Jones, Everett LeRoy (Amiri Baraka, "LeRoi")
JONES, Everett LeRoy (Amiri Baraka, "LeRoi")
(b. 7 October 1934 in Newark, New Jersey), African-Americanpoet, playwright, novelist, essayist, orator, and activist whose confrontational style strove to awaken audiences to the political concerns of black Americans during the 1960s and beyond.
The son of Coyette Leroy Jones, a postal worker, and Anna Lois Russ Jones, a social worker, Jones and his younger sister grew up in an integrated neighborhood of Newark. Jones graduated with honors at the age of sixteen from Barringer High School in Newark. Having earned a scholarship, he attended Rutgers University in Newark from 1951 to 1952, though he later transferred to Howard University. Failing at Howard, Jones entered the U.S. Air Force and rose to the rank of sergeant; in 1957 he was discharged from military service and began an artistic life in New York City's Greenwich Village.
In 1958 Jones married Hettie Cohen. The two were coeditors of Yugen, an avant-garde literary magazine founded by Jones that often featured the works of Beat writers, such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. The couple had two children. With Diane di Prima, Jones also coedited Floating Bear, a mimeographed magazine delivered by mail, whose rapid production process permitted immediate exposure of new works to fellow artists. In 1965 Jones divorced Hettie and left the Beat milieu, and in 1966 he married Sylvia Robinson (now known as Bibi Amina Baraka), with whom he had five children. Gifted as both a writer and an orator, Jones became well known for his challenging, confrontational style. His writing lashes out at academics, established authorities, Jews, gays, whites, and middle-class blacks, with ridicule and contempt for what he sees as their hypocrisy, ignorance, or oppressive conduct. These attacks dramatize issues; if the object of ridicule becomes upset, Jones asserts, then his or her guilt is evident; if the object of ridicule remains undisturbed and secure, then the attack only affirms the person's intrinsic worth. Jones stings his targets with humor and clever insight, often winning the enthusiasm of an audience that may also be the object of his derision.
Jones's first collection of poems, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961), reveals his early connection to the Beats. Some of the poems are dedicated to fellow poets John Wieners, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, or Ginsberg. In the collection Jones experiments with the projectivist approach of the American poet Charles Olson, refers to comic book heroes and pop culture figures with the playfulness of Kerouac, and creates surrealistic imagery in the manner of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. The work's title suggests the agonizing urgency of suicide, but the suicide is absurdly deferred because twenty volumes of work must be completed before it can be carried out. The poems free themselves from standard stanza patterns and rhyme schemes and discover their own form in the process of creation. Their style includes wordplay; variations on normal patterns of spelling, capitalization, and punctuation; and startling images. While some poems relate to Jones's wife and daughter, others turn to the literary, social, and political worlds that surround the marginalized poet.
Jones's essay collection Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1963) effectively combines his knowledge of musical history with his perspectives on cultural history. The blues are tied to the traditions of West African music, including a special musical scale, call-and-response arrangements, and invention of lyrics during performance. Functionality, another African characteristic, is part of the blues because the music accompanies work, family traditions, and courtship. The music of the white culture, Jones argues, comes from a contrasting tradition that separates art from the functions of daily life. Blues People traces the transformation of African music into American music by following the changes in the lives of black people and artists. The roles of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and many others are cited. In Jones's view African music becomes American when white people discover that the African musical influences can be understood and adopted.
The play Dutchman (1964) is perhaps Jones's best-known work for the stage and is clearly the one that marks the key transition he underwent in the 1960s. First produced at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York City on 24 March 1964, the play pits Lula, "a thirty-year-old white woman," against Clay, a "twenty-year-old Negro." The scene is a subway car on a hot summer night; the underground environment is "the flying underbelly of the city." Lula taunts Clay, who is uncertain about her intentions yet inescapably interested in her. Lula blends suggestive provocations and racial insults until Clay finally explodes in anger. He scorns her ignorance and insincerity, paying her back for her taunts with an angry revelation that black musicians have always had a special code in their music, a code that lets white listeners perceive a plain message while the music secretly curses and belittles them. Clay's triumph is brief, however, because Lula suddenly stabs him. In the surreal subway scene, Clay's body is jettisoned. Lula records her victory, and in moments another young black man appears, obviously Lula's next intended victim. The play dramatizes the tension and hypocrisy behind interracial relations, but it is also partly autobiographical, marking Jones's abandoning of the "Negro" that Clay represents in favor of a new black cultural identity, which is still to be discovered, explored, and empowered.
Other works completed by Jones during the 1960s include the poetry collection The Dead Lecturer (1964); the experimental novel The System of Dante's Hell (1965); the collection of essays Home: Social Essays (1966); the short story collection Tales (1967); the study Black Music (1968); an anthology (coedited with Larry Neal) of black writers, Black Fire (1968); and a collection reflecting his participation in Black Nationalism, Black Magic (1969).
In 1967 Jones changed his name to Imamu ("spiritual leader" in Swahili) Amiri Baraka ("blessed prince") to reflect his African heritage; he later dropped "Imamu." In addition to his writing he has had a lengthy teaching career since 1962. In the 1970s he intensified his political activities, including his work for the election of Kenneth Gibson as mayor of Newark, and in 1984 he published his autobiography. Baraka has received numerous awards, including a Poetry Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1982, an American Book Award in 1984, a PEN-Faulkner Award in 1989, and a Langston Hughes Medal in 1989 for outstanding contribution to literature. In 2001 he was inducted into the National Academy of Arts and Letters, and in July 2002 he became poet laureate of New Jersey.
A revised edition of Jones's autobiography, The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (1984), was published in 1997. Studies of Jones/Baraka include Kimberly Benston, Baraka: The Renegade and the Mask (1976), Werner Sollors, Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a "Populist Modernism" (1978), and Jerry Gafio Watts, Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual (2001).
William T. Lawlor