003.
Cuba Libre, Fair Play for Cuba Committee (New York, NY), 1961.
Blues People: Negro Music in White America, Morrow (New York, NY), 1963, reprinted, Greenwood Press (Westport, CT), 1980, published as Negro Music in White America, MacGibbon & Kee (London, England), 1965.
Home: Social Essays, Morrow (New York, NY), 1966, Ecco Press (Hopewell, NJ), 1998.
Black Music, Morrow (New York, NY), 1968.
Raise, Race, Rays, Raze: Essays Since 1965, Random House (New York, NY), 1971.
Strategy and Tactics of a Pan-African Nationalist Party, Jihad (Newark, NJ), 1971.
Kawaida Studies: The New Nationalism, Third World Press (Detroit, MI), 1972.
Crisis in Boston!, Vita Wa Watu People's War, 1974.
Daggers and Javelins: Essays, 1974-1979, Morrow (New York, NY), 1984.
(With wife, Amina Baraka) The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues, Morrow (New York, NY), 1987.
Jesse Jackson and Black People, 1996.
The Essence of Reparation, House of Nehesi (Fredericksburg, VA), 2003.
Contributor of essays to Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun; and The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, Vintage Books (New York, NY), 1995.
Four Young Lady Poets, Corinth (New York, NY), 1962.
(And author of introduction) The Moderns: An Anthology of New Writing in America, 1963, published as The Moderns: New Fiction in America, 1964.
(And coauthor) In-formation, Totem (Blue Ridge Summit, PA), 1965.
Gilbert Sorrentino, Black & White, Corinth (New York, NY), 1965.
Edward Dorn, Hands Up!, Corinth (New York, NY), 1965.
(And contributor) Afro-American Festival of the Arts Magazine, Jihad (Newark, NJ), 1966, published as Anthology of Our Black Selves, 1969.
(With Larry Neal and A.B. Spellman) The Cricket: Black Music in Evolution, Jihad (Newark, NJ), 1968, published as Trippin': A Need for Change, New Ark, 1969.
(And contributor, with Larry Neal) Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, Morrow (New York, NY), 1968.
A Black Value System, Jihad (Newark, NJ), 1970.
(With Billy Abernathy, under pseudonym Fundi) In Our Terribleness (Some Elements of Meaning in Black Style), Bobbs-Merrill (New York, NY), 1970.
(And author of introduction) African Congress: A Documentary of the First Modern Pan-African Congress, Morrow (New York, NY), 1972.
(With Diane Di Prima) The Floating Bear, A Newsletter, No. 1-37, 1961-1969, McGilvery (La Jolla, CA), 1974.
(With Amina Baraka) Confirmation: An Anthology of African-American Women, Morrow (New York, NY), 1983.
The System of Dante's Hell (novel; includes the play Dante), Grove (New York, NY), 1965.
(Author of introduction) David Henderson, Felix of the Silent Forest, Poets Press (La Jolla, CA), 1967.
Striptease, Parallax (Berkeley, CA), 1967.
Tales (short stories), Grove (New York, NY), 1967.
(Author of preface) Black Boogaloo (Notes on Black Liberation), Journal of Black Poetry Press (San Francisco, CA), 1969.
Focus on Amiri Baraka: Playwright LeRoi Jones Analyzes the 1st National Black Political Convention (sound recording), Center for Cassette Studies, 1973.
Three Books by Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), (contains The System of Dante's Hell, Tales, and The Dead Lecturer), Grove (New York, NY), 1975.
Selected Plays and Prose of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, Morrow (New York, NY), 1979.
The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Freundlich, 1984, Lawrence Hill Books (Chicago, IL), 1997.
(Author of introduction) Martin Espada, Rebellion Is the Circle of a Lover's Hand, Curbstone Press (Willimantic, CT), 1990.
(Author of introduction) Eliot Katz, Space, and Other Poems, Northern Lights (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1990.
The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, Thunder's Mouth Press (New York, NY), 1991, 2nd edition, 2000.
Thornton Dial: Image of the Tiger, Harry N. Abrams (New York, NY), 1993.
Jesse Jackson and Black People, Third World Press (Detroit, MI), 1994.
(With Charlie Reilly) Conversations with Amiri Baraka, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1994.
Wise, Why's, Y's: The Griot's Song, Third World Press (Detroit, MI), 1995.
Eulogies, Marsilio Publishers (New York, NY), 1996.
The Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, foreword by Greg Tate, Lawrence Hill Chicago, IL), 2000.
Tales of the Out & the Gone, Akashic Books (Brooklyn, NY), 2006.
Works represented in anthologies, including A Broadside Treasury, For Malcolm, The New Black Poetry, Nommo, and The Trembling Lamb. Contributor to Black Men in Their Own Words, 2002; contributor to periodicals, including Evergreen Review, Poetry, Downbeat, Metronome, Nation, Negro Digest, and Saturday Review. Editor, with Diane Di Prima, The Floating Bear, 1961-63.
Baraka's works have been translated into Japanese, Norwegian, Italian, German, French, and Spanish.
Amiri Baraka, who published under his birth name LeRoi Jones until 1967, is known for his strident social criticism and an incendiary style that has made it difficult for some audiences and critics to respond with objectivity to his works. Baraka's art stems from his African American heritage. Throughout his career his method in poetry, drama, fiction, and essays has been confrontational, calculated to shock and awaken audiences to the political concerns of African Americans during the second half of the twentieth century. Baraka's own political stance has changed several times, thus dividing his oeuvre into periods; a member of the avant garde during the 1950s, Baraka became a black nationalist, and more recently a Marxist with socialist ideals. In the wake of the September 11, 2001, bombings of the World Trade Center, Baraka was accused of adding anti-Semite to his political outlook when in his poem "Somebody Blew up America" he suggested that New York's Jews had been warned in advance not to enter the doomed buildings on that fateful day; public outcry became so great that the State of New Jersey took action to abolish the position of poet laureate Baraka then held. Baraka, for his part, threatened legal action.
Throughout his career Baraka has stirred controversy, some praising him for speaking out against oppression and others arguing that he fosters hate. Critical opinion has been sharply divided between those who feel that Baraka's race and political moment have created his celebrity, and those who feel that Baraka stands among the most important writers of the twentieth century. In American Book Review, Arnold Rampersad counted Baraka with Phyllis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison "as one of the eight figures … who have significantly affected the course of African-American literary culture."
Baraka did not always identify with radical politics, nor did he always channel his writing into use as their tool. He was born in Newark, New Jersey, and enjoyed a middle-class education. During the 1950s he attended Rutgers University and Howard University. Then he spent three years in the U.S. Air Force, where he was stationed for most of that time in Puerto Rico. When he returned to New York City, he attended Columbia University and the New School for Social Research. Baraka lived in Greenwich Village's lower east side where he made friends with Beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara, and Gilbert Sorrentino. The white avant garde—primarily Ginsberg, O'Hara, and leader of the Black Mountain poets Charles Olson—and Baraka believed that writing poetry is a process of discovery rather than an exercise in fulfilling traditional expectations of what poems should be. Baraka, like the projectivist poets, believed that a poem's form should follow the shape determined by the poet's own breath and intensity of feeling. In 1958 Baraka founded Yugen magazine and Totem Press, important forums for new verse. His first play, A Good Girl Is Hard to Find, was produced at Sterington House in Montclair, New Jersey, that same year.
Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, Baraka's first published collection of poems, appeared in 1961. M.L. Rosenthal wrote in The New Poets: American and British Poetry since World War II that these poems show Baraka's "natural gift for quick, vivid imagery and spontaneous humor." The reviewer also praised the "sardonic or sensuous or slangily knowledgeable passages" that fill the early poems. While the cadence of blues and many allusions to black culture are found in the poems, the subject of blackness does not predominate. Throughout, rather, the poet shows his integrated, Bohemian social roots. For example, the poem "Notes for a Speech" states: "African blues / does not know me … Does / not feel / what I am," and the book's last line is "You are / as any other sad man here / american."
With the rise of the civil rights movement Baraka's works took on a more militant tone, and he began a reluctant separation from his Bohemian beginnings. His trip to Castro's Cuba in July of 1959 marked an important turning point in his life. His view of his role as a writer, the purpose of art, and the degree to which ethnic awareness deserved to be his subject changed dramatically. In Cuba he met writers and artists from third world countries whose political concerns included the fight against poverty, famine, and oppressive governments. They felt he was merely being self-indulgent, "cultivating his soul" in poetry while there were social problems to solve in America. In Home: Social Essays, Baraka explains how he tried to defend himself against these accusations, and was further challenged by Jaime Shelley, a Mexican poet, who had said: "‘In that ugliness you live in, you want to cultivate your soul? Well, we've got millions of starving people to feed, and that moves me enough to make poems out of.’" Soon Baraka began to identify with third world writers and to write poems and plays with strong ethnic and political messages.
Dutchman, a play of entrapment in which a white woman and a middle-class black man both express their murderous hatred on a subway, was first performed Off-Broadway in 1964. The one-act play makes many references to sex and violence and ends in the black man's murder. While other dramatists of the time were using the techniques of naturalism, Baraka used symbolism and other experimental techniques to enhance the play's emotional impact. Lula, the white woman, represents the white state, and Clay, the black man in the play, represents ethnic identity and non-white manhood. Lula kills Clay after taunting him with sexual invitations and insults such as "You ain't no nigger, you're just a dirty white man. Get up, Clay. Dance with me, Clay." The play established Baraka's reputation as a playwright and has often been anthologized and performed. Considered by many to be the best play of the year, it won the Village Voice Obie Award in 1964. Later, Anthony Harvey adapted it for a film made in Britain, and in the 1990s it was revived for several productions in New York City.
The plays and poems following Dutchman expressed Baraka's increasing disappointment with white America and his growing need to separate from it. He wrote in Cuba Libre that the Beat generation had become a counterculture of drop-outs who did not generate very meaningful politics. Baraka felt there had to be a more effective alternative to disengagement from the political, legal, and moral morass the country had become. In The Dead Lecturer Baraka explored the alternatives, finding no room for compromise: if he identified with an ethnic cause, he would find hope of meaningful action and change; but if he remained in his comfortable assimilated position, writing "quiet" poems, he would remain "a dead lecturer." Critics observed that as Baraka's poems became more politically intense, they left behind some of the flawless technique of the earlier poems. Nation contributor Richard Howard wrote: "These are the agonized poems of a man writing to save his skin, or at least to settle in it, and so urgent is their purpose that not one of them can trouble to be perfect."
To make a clean break with the Beat influence, Baraka turned to writing fiction in the mid-1960s, penning The System of Dante's Hell, a novel, and Tales, a collection of short stories. The novel echoes the themes and structures found in his earlier poems and plays. The stories, like the poems in Black Magic, also published in 1967, are "‘fugitive narratives’ that describe the harried flight of an intensely self-conscious Afro-American artist/intellectual from neo-slavery of blinding, neutralizing whiteness, where the area of struggle is basically within the mind," Robert Elliot Fox wrote in Conscientious Sorcerers: The Black Postmodernist Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Baraka, Ishmael Reed, and Samuel R. Delany. The role of violent action in achieving political change is more prominent in these stories. Unlike Shakespeare's Hamlet, who deliberates at length before taking violent action, Baraka sought to stand with "the straight ahead people, who think when that's called for, who don't when they don't have to," as he explained in Tales. The role of music in black life is seen more often in these books, also. In the story "Screamers," the screams from a jazz saxophone galvanize the people into a powerful uprising.
Baraka's classic history Blues People: Negro Music in White America, published in 1963, traces black music from slavery to contemporary jazz. The blues, a staple of black American music, grew out of the encounter between African and American cultures in the South to become an art form uniquely connected to both the African past and the American soil. Finding indigenous black art forms was important to Baraka at this time, as he was searching for a more authentic ethnic voice for his own poetry. From this important study Baraka became known as an articulate jazz critic and a perceptive observer of social change. As Clyde Taylor stated in Amiri Baraka: The Kaleidoscopic Torch: "The connection he nailed down between the many faces of black music, the sociological sets that nurtured them, and their symbolic evolutions through socio-economic changes, in Blues People, is his most durable conception, as well as probably the one most indispensable thing said about black music."
Baraka will also be long remembered for his other important studies, Black Music, which expresses black nationalist ideals, and The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues, which expresses his Marxist views. In Black Music John Coltrane emerges as the patron saint of the black arts movement after replacing "weak Western forms" of music with more fluid forms learned from a global vision of black culture. Though some critics have maintained that Baraka's essay writing is not all of the same quality, Lloyd W. Brown commented in AmiriBaraka that Baraka's essays on music are flawless: "As historian, musicological analyst, or as a journalist covering a particular performance Baraka always commands attention because of his obvious knowledge of the subject and because of a style that is engaging and persuasive even when the sentiments are questionable and controversial."
After Black Muslim leader Malcolm X was killed in 1965, Baraka moved to Harlem and became a black nationalist. He founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School in Harlem and published the collection Black Magic. Poems in Black Magic chronicle Baraka's divorce from white culture and values and also display his mastery of poetic techniques. As Taylor observed: "There are enough brilliant poems of such variety in Black Magic and In Our Terribleness to establish the unique identity and claim for respect of several poets. But it is beside the point that Baraka is probably the finest poet, black or white, writing in this country these days." There was no doubt that Baraka's political concerns superseded his just claims to literary excellence, and the challenge to critics was to respond to the political content of the works. Some critics, who felt the best art must be apolitical, dismissed Baraka's newer work as a "loss to literature." Kenneth Rexroth wrote in With Eye and Ear that Baraka "has succumbed to the temptation to become a professional Race Man of the most irresponsible sort…. His loss to literature is more serious than any literary casualty of the Second War." In 1966 Bakara moved back to Newark, New Jersey, and a year later changed his name to the Bantuized Muslim appellation Imamu ("spiritual leader," later dropped) Ameer (later Amiri, "blessed") Baraka ("prince").
A new aesthetic for black art was being developed in Harlem, and Baraka was its primary theorist. African American artists should follow "black," not "white" standards of beauty and value, he maintained, and should stop looking to white culture for validation. The black artist's role, he wrote in Home: Social Essays, is to "aid in the destruction of America as he knows it." Foremost in this endeavor was the imperative to portray society and its ills faithfully so that the portrayal would move people to take necessary corrective action.
By the early 1970s Baraka was recognized as an influential African American writer. Arnold Rampersad wrote in the American Book Review: "More than any other black poet … he taught younger black poets of the generation past how to respond poetically to their lived experience, rather than to depend as artists on embalmed reputations and outmoded rhetorical strategies derived from a culture often substantially different from their own."
After coming to see black nationalism as a destructive form of racism, Baraka denounced it in 1974 and became a third world socialist. Beginning in 1974 he produced a number of Marxist poetry collections and plays, his newly adopted political goal the formation of socialist communities and a socialist state. Daggers and Javelins and the other books produced during this period lack the emotional power of the works from the black nationalist period, contended many critics. However, some reviewers agreed with his new politics, exiled Filipino leftist intellectual E. San Juan praising Baraka's work of the late 1970s. San Juan wrote in Amiri Baraka: The Kaleidoscopic Torch that Baraka's 1978 play What Was the Relationship of the Lone Ranger to the Means of Production? was "the most significant theatrical achievement of 1978 in the Western hemisphere." Joe Weixlmann responded in the same book to the tendency to categorize the radical Baraka instead of analyze him: "At the very least, dismissing someone with a label does not make for very satisfactory scholarship. Initially, Baraka's reputation as a writer and thinker derived from a recognition of the talents with which he is so obviously endowed. The subsequent assaults on that reputation have, too frequently, derived from concerns which should be extrinsic to informed criticism."
In more recent years, recognition of Baraka's impact on late-twentieth-century American culture resulted in the publication of several anthologies of his literary oeuvre. The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader presents a thorough overview of the writer's development, covering the period from 1957 to 1983. The volume presents Baraka's work from four different periods and emphasizes lesser-known works rather than the author's most-famous writings. Although criticizing the anthology for offering little in the way of original poetry, Sulfur reviewer Andrew Schelling termed the collection "a sweeping account of Baraka's development." Transbluesency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1961-1995), published in 1995, was hailed by Daniel L. Guillory in Library Journal as "critically important." And Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist, commended the "lyric boldness of this passionate collection."
Baraka's 1997 Funk Lore: New Poems, 1984-1995 collects more of his poetry from the 1990s and late 1980s, and focuses on music as a kind of rescuer from the insanity of everyday life. Jazz greats such as John Coltrane and Louis Armstrong inform the poems in this collection, which are, according to Booklist reviewer Seaman: "[uplifting] as they dissect the cruelty of oppression and hypocrisy, then revel in the hot funkiness of love." A writer for Publishers Weekly also had praise for the collection and observed that Baraka's "total commitment to a free-form poetics makes all of his work better when read aloud than on the page."
In 2000, a further collection of Baraka's earlier work was published. The Fiction of Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka gathered his two earlier fiction works, the short story collection Tales and the novel The System of Dante's Hell, as well as the previously unpublished novella 6 Persons. Writing in Publishers Weekly, Calvin Reid had special praise for the short story "The Screamers," from Tales, terming it a "surreal masterpiece." 6 Persons, a semi-autobiographical examination of Baraka's life up to 1965 and the killing of Malcolm X, was a "pointillistic, grumbling, literary self-examination," according to Reid. The same critic went on to note: "Baraka's fiction, probably his least known body of work, manages to be both formally difficult and relatively accessible and synthesizes these seemingly antithetical traditions into vibrant works of the American literary imagination."
Baraka continued further experiments in fiction with the 2006 Tales of the Out & the Gone, a gathering of stories displaying Baraka's "signature politically piercing and poetic staccato style," as Booklist contributor Vanessa Bush commented. Divided into two parts, the collection's first part deals with tales from 1970s and 1980s, focusing on political and economic matters, while the second part contains shorter stories set from the 1980s to the current day. Bush called Baraka a "keen observer of the outlandish and outrageous." Similarly, Patrick Sullivan, writing in Library Journal, praised Baraka's "rich and distinctive voice," and pointed out two stories—"Blank," an "edgy, surreal" tale about a man who has no memory, and "Neo-American," set in 1970s New Jersey—for special mention. Andrea Boston, writing in Entertainment Weekly, found these stories "an eccentric brew of sci-fi and social commentary," while a Kirkus Reviews critic thought they presented "a perfect encapsulation of a sui generis writer—work that is often as frustrating as it is enlightening." Similarly, a Publishers Weekly contributor felt that "at their best, these stories stretch language and churn out grimly whimsical notions," but that they also "misfire." Andrew O'Hehir, writing in the New York Times Book Review, also reflected these mixed sentiments, terming the collected stories "wildly uneven," further noting, however, that "in his prose as in his poetry, Baraka is at his best as a lyrical prophet of despair who transfigures his contentious racial and political views into a transcendent … clarity."
Despite the controversy over Baraka's 2001 poem "Somebody Blew Up America" and the subsequent loss, in 2003, of his position as poet laureate of New Jersey, his legacy as a major poet of the second half of the twentieth century remains matched by his importance as a cultural and political leader. His influence on younger writers was significant and widespread, and as a leader of the Black Arts movement of the 1960s Baraka did much to define and support black literature's mission into the next century. His experimental fiction of the 1960s is considered to be the most significant contribution to black fiction since that of Jean Toomer, who wrote during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Writers from other ethnic groups have credited Baraka with opening "tightly guarded doors" in the white publishing establishment, noted Murice Kenney in Amiri Baraka: The Kaleidoscopic Torch, adding: "We'd all still be waiting the invitation from the New Yorker without him. He taught us how to claim it and take it."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Allen, Donald M., and Warren Tallman, editors, Poetics of the New American Poetry, Grove (New York, NY), 1973.
Baraka, Amiri, Tales, Grove (New York, NY), 1967.
Baraka, Amiri, Black Magic: Sabotage; Target Study; Black Art; Collected Poetry, 1961-1967, Bobbs-Merrill (New York, NY), 1969.
Baraka, Amiri, The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Freundlich Books (New York, NY), 1984.
Baraka, Amiri, and Charlie Reilly, Conversations with Amiri Baraka, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1994.
Baraka, Amiri, and Larry Neal, editors, Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, Morrow (New York, NY), 1968.
Benston, Kimberly A., editor, Baraka: The Renegade and the Mask, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1976.
Benston, Kimberly A., editor, Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones): A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall (Enbglewood Cliffs, NJ), 1978.
Bigsby, C.W.E., Confrontation and Commitment: A Study of Contemporary American Drama, 1959-1966, University of Missouri Press (Columbus, MO), 1968.
Bigsby, C.W.E., editor, The Black American Writer, Volume II: Poetry and Drama, Everett/Edwards, 1970, Penguin (Harmondsworth, England), 1971.
Birnebaum, William M., Something for Everybody Is Not Enough, Random House (New York, NY), 1972.
Black Literature Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1991.
Brown, Lloyd W., Amiri Baraka, Twayne (New York, NY), 1980.
Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Volume 1: The New Consciousness, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1987.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 1, 1973, Volume 2, 1974, Volume 3, 1975, Volume 5, 1976, Volume 10, 1979, Volume 14, 1980, Volume 33, 1985.
Cook, Bruce, The Beat Generation, Scribner (New York, NY), 1971.
Dace, Letitia, LeRoi Jones (Imamu Amiri Baraka): A Checklist of Works by and about Him, Nether Press (London, England), 1971.
Debusscher, Gilbert, and Henry I. Schvey, editors, New Essays on American Drama, Rodopi (Amsterdam, Netherlands), 1989.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, 1980, Volume 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, 1981, Volume 16: The Beats: Literary Bohemians in Postwar America, 1983, Volume 38: Afro-American Writers after 1955: Dramatists and Prose Writers, 1985.
Dukore, Bernard F., Drama and Revolution, Holt (New York, NY), 1971.
Ellison, Ralph, Shadow and Act, New American Library (New York, NY), 1966.
Emanuel, James A., and Theodore L. Gross, editors, Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America, Free Press (New York, NY), 1968.
Frost, David, The Americans, Stein & Day (Briarcliff Manor, NY), 1970.
Gayle, Addison, The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America, Anchor/Doubleday (New York, NY), 1975.
Gayle, Addison, editor, Black Expression: Essays by and about Black Americans in the Creative Arts, Weybright & Talley (New York, NY), 1969.
Gwynne, James B., editor, Amiri Baraka: The Kaleidoscopic Torch, Steppingstones Press (Chelsea, MI), 1985.
Harris, William J., The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic, University of Missouri Press (Columbus, MO), 1985.
Haskins, James, Black Theater in America, Crowell (New York, NY), 1982.
Henderson, Stephen E., Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References, Morrow (New York, NY), 1973.
Hill, Herbert, Soon, One Morning, Knopf (New York, NY), 1963.
Hill, Herbert, editor, Anger, and Beyond: The Negro Writer in the United States, Harper (New York, NY), 1966.
Hudson, Theodore, From LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka: The Literary Works, Duke University Press (Durham, NC), 1973.
Inge, M. Thomas, Maurice Duke, and Jackson R. Bryer, editors, Black American Writers: Bibliographic Essays; Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Amiri Baraka, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1978.
Jones, LeRoi, Blues People: Negro Music in White America, Morrow (New York, NY), 1963.
Jones, LeRoi, The Dead Lecturer, Grove (New York, NY), 1964.
Jones, LeRoi, Home: Social Essays, Morrow (New York, NY), 1966.
Keil, Charles, Urban Blues, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1966.
King, Woodie, and Ron Milner, editors, Black Drama Anthology, New American Library (New York, NY), 1971.
Knight, Arthur, and Kit Knight, editors, The Beat Vision, Paragon House (St. Paul, MN), 1987.
Kofsky, Frank, Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music, Pathfinder (New York, NY), 1970.
Lacey, Henry C., To Raise, Destroy, and Create: The Poetry, Drama, and Fiction of Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Whitson Publishing Company (Troy, NY), 1981.
Lewis, Allan, American Plays and Playwrights, Crown (New York, NY), 1965.
Littlejohn, David, Black on White: A Critical Survey of Writing by American Negroes, Viking (New York, NY), 1966.
O'Brien, John, Interviews with Black Writers, Liveright (New York, NY), 1973.
Olaniyan, Tejumola, Scars of Conquest/Masks of Resistance: The Invention of Cultural Identities in African, African-American, and Caribbean Drama, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1995.
Ossman, David, The Sullen Art: Interviews with Modern American Poets, Corinth (New York, NY), 1963.
Rexroth, Kenneth, With Eye and Ear, Herder & Herder (New York, NY), 1970.
Rosenthal, M.L., The New Poets: American and British Poetry since World War II, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1967.
Sollors, Werner, Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a "Populist Modernism," Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1978.
Stepanchev, Stephen, American Poetry Since 1945, Harper (New York, NY), 1965.
Weales, Gerald, The Jumping-off Place: American Drama in the 1960s, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1969.
Whitlow, Roger, Black American Literature: A Critical History, Nelson Hall (New York, NY), 1973.
Williams, Sherley Anne, Give Birth to Brightness: A Thematic Study in Neo-Black Literature, Dial (New York, NY), 1972.
African-American Review, summer-fall, 2003, William J. Harris, "Somebody Blew off Baraka," p. 183; Lorenzo Thomas, review of The Character of Consciousness, p. 189; "Amiri Baraka Analyzes How He Writes," p. 211.
America, May 26, 1984, Joyce Ann Joyce, review of The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, p. 406.
American Book Review, February, 1980, Arnold Rampersad, review of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a "Populist Modernism."
America's Intelligence Wire, July 8, 2003, "Poet Laureate Position of New Jersey Abolished"; November 8, 2005, "Ohio U.: Amiri Baraka Joins Ohio U. Students at Early Kwanzaa Celebration."
Artforum International, April 1, 1994, Robert Farris Thompson, review of Thornton Dial: Image of the Tiger, p. 16.
Black Issues Book Review, September, 2003, "Baraka Plans to Sue NJ," p. 9; March, 2003, Robert Fleming, "Trouble Man: Amiri Baraka Has Been under Siege Recently for His Poem ‘Somebody Blew up America,’ but Long before the Latest Firestorm, This Literary Legend Has Made Controversy a Way of Life," p. 22.
Black Scholar, summer, 1994, "Conversations with Amiri Baraka."
Booklist, January 1, 1994, Donna Seaman, review of Thornton Dial, p. 799; February 15, 1994, "Conversations with Amiri Baraka," p. 1052; October 15, 1995, review of Transbluesency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1961-1995), p. 380; January 1, 1997, Donna Seaman, review of Funk Lore: New Poems, 1984-1995, p. 807; February 15, 1999, Donna Seaman, review of The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, p. 1025; December 1, 2006, Vanessa Bush, review of Tales of the Out & the Gone, p. 20.
Callaloo, summer, 2003, Matthew Rebhorn, "Flying Dutchman: Maosochism, Minstrelsy, and the Gender Politics of Amiri Baraka's ‘Dutchman’," p. 796.
Choice, November, 2000, B. Taylor-Thompson, review of The Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, p. 530.
College Literature, winter, 2007, Walton Muyumba, "Improvising over the Changes: Improvisation as Intellectual and Aesthetic Practice in the Transitional Poems of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka," p. 23.
Contemporary Literature, winter, 2001, Michael Magee, "Tribes of New York," p. 694; fall, 2004, Piotr Gwiazda, "The Aesthetics of Politics/the Politics of Aesthetics: Amiri Baraka's ‘Somebody Blew up America.’"
Entertainment Weekly, December 8, 2006, Andrea Boston, review of Tales of the Out and the Gone, p. 100.
Essence, April, 1980, Judith Wilson, review of Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, p. 19; May, 1983, Carole Bovoso, review of Confirmation, p. 46; May, 1984, Thulani Davis, review of The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, p. 60.
Journal of American History, June, 2006, Daniel Matlin, review of Lift up Yr Self! Reinterpreting Amiri Baraka, Black Power, and the Uplift Tradition, p. 91.
Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 2006, review of Tales of the Out & the Gone, p. 919.
Library Journal, March 15, 1983, review of Confirmation, p. 585; January 1, 1984, review of The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, p. 81; November 1, 1993, review of Jesse Jackson and Black People, p. 122; January 1, 1994, Susan M. Olcott, review of Image of the Tiger, p. 112; November 1, 1994, review of Wise, Why's, Y's, p. 88; November, 1995, Daniel L. Guillory, review of Transbluesency, pp. 78-79; November 15, 1996, Rochelle Ratner, review of Funk Lore, p. 65; December 1, 1996, William Gargan, review of Eulogies, p. 92; March 1, 1997, William Gargan, review of The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, p. 75; November 1, 2006, Patrick Sullivan, review of Tales of the Out & the Gone, p. 71.
Monthly Review, December, 2004, Cedric Johnson, review of Black Radical Enigma and Black Power Politics, p. 42.
Nation, March 15, 1965, Richard Howard, review of The Dead Lecturer; November 18, 2002, Art Winslow, "Prosody in Motion," p. 11.
New Yorker, October 14, 2002, Nick Paumgarten, "Goodbye, Paramus."
New York Review of Books, June 11, 1984, Darryl Pinckney, review of The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, p. 19.
New York Times, January 23, 1984, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of The Autobiography of Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka, p. 15; March 15, 1990, Robert Hanley, "Black Poet Says Faculty ‘Nazis’ Blocked Tenure," p. 3; October 6, 2002, John Holl, "Poet Laureate Controversy," p. 6; October 7, 2002, Thomas J. Lueck, "McGreevey Seeks Power to Dismiss State Poet," p. 6; October 18, 2002, Marc Santora, "Poet Laureate Returns Critics' Rage," p. 3; June 3, 2003, Chris Hedges, "A Poet Raging against Pretension," p. 2.
New York Times Book Review, March 11, 1984, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., review of The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, p. 11; December 20, 1987, review of The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues, p. 15; December 31, 2006, Andrew O'Hehir, "Jersey Guy," p. 11.
Publishers Weekly, January 28, 1983, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of Confirmation, p. 83; November 15, 1993, review of Thornton Dial, p. 64; October 7, 1996, review of Eulogies, p. 48; December 30, 1996, review of Funk Lore, p. 61; May 1, 2000, Calvin Reid, "Amiri Baraka: Fierce Fictions, Radical Truths," p. 44; September 11, 2006, review of Tales of the Out & the Gone, p. 35.
Radical History Review, fall, 2003, "Home Rules: An Interview with Amiri Baraka."
Skeptical Inquirer, January-February, 2003, Kevin Christopher, "Baraka Buys Bunk," p. 8.
Sulfur, spring, 1992, Andrew Schelling, review of The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader.
Times Literary Supplement, August 2, 1991, Gerald Early, review of The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, p. 11.
Washington Post, June 25, 2000, Jabari Asim, "A Rage to Write," p. 7.
Academy of American Poets Web site,http://www.poets.org/ (July 19, 2001), "Amiri Baraka."
Amiri Baraka Home Page,http://www.amiribaraka.com (July 25, 2006).