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Baraka, Amiri 1934–

Amiri Baraka 1934

Writer, educator

Never Felt Comfortable in Academia

Artistic Philosophy Influenced by the Beat Generation

Visit to Cuba Encouraged More Aggressive Social Activism

The Dutchman Exposed Disillusionment With Integration

Embraced Black Nationalism, Then Marxism

Controversial Poem Created Backlash

Selected writings

Sources

Amiri Baraka is one of the most controversial writers in recent history, one whose influence on African-American literature has been profound. Plays, poems, novels, essays, short stories, jazz operas, and music criticism are all included in his body of work, and all have served as vehicles for his outspoken social and political commentary. According to Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor James A. Miller, he is a protean personality, fond of manifestos and vehement repudiations, [who] has shifted guises and discarded identities with such astonishing rapidity that critics have often been frustrated, suspended in the act of defining a man who is no longer there, while his admirers have been left abandoned or challenged to readjust themselves to his new position. Maya An-gelou thinks that Baraka is the worlds greatest living poet.

Never Felt Comfortable in Academia

Born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, Baraka grew up in a family of distinctly middle-class aspirations. His parents, a housewife and a postal worker, encouraged Baraka to express himself through art and music. In an interview for Publishers Weekly with Calvin Reid, Baraka described a typical family gathering, you had to sing or dance or tell stories or something. You couldnt just sit there, the old folks would think something was wrong with you. You cant sing boy? Baraka also recalled taking piano, drum, and trumpet lessons, drama class, and art school. One of a handful of blacks in his high school, Baraka loved sports and played baseball, basketball, football, and track. Baraka admitted to Reid, If I had been a little bigger I would never have been a writer. Yet no matter what sports he joined or clubs he became a member of, Baraka was still seen by other students as an outsider. Barakas parents took pride in the idea of their son succeeding at a mainly white school, but Barakas unique status caused him tremendous feelings of alienation and isolation. Later in life he would mercilessly lampoon the values of assimilation his parents held dear.

Baraka won a scholarship to Rutgers University in 1951, but a continuing sense of cultural dislocation prompted him to transfer in 1952 to Howard University, a traditionally black college. He would eventually attack the school as the citadel of the black bourgeoisie

At a Glance

Born Everett LeRoi Jones on October 7, 1934, in Newark, NJ; son of Coyette LeRoy and Anna Lois Jones; married Hettie Cohen, October 13, 1958 (divorced, August 1965); married Sylvia Robinson (Bibi Amina Baraka), 1966; children: (first marriage) Kellie Elisabeth, Lisa Victoria Chapman; (second marriage) Dbalaji Malik Ali, Ras Jua Al Aziz, Shani Isis, Amiri Seku, Ahi Mwenge. Education: Howard University. Military Service: U.S. Air Force, 1954-57.

Career: Writer. Founded Yugen magazine and Totem Press, 1958; New School for Social Research, New York City, instructor, 1961-64; San Francisco State College, visiting prof, 1966-67; Yale Univ, visiting prof, 1977-78; George Washington University, visiting prof, 1978-79; State Univ of New York at Stony Brook, associate professor, 1983-85, professor of Afro-American studies, 1985-1999; poet laureate for New Jersey, 2002-03.

Membership: Founded Black Arts Repertory Theatre School, 1964, director, 1964-66; Spirithouse, co-founder, 1967-; Kimakos Blues People.

Awards: John Hay Whitney fellowship, 1960-61; Longview Award for best essay of the year, 1961, for Cuba Libre; Obie Award, 1964, for Dutchman; Guggenheim fellowship, 1965-66; Yoruba Academy fellow, 1965; second prize at the First World Festival of Negro Arts, Dakar, Senegal, 1966, for The Slave; Doctorate of Humane Letters, Malcolm X College, 1972; Rockefeller Foundation fellow, 1981, 1989; National Endowment for the Arts poetry award, 1981; New Jersey Council for the Arts award, 1982; Before Columbus Foundation award, 1984; American Book Award, 1984; Drama Award, 1985; Langston Hughes medal, 1989; Ferroni award, Italy, and foreign poet award, 1993; Playwrights award, Black Drama Festival, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 1997; University of Connecticut Wallace Stevens poetry prize, 1998; One Hundred Black Men, Rutgers University, 1998.

Address: Agent William Morrow & Co., 105 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016.

he disdained, writing in an essay: Howard University shocked me into realizing how desperately sick the Negro could be, how he could be led into self-destruction and how he would not realize that it was the society that had forced him into a great sickness. Despite his later criticism, however, Baraka benefitted greatly from his years at Howard. He studied philosophy, religion, and literature, and was exposed to the ideas of prominent black poets, music critics, and scholars. Baraka credited several of his teachers for providing a strong background in European classics as well as black American culture. In particular, he praises Sterling Brown for illustrating the importance of the blues; that it was first a verse form and then the music flowed from that.

In 1954 Baraka left Howard without finishing his bachelors degree, returned to Newark, and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. Baraka served in Puerto Rico and Germany as a weatherman and gunner. He told Publishers Weekly, it was the worst thing I could have done, but also explained that his years in the Air Force are where he got his real education. While stationed in Puerto Rico, Baraka was the base librarian. The library eventually became an informal meeting place where Baraka and several others would read and discuss various books, from Proust to Thomas Hardy to Kafka. Baraka was also writing poems during this time and sending them to several magazines such as, The New Yorker and Kenyon Review.

Artistic Philosophy Influenced by the Beat Generation

Three years later Baraka returned to civilian life, after being discharged from the Air Force for having too many booksamong them, The Communist Manifesto. Someone said I was a Communist. As it turned out, 40 years later, now its true, Baraka chuckled while describing this incident during his interview with Publishers Weekly. At the time, the social and artistic phenomenon known as the Beat Generation was just beginning to touch the consciousness of a complacent America. The Beats were challenging the stagnant literary establishment and the rigid moral code of the country; Baraka quickly aligned himself with them, seeing them as fellow outsiders. The ideal shared by the Beats and Baraka was to look beyond, or rise above, racial barriers. Baraka explained to David Ossman in The Sullen Art: Interviews with Modern American Poets: Im fully conscious all the time that Im an American Negro, because its part of my life. But I also know that if I want to say, I see a bus full of people, I dont have to say, I am a Negro seeing a bus full of people. I would deal with it when it has to do directly with the poem, and not as a kind of broad generalization that doesnt have much to do with a lot of young writers today who are Negroes.

Baraka took up residence in Greenwich Village, a center of the budding cultural revolution. He soon met and married Hettie Cohen, a young Jewish woman who shared his tastes in music and literature. Cohen worked for the Partisan Review, where Barakas first published piece appeared in 1958. It was a defense of the innovations of Beat writing, declaring that young writers must resort to violence in literature, to shake us out of the woeful literary sterility which characterized the 40s. Baraka and Cohen organized Yugen, a literary magazine showcasing the new poets. Baraka wrote a letteron toilet paper stationeryto Beat poet Allen Ginsberg soliciting works and was rewarded with contributions from Ginsberg, Philip Whalen, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, and other notables.

A vital relationship with Ginsberg developed. Baraka recalled in the Village Voice: We talked endlessly about poetry, about prosody, about literature and it is clear to me that my poetry would not have evolved as it has without A. G.s ideas. He let me in on poetry as a living phenomenon, a world of human concern, and literature as a breathing force in ones life, the task of a lifetime. I absorbed and grew because of these ideas, and even in resisting some of Ginsbergs other ideas, I still grew and developed because of contact with them. Barakas association with Ginsberg, his editorship of Yugen, and establishment of Totem Press quickly made him one of the leading figures of the Greenwich Village scene. He began to write prolifically, contributing poetry and reviews of books and music to the important smaller magazines of the day.

Visit to Cuba Encouraged More Aggressive Social Activism

But even as he was becoming a key member of the Beat Generation, Baraka was drifting away from the movement. His fellow poets were, for the most part, apolitical. They criticized the system, but had no agenda for changing it. Baraka felt a growing sense of dissatisfaction with this kind of passivity. In 1960 he reached a turning point in his life when he visited Fidel Castros Cuba. There he encountered many forceful, politically committed young artists and intellectuals who challenged him to abandon the Beat preoccupation with the soul and to tackle societys problems in a more aggressive fashion. Baraka did not change overnight; he did, however, return from Cuba with a new sense of political mission and a stronger identification with artists of the Third World than with those of the white vanguard. Though he remained a resident of Greenwich Village, he became increasingly involved in the social life of Harlem.

During the early 1960s Baraka seemed to regard himself as a bridge between the black and white worlds. He wrote two of his most serious works of fiction at this time, The System of Dantes Hell and Tales. Both reflect his struggle to pull away from Greenwich Village. He told Kimberly Benston in Boundary 2, I was really writing defensively. I was trying to get away from the influence of people like [Robert] Creeley and [Charles] Olson. I was living in New York then and the whole Creeley-Olson influence was beginning to beat me up. I was in a very closed circle and I felt the need to break out. Still, he continued to work closely with Beat writers; in 1961 he and poet Diane Di Prima founded another important underground magazine, Floating Bear. The two were also instrumental in organizing the American Theatre for Poets. Baraka ridiculed the notion of a separate black society in his essay Black Is a Country, insisting that America is as much a black country as a white one. The lives and destinies of the white American are bound up inextricably with those of the black American. He clung to his belief in a world free of color lines even as he sought to establish for himself a stronger ethnic identity.

The Dutchman Exposed Disillusionment With Integration

Eventually Barakas writing revealed the slow disintegration of his faith in racial harmony. In the poem Black Dada Nihilismus he ponders the many non-white cultures destroyed by Western civilization and concludes by calling on the African god Damballah for help in the destruction of the West. In his most well-known and highly praised play, Dutchman, he depicts a subway encounter between Lula, a white, Bohemian woman, and Clay, a young, middle-class, black man. At first Clay seems to represent the aspects of black life Baraka harshly criticized in his earlier works, while Lula appears to embody the values the author prized. Lula taunts Clay about his repressed identity, urging him to release his true black self. When he finally does, it pours forth as a violent tirade against Lula and the larger white world. At the dramas conclusion Lula calmly stabs Clay to death and sits back to await her next victim.

Dutchman merges private themes, mythical allusion, surrealistic techniques, and social statement into a play of astonishing power and resonance, stated Miller. It won the 1964 Obie Award for best American play, was performed internationally, and propelled its author into a whirlwind of lectures, panel discussions, readings, and teaching assignments at liberal universities. Years after the plays debut Darryl Pinckley wrote in the New York Times Book Review, [Baraka] is a highly gifted dramatist. Much of the black protest literature of the 60s now seems diminished in power, even sentimental. But Dutchman immediately seizes the imagination. It is radically economical in structure, striking in the vivacity of its language and rapid shifts of mood.

By mid-1964 Baraka had completely rejected the cultural and political values of the Beats and had begun verbally attacking his Greenwich Village friends, white liberals, and the white community in general. His anti-bourgeois stance had been transformed into a militant black nationalism inspired by Malcolm X. An integrated society was not only impossible, he now believed, but undesirable. Ironically, Barakas diatribes against the white world boosted his popularity even furtherat least temporarily. For a time he was swamped by invitations to hip, white, New York City high-society parties. But he meant what he said about turning his back on that world. Now there could be absolutely no ties with whites, and certainly not any intimate ones, he later wrote. These in themselves, we reasoned, would make us traitors. By the end of 1965 he had ended his marriage to Hettie Cohen, broken his ties with the white literary establishment, and moved to Harlem.

Embraced Black Nationalism, Then Marxism

In Harlem he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre School. It was a short-lived but highly influential project that revolutionized black theater in the United States. Contemporary dramas shaped by black nationalist philosophy were performed there and institutions modeled after it sprang up all over the country. The theaterwhich was funded with federal moneywas shut down by police in 1966, allegedly because an arms cache had been discovered there. Returning to his birthplace, Newark, Baraka dropped the name LeRoi Jones in favor of the Bantu Muslim appellation Imamu (meaning spiritual leader, later dropped) Ameer (later changed to Amiri, meaning blessed) Baraka (prince). He also married Sylvia Robinson, who changed her name to Amina Baraka. The couple opened the Spirithouse to help Newark both culturally and spiritually. In the essay state/meant he summarized his new sense of purpose: The Black Artists role in America is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it. His role is to report and reflect so precisely the nature of the society, and of himself in that society, that other men will be moved by the exactness of his rendering and, if they are black men, grow strong through this moving, having seen their own strength, and weakness; and if they are white men, tremble, curse, and go mad, because they will be drenched with the filth of their evil.

As the dominant black theorist and artist of the late 1960s, Baraka was responsible for shifting the focus of black literature from an integrationist art that conveyed a raceless and classless vision to a literature rooted in the black experience. The era over which he presided is considered the most important in black arts since the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. And despite Bara-kas rejection of the ideal of an integrated world, his work affected all races. As Native American author Maurice Kenny wrote in The Kaleidoscopic Torch, He opened tightly guarded doors for not only Blacks but poor whites as well and, of course, Native Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans. Wed all still be waiting for the invitation from the New Yorker without him. He taught us all how to claim it and take it.

As a black nationalist political leader, Baraka was a key figure in the organization of the Congress of African Peoples in 1970 and the National Black Political Assembly in 1972. But by 1974 he had undergone yet another reassessment of his cultural and political orientation. In a dramatic turnabout he rejected black nationalism and proclaimed himself a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist. He stated in the New York Times: It is a narrow nationalism that says the white man is the enemy. Nationalism, so-called, when it says all non-blacks are our enemies, is sickness or criminality, in fact, a form of fascism. Since 1974 Baraka has produced a great deal of socialist poetry and essays and names the destruction of the capitalist state and the creation of a socialist community as his goal. William J. Harris quoted him in The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka as saying: I think fundamentally my intentions are similar to those I had when I was a Nationalist. That might seem contradictory, but they were similar in the sense that I see art as a weapon, and a weapon of revolution. Its just now that I define revolution in Marxist terms. I came to my Marxist view as a result of having struggled as a Nationalist and found certain dead ends theoretically and ideologically, as far as Nationalism was concerned and had to reach out for a communist ideology. Nonetheless, Barakas many philosophical shifts are far from capricious, attested Arnold Rampersad, who wrote in The Kaleidoscopic Torch: His change of heart and head is testimony to his honesty, energy, and relentless search for meaning.

Baraka, though continuing to create works to encourage, strengthen, and enlighten his community, began to teach as well. In addition to teaching at the New School for Social Research, he also taught at San Francisco State College, Yale, and George Washington University. He began a teaching career at the State University of New York-Stony Brook (SUNY). He started as an assistant professor, making his way to professor of African studies in 1985.

Controversial Poem Created Backlash

In 1999, after twenty years teaching at SUNY, Baraka retired, but remained an activist, frequently accepting reading and speaking engagements. As the political climate in the United States became increasingly more conservative, Barakas work has managed to retain its revolutionary ardor. Soon after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, Baraka composed his provocative poem, Somebody Blew Up America, which was essentially focused on American imperialism but was also partly inspired by several conspiracy theories including the theory that George Bush and the Israeli government had previous knowledge of the attack. The poem was online weeks after the attack and Baraka read the poem at several venues including college campuses.

In 2002 Baraka was named poet laureate of New Jersey, a position that has been challenged by many individuals and groups, including the Anti-defamation League. James Haba, a poet who was on the committee to choose a new poet laureate told The New York Observer, He is clearly a major literary figure. Every anthology of American literature in the 20th century will include some mention of him, or some of his work. He was born in New Jersey and lives in New Jersey. On what grounds dont you nominate him? In September of 2002, Baraka read Somebody Blew Up America at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in front of 2,000 people. Afterward, the poem came under heavy criticism which lead Governor McGreevey to ask for Barakas apology and for him to step down from his appointment as poet laureate. Baraka wrote a lengthy statement defending his poem, explaining the irony of Bushs war on terrorism, that blacks in America have been victims of political and cultural terrorism for centuries. Needless to say, Baraka refused to apologize and refused to resign as poet laureate. On the contrary, as Stanley Crouch, a columnist for the New York Daily News pointed out, I do not think he should resign or be asked to step down. Those people in New Jersey chose a buffoon, and now they should experience the embarrassment of having been so naive. It seems to me that part of democracy means that you periodicallyor oftenhave to hear things you disagree with. Part of democracy means enduring people not like yourself.

In his statement regarding Somebody Blew Up America Baraka said, No, I will not apologize, I will not resign. In fact I will continue to do what I have appointed to do but still have not been paid to do. We feel that this state and indeed this nation and this world is desperately in need of the deepest and most profound human values that poetry can teach. However, on January 29, 2003, the New Jersey Senate voted to abolish the poet laureate position. As in the past, this will not deter him. Amiri Baraka has shown tremendous courage in bringing forth change in not only the black community of Newark, New Jersey, but for many throughout the African diaspora.

Selected writings

Plays

Dutchman [and] The Slave, Morrow, 1964.

The Toilet, Sterling Lord, 1964.

The Baptism: A Comedy in One Act, Sterling Lord, 1966.

The System of Dantes Hell, Grove, 1965.

Slave Ship, Jihad, 1967.

Arm Yourself or Harm Yourself! A One-Act Play, Jihad, 1967.

Four Black Revolutionary Plays: All Praises to the Black Man, Bobbs-Merrill, 1969.

(Contributor) New Plays from the Black Theatre, edited by Ed Bullins, Bantam, 1969.

J-E-L-L-O, Third World Press, 1970.

(Contributor) Black Drama Anthology, edited by Woodie King and Ron Milner, New American Library, 1971.

(Contributor) Spontaneous Combustion: Eight New American Plays, edited by Rochelle Owens, Winter House, 1972.

What Was the Relationship of the Lone Ranger to the Means of Production?: A Play in One Act, Anti-Imperialist Cultural Union, 1978.

The Motion of History and Other Plays, Morrow, 1978.

The Sidnee Poet Heroical, in Twenty-Nine Scenes, Reed & Cannon, 1979.

Selected Plays and Prose of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Morrow, 1979.

Primitive World, music by David Murray, New York, 1984.

General Hags Skeezag, New York, Mentor, 1992.

Also author of the plays Home on the Range and Police, published in Drama Review, Summer 1968, Rockgroup, published in Cricket, December 1969, and Black Power Chant, published in Drama Review, December 1972.

Screenplays

Dutchman, Gene Persson Enterprises, Ltd., 1967.

Black Spring, Black Arts Alliance (San Francisco), 1968.

A Fable (based on The Slave), MFR Productions, 1971.

Supercoon, Gene Persson Enterprises, Ltd., 1971.

Poetry

April 13 (broadside), Number 133, Penny Poems (New Haven), 1959.

Spring & So Forth (broadside), Number 111, Penny Poems, 1960.

Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, Toteni/Corinth, 1961.

The Dead Lecturer, Grove, 1964.

Black Art (also see below), Jihad, 1966.

Black Magic (also see below), Morrow, 1967.

A Poem For Black Hearts, Broadside Press, 1967.

Black Magic: Sabotage; Target Study; Black Art; Collected Poetry, 1961-1967, Bobbs-Merrill, 1969.

Its Nation Time, Third World Press, 1970.

Spirit Reach, Jihad, 1972.

Afrikan Revolution: A Poem, Jihad, 1973.

Hard Facts: Excerpts, Peoples War, 1975.

Spring Song, Baraka, 1979.

AM/TRAK, Phoenix Bookship, 1979.

Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, Morrow, 1979.

In the Tradition: For Black Arthur Blythe, Jihad, 1980.

Reggae or Not! Poems, Contact Two, 1982.

The Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, New York, Thunder Mouth Press, 1993.

Wise Whys Ys: The Girots Tale, Third World Press, 1996

Transbluency: The Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/Leroi Jones (1961-1995), New York, Marsilio, 1995.

Funk Lore: New Poems (1984-1995), Los Angeles, Littoral Books, 1996.

Essays

Blues People: Negro Music in White America, Morrow, 1963.

Home: Social Essays (contains state/meant), Morrow, 1966.

Black Music, Morrow, 1968.

Raise, Race, Rays, Raze: Essays Since 1965, Random House, 1971.

Strategy and Tactics of a Pan-African Nationalist Party, Jihad, 1971.

Kawaida Studies: The New Nationalism, Third World Press, 1972.

Crisis in Boston!, Vita Wa WatuPeoples War, 1974.

Daggers and Javelins: Essays, 1974-1979, Morrow, 1984.

(With wife, Amina Baraka) The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues, Morrow, 1987.

Other

The Disguise (broadside), [New Haven], 1961.

Cuba Libre, Fair Play for Cuba Committee (New York City), 1961.

(Contributor) Soon, One Morning, edited by Herbert Hill, Knopf, 1963.

The System of Dantes Hell (novel), Grove, 1965.

Striptease, Parallax, 1967.

Tales (short stories), Grove, 1967.

Focus on Amiri Baraka: Playwright LeRoi Jones Analyzes the 1st National Black Political Convention (recording), Center for Cassette Studies, 1973.

The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Freundlich, 1984.

Conversations With Amiri Baraka, 1994.

Eulogies, 1996.

Jesse Jackson & Black People, Third World Press, 2003.

Jubilee, National Geographic, 2003.

Works represented in more than 75 anthologies, including A Broadside Treasury, For Malcolm, The New Black Poetry, Nommo, and The Trembling Lamb. Editor with Diane Di Prima, The Floating Bear, 1961-1963. Contributor to periodicals, including the Evergreen Review, Poetry, downbeat, Metronome, the Nation, Negro Digest, and the Saturday Review.

Sources

Books

Amiri Baraka: The Kaleidoscopic Torch, edited by James B. Gwynne, Steppingstones Press, 1985.

Baraka, Amiri, The Autobiography of Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Freundlich, 1984.

Baraka: The Renegade and the Mask, edited by Kimberly A. Benston, Yale University Press, 1976.

Benston, Kimberly A., Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones): A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1978.

Black Theatre, U.S.A., edited by James V. Hatch, Free Press, 1974.

Brown, Lloyd W., Amiri Baraka, Twayne, 1980.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, 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, 1971.

Dace, Letitia, LeRoi Jones (Imamu Amiri Baraka): A Checklist of Works By and About Him, Nether Press, 1971.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale, 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.

Fox, Robert Elliot, Conscientious Sorcerers: The Black Post-Modernist Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Baraka, Ishmael Reed and Samual R. Delany, Greenwood Press, 1987.

Harris, William J., The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic, University of Missouri Press, 1985.

Hudson, Theodore, From LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka: The Literary Works, Duke University Press, 1973.

Lacey, Henry C., To Raise, Destroy, and Create: The Poetry, Drama, and Fiction of Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Whitson, 1981.

Ossman, David, The Sullen Art: Interviews with Modern American Poets, Corinth, 1963.

Sollors, Werner, Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a Populist Modernism/ Columbia University Press, 1978.

Periodicals

American Theater, May 2000; January 2002.

Associated Press, January 30, 2003.

Black American Literature Forum, Spring 1980; Spring 1981; Fall 1982; Spring 1983; Winter 1985.

Booklist, September 15, 1996; January 1, 1997; February 15, 1999.

Boundary, Volume 2, Number 6, 1978.

Chicago Defender, January 11, 1965.

Chicago Tribune, October 4, 1968.

Detroit Free Press, January 31, 1965.

Detroit News, January 15, 1984; August 12, 1984.

downbeat, January 2, 1964; August 1987.

Ebony, August 1967; August 1969; February 1971.

Esquire, June 1966.

Essence, September 1970; May 1984; September 1984; May 1985.

Jet, January 16, 1975; July 23, 1984.

Modern Drama, February 1971; Summer 1972; September 1972; June 1974; Spring, 1997.

Ms., September 1983.

Nation, October 14, 1961; November 14, 1961; March 13, 1964; April 13, 1964; January 4, 1965; March 15, 1965; January 22, 1968; February 2, 1970.

Negro Digest, December 1963; February 1964; August 1964; March 1965; April 1965; March 1966; April 1966; June 1966; April 1967; April 1968; January 1969; April 1969.

New York Daily News, October 22, 2002.

New York Observer, October 21, 2002.

New York Review of Books, January 20, 1966; May 22, 1964; July 2, 1970; October 17, 1974; June 11, 1984; June 14, 1984.

New York Times, April 28, 1966; May 8, 1966; August 10, 1966; September 14, 1966; October 5, 1966; January 20, 1967; February 28, 1967; July 15, 1967; January 5, 1968; January 6, 1968; January 9, 1968; January 10, 1968; February 7, 1968; April 14, 1968; August 16, 1968; November 27, 1968; December 24, 1968; August 26, 1969; November 23, 1969; February 6, 1970; May 11, 1972; June 11, 1972; November 11, 1972; November 14, 1972; November 23, 1972; December 5, 1972; December 27, 1974; December 29, 1974; November 19, 1979; October 15, 1981; January 23, 1984; October 18, 2002.

New York Times Book Review, January 31, 1965; November 28, 1965; May 8, 1966; February 4, 1968; March 17, 1968; February 14, 1971; June 6, 1971; June 27, 1971; December 5, 1971; March 12, 1972; December 16, 1979; March 11, 1984; July 5, 1987; December 20, 1987.

New Yorker, April 4, 1964; December 26, 1964; March 4, 1967; December 30, 1972.

Newsweek, March 13, 1964; April 13, 1964; November 22, 1965; May 2, 1966; March 6, 1967; December 4, 1967; December 1, 1969; February 19, 1973.

Publishers Weekly, October 7, 1996; December 30, 1996; May 1, 2000;

Record, October 17, 2002; October 18, 2002; October 20, 2002.

Saturday Review, April 20, 1963; January 11, 1964; January 9, 1965; December 11, 1965; December 9, 1967; October 2, 1971; July 12, 1975.

Star-Ledger, October 14, 1999; February 25, 2002; October 1, 2002; November 4, 2002.

Studies in Black Literature, Spring, 1970; Volume 1, Number 2, 1970; Volume 3, Number 2, 1972; Volume 3, Number 3, 1972; Volume 4, Number 1, 1973.

Time, December 25, 1964; November 19, 1965; May 6, 1966; January 12, 1968; April 26, 1968; June 28, 1968; June 28, 1971.

Village Voice, December 17, 1964; May 6, 1965; May 19, 1965; August 30, 1976; August 1, 1977; December 17-23, 1980, October 2, 1984.

Washington Post, August 15, 1968; September 12, 1968; November 27, 1968; December 5, 1980; January 23, 1981; June 29, 1987.

Washington Post Book World, December 24, 1967; May 22, 1983.

On-line

www.kirjasto.sci.fi/baraka.htm

www.poets.org

Joan Goldsworthy and Christine Miner Minderovic

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Baraka, Amiri 1934—

Amiri Baraka 1934

Writer, educator

At a Glance

Visit to Cuba Encouraged Social Activism

Dutchman Exposes Disillusionment

Embraced Black Nationalism

Turned to Marxism

Writings

Sources

Amiri Baraka is one of the most controversial writers in recent history, one whose influence on Afro-American literature has been profound. Plays, poems, novels, essays, short stories, and music criticism are all included in his body of work, and all have served as vehicles for his outspoken social and political commentary. According to Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor James A. Miller, Baraka is a protean personality, fond of manifestos and vehement repudiations, [who] has shifted guises and discarded identities with such astonishing rapidity that critics have often been frustrated, suspended in the act of defining a man who is no longer there, while his admirers have been left abandoned or challenged to readjust themselves to his new position.

Born LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, Baraka grew up in a family of distinctly middle-class aspirations. He was one of a handful of blacks in his high school. While his parents apparently took pride in this fact, Barakas unique status caused him tremendous feelings of alienation and isolation. Later in life he would mercilessly lampoon the values of assimilation his parents held dear. Baraka won a scholarship to Rutgers University in 1951, but a continuing sense of cultural dislocation prompted him to transfer in 1952 to Howard University, a black college. He would eventually attack the school as the citadel of the black bourgeoisie he disdained, writing in an essay: Howard University shocked me into realizing how desperately sick the Negro could be, how he could be led into self-destruction and how he would not realize that it was the society that had forced him into a great sickness. Despite his later criticism, however, Baraka benefitted greatly from his years at Howard. He studied philosophy, religion, and literature, and was exposed to the ideas of prominent black poets, music critics, and scholars. After earning a bachelors degree there, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, serving in Puerto Rico and Germany as a weatherman and gunner.

Three years later Baraka returned to civilian life. At the time, the social and artistic phenomenon known as the Beat Generation was just beginning to touch the consciousness of a complacent America. The Beats were challenging the stagnant literary establishment and the rigid moral code of the country; Baraka quickly aligned himself with them, seeing them as fellow outsiders. The

At a Glance

Name originally Everett LeRoi Jones, changed to Imamu Ameer Baraka in 1968, later modified to Amiri Baraka; born October 7, 1934, in Newark, New Jersey; son of Covette LeRoy (a postman and elevator operator) and Anna Lois (maiden name, Russ) Jones; married Hettie Cohen, October 13, 1958 (divorced, August 1965); married Sylvia Robinson (Bibi Amina Baraka), August 1966; children: (first marriage) Kellie Elisabeth, Lisa Victoria Chapman; (second marriage) Dbalaji Malik Ali, Ras Jua Al Aziz, Shani Isis, Amiri Seku, Ahi Mwenge. Education: B.A., Howard University.

Writer. Founded Yugen magazine and Totem Press, 1958; New School for Social Research, New York City, instructor, 1961-64; State University of New York at Stony Brook, associate professor, 1983-85, professor of Afro-American studies, 1985. Founded Black Arts Repertory Theatre School, 1964, director, 1964-66. Military service: U.S. Air Force, 1954-57.

Awards: John Hay Whitney fellowship, 1960-61; Longview Award for best essay of the year, 1961, for Cuba Libre; Obie Award, 1964, for Dutchman; Guggenheim fellowship, 1965-66; Yoruba Academy fellow, 1965; second prize at the First World Festival of Negro Arts, Dakar, Senegal, 1966, for The Slave; Doctorate of Humane Letters, Malcolm X College, 1972; Rockefeller Foundation fellow, 1981 ; National Endowment for the Arts poetry award, 1981; New Jersey Council for the Arts award, 1982; American Book Award, 1984, for Confirmation: An Anthology of African-American Women; Drama Award, 1985.

Addresses: Office Department of African Studies, State University of New York, Long Island, NY 11794. Agent William Morrow & Co., 105 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016.

ideal shared by the Beats and Baraka was to look beyond, or rise above, racial barriers. Baraka explained to David Ossman in The Sullen Art: Interviews with Modern American Poets: Im fully conscious all the time that Im an American Negro, because its part of my life. But I also know that if I want to say, I see a bus full of people, I dont have to say, I am a Negro seeing a bus full of people. I would deal with it when it has to do directly with the poem, and not as a kind of broad generalization that doesnt have much to do with a lot of young writers today who are Negroes.

Baraka took up residence in Greenwich Village, a center of the budding cultural revolution. He soon met and married Hettie Cohen, a young Jewish woman who shared his tastes in music and literature. Cohen worked for the Partisan Review, where Barakas first published piece appeared in 1958. It was a defense of the innovations of Beat writing declaring that young writers must resort to violence in literature, to shake us out of the woeful literary sterility which characterized the 40s. Baraka and Cohen organized Yugen, a literary magazine showcasing the new poets. Baraka wrote a letteron toilet paper stationeryto Beat poet Allen Ginsberg soliciting works and was rewarded with contributions from Ginsberg, Philip Whalen, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, and other notables.

A vital relationship with Ginsberg developed. Baraka recalled in the Village Voice: We talked endlessly about poetry, about prosody, about literature and it is clear to me that my poetry would not have evolved as it has without A. G.s ideas. He let me in on poetry as a living phenomenon, a world of human concern, and literature as a breathing force in ones life, the task of a lifetime. I absorbed and grew because of these ideas, and even in resisting some of Ginsbergs other ideas, I still grew and developed because of contact with them. Barakas association with Ginsberg, his editorship of Yugen, and establishment of Totem Press quickly made him one of the leading figures of the Greenwich Village scene. He began to write prolifically, contributing poetry and reviews of books and music to the important smaller magazines of the day.

Visit to Cuba Encouraged Social Activism

But even as he was becoming a key member of the Beat Generation, Baraka was drifting away from the movement. His fellow poets were, for the most part, apolitical. They criticized the system, but had no agenda for changing it. Baraka felt a growing sense of dissatisfaction with this kind of passivity. In 1960 he reached a turning point in his life when he visited Fidel Castros Cuba. There he encountered many forceful, politically committed young artists and intellectuals who challenged him to abandon the Beat preoccupation with the soul and to tackle societys problems in a more aggressive fashion. Baraka did not change overnight; he did, however, return from Cuba with a new sense of political mission and a stronger identification with artists of the Third World than with those of the white vanguard. Though he remained a resident of Greenwich Village, he became increasingly involved in the social life of Harlem.

During the early 1960s Baraka seemed to regard himself as a bridge between the black and white worlds. He wrote two of his most serious works of fiction at this time, The System of Dantes Hell and Tales. Both reflect his struggle to pull away from Greenwich Village. He told Kimberly Benston in Boundary 2: I was really writing defensively. I was trying to get away from the influence of people like [Robert] Creeley and [Charles] Olson. I was living in New York then and the whole Creeley-Olson influence was beginning to beat me up. I was in a very closed circle and I felt the need to break out. Still, he continued to work closely with Beat writers; in 1961 he and poet Diane Di Prima founded another important underground magazine, Floating Bear. The two were also instrumental in organizing the American Theatre for Poets. Baraka ridiculed the notion of a separate black society in his essay Black Is a Country, insisting that America is as much a black country as a white one. The lives and destinies of the white American are bound up inextricably with those of the black American.He clung to his belief in a world free of color lines even as he sought to establish for himself a stronger ethnic identity.

Dutchman Exposes Disillusionment

Eventually Barakas writing revealed the slow disintegration of his faith in racial harmony. In the poem Black Dada Nihilismus he ponders the many nonwhite cultures destroyed by Western civilization and concludes by calling on the African god Damballah for help in the destruction of the West. In his most well-known and highly praised play, Dutchman, he depicts a subway encounter between Lula, a white, Bohemian woman, and Clay, a young, middle-class, black man. At first Clay seems to represent the aspects of black life Baraka harshly criticized in his earlier works, while Lula appears to embody the values the author prized. Lula taunts Clay about his repressed identity, urging him to release his true black self. When he finally does, it pours forth as a violent tirade against Lula and the larger white world. At the dramas conclusion Lula calmly stabs Clay to death and sits back to await her next victim. Dutchman merges private themes, mythical allusion, surrealistic techniques, and social statement into a play of astonishing power and resonance, stated Miller. It won the 1964 Obie Award for best American play, was performed internationally, and propelled its author into a whirlwind of lectures, panel discussions, readings, and teaching assignments at liberal universities. Years after the plays debut Darryl Pinckley wrote in the New York Times Book Review: [Baraka] is a highly gifted dramatist. Much of the black protest literature of the 60s now seems diminished in power, even sentimental. But Dutchman immediately seizes the imagination. It is radically economical in structure, striking in the vivacity of its language and rapid shifts of mood.

By mid-1964 Baraka had completely rejected the cultural and political values of the Beats and had begun verbally attacking his Greenwich Village friends, white liberals, and the white community in general. His anti-bourgeois stance had been transformed into a militant black nationalism inspired by Malcolm X. An integrated society was not only impossible, he now believed, but undesirable. Ironically, Barakas diatribes against the white world boosted his popularity even furtherat least temporarily. For a time he was swamped by invitations to hip, white, New York City high-society parties. But he meant what he said about turning his back on that world. Now there could be absolutely no ties with whites, and certainly not any intimate ones, he later wrote. These in themselves, we reasoned, would make us traitors. By the end of 1965 he had ended his marriage to Hettie Cohen, broken his ties with the white literary establishment, and moved to Harlem.

Embraced Black Nationalism

In Harlem he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre School. It was a short-lived but highly influential project that revolutionized black theater in the United States. Contemporary dramas shaped by black nationalist philosophy were performed there and institutions modeled after it sprang up all over the country. The theater which was funded with federal moneywas shut down by police in 1966, allegedly because an arms cache had been discovered there. Returning to his birthplace, Newark, Baraka dropped the name LeRoi Jones in favor of the Bantu Muslim appellation Imamu (meaning spiritual leader/ later dropped) Ameer (later changed to Amiri, meaning blessed) Baraka (prince). In the essay state/meant he summarized his new sense of purpose: The Black Artists role in America is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it. His role is to report and reflect so precisely the nature of the society, and of himself in that society, that other men will be moved by the exactness of his rendering and, if they are black men, grow strong through this moving, having seen their own strength, and weakness; and if they are white men, tremble, curse, and go mad, because they will be drenched with the filth of their evil.

As the dominant black theorist and artist of the late 1960s, Baraka was responsible for shifting the focus of black literature from an integrationist art that conveyed a raceless and classless vision to a literature rooted in the black experience. The era over which he presided is considered the most important in black arts since the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. And despite Barakas rejection of the ideal of an integrated world, his work affected all races. As Native American author Maurice Kenny wrote in Amiri Baraka: The Kaleidoscopic Torch, He opened tightly guarded doors for not only Blacks but poor whites as well and, of course, Native Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans. Wed all still be waiting for the invitation from the New Yorker without him. He taught us all how to claim it and take it.

Turned to Marxism

As a black nationalist political leader Baraka was a key figure in the organization of the Congress of African Peoples in 1970 and the National Black Political Assembly in 1972. But by 1974 he had undergone yet another reassessment of his cultural and political orientation. In a dramatic turnabout he rejected black nationalism and proclaimed himself a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist. He stated in the New York Times: It is a narrow nationalism that says the white man is the enemy. Nationalism, so-called, when it says all non-blacks are our enemies, is sickness or criminality, in fact, a form of fascism. Since 1974 Baraka has produced a great deal of socialist poetry and essays and names the destruction of the capitalist state and the creation of a socialist community as his goal. William J. Harris quoted him in The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka as saying: I think fundamentally my intentions are similar to those I had when I was a Nationalist. That might seem contradictory, but they were similar in the sense that I see art as a weapon, and a weapon of revolution. Its just now that I define revolution in Marxist terms. I came to my Marxist view as a result of having struggled as a Nationalist and found certain dead ends theoretically and ideologically, as far as Nationalism was concerned and had to reach out for a communist ideology. Nonetheless, Barakas many philosophical shifts are far from capricious, attested Arnold Rampersad, who wrote in Amiri Baraka: The Kaleidoscopic Torch: His change of heart and head is testimony to his honesty, energy, and relentless search for meaning.

Writings

Under name LeRoi Jones until 1967

Plays

Dutchman [and] The Slave, Morrow, 1964.

The Toilet, Sterling Lord, 1964.

The Baptism: A Comedy in One Act, Sterling Lord, 1966.

Slave Ship, Jihad, 1967.

Arm Yourself or Harm Yourself! A One-Act Play, Jihad, 1967.

Four Black Revolutionary Plays: All Praises to the Black Man, Bobbs-Merrill, 1969.

(Contributor) New Plays from the Black Theatre, edited by Ed Bullins, Bantam, 1969.

J-E-L-L-O, Third World Press, 1970.

(Contributor) Black Drama Anthology, edited by Woodie King and Ron Milner, New American Library, 1971.

(Contributor) Spontaneous Combustion: Eight New American Plays, edited by Rochelle Owens, Winter House, 1972.

What Was the Relationship of the Lone Ranger to the Means of Production?: A Play in One Act, Anti-Imperialist Cultural Union, 1978.

The Motion of History and Other Plays, Morrow, 1978.

The Sidnee Poet Heroical, in Twenty-Nine Scenes, Reed & Cannon, 1979.

Selected Plays and Prose of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Morrow, 1979.

Also author of the plays Home on the Range and Police, published in Drama Review, Summer 1968, Rockgroup, published in Cricket, December 1969, and Black Power Chant, published in Drama Review, December 1972.

Screenplays

Dutchman, Gene Persson Enterprises, Ltd., 1967.

Black Spring, Block Arts Alliance (San Francisco), 1968.

A Fable (based on The Slave), MFR Productions, 1971.

Supercoon, Gene Persson Enterprises, Ltd., 1971.

Poetry

April 13 (broadside), Number 133, Penny Poems (New Haven), 1959.

Spring & So Forth (broadside), Number 111, Penny Poems, 1960.

Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, Toteni/Corinth, 1961.

The Dead Lecturer, Grove, 1964.

Black Art (also see below), Jihad, 1966.

Black Magic (also see below), Morrow, 1967

A Poem For Black Hearts, Broadside Press, 1967.

Black Magic: Sabotage; Target Study; Black Art; Collected Poetry, 1961-1967, Bobbs-Merrill, 1969.

Its Nation Time, Third World Press, 1970.

Spirit Reach, Jihad, 1972.

Afrikan Revolution: A Poem, Jihad, 1973.

Hard Facts: Excerpts, Peoples War, 1975.

Spring Song, Baraka, 1979.

AM/TRAK, Phoenix Bookship, 1979.

Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, Morrow, 1979.

In the Tradition: For Black Arthur Blythe, Jihad, 1980.

Reggae or Noti Poems, Contact Two, 1982.

Essays

Blues People: Negro Music in White America, Morrow, 1963.

Home: Social Essays (contains state/meant), Morrow, 1966.

Black Music, Morrow, 1968.

Raise, Race, Rays, Raze: Essays Since 1965, Random House, 1971.

Strategy and Tactics of a Pan-African Nationalist Party, Jihad, 1971.

Kawaida Studies: The New Nationalism, Third World Press, 1972.

Crisis in Boston!, Vita Wa WatuPeoples War, 1974.

Daggers and Javelins: Essays, 1974-1979, Morrow, 1984. (With wife, Amina Baraka) The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues, Morrow, 1987.

Other

The Disguise (broadside), [New Haven], 1961.

Cuba Libre, Fair Play for Cuba Committee (New York City), 1961.

(Contributor) Soon, One Morning, edited by Herbert Hill, Knopf, 1963.

The System of Dantes Hell (novel), Grove, 1965.

Striptease, Parallax, 1967.

Tales (short stories), Grove, 1967.

Focus on Amiri Baraka: Playwright LeRoi Jones Analyzes the 1st National Black Political Convention (recording), Center for Cassette Studies, 1973.

The Autobiography of LeRoiJones/AmiriBaraka, Freundlich, 1984.

Works represented in more than 75 anthologies, including A Broadside Treasury, For Malcolm, The New Black Poetry, Nommo, and The Trembling Lamb. Editor with Diane Di Prima, The Floating Bear, 1961-1963. Contributor to periodicals, including the Evergreen Review, Poetry, Down Beat, Metronome, the Nation, Negro Digest, and the Saturday Review.

Sources

Books

Amiri Baraka: The Kaleidoscopic Torch, edited by James B. Gwynne, Steppingstones Press, 1985.

Baraka, Amiri, The Autobiography of Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Freundlich, 1984.

Baraka: The Renegade and the Mask, edited by Kimberly A. Benston, Yale University Press, 1976.

Benston, Kimberly A., Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones): A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1978.

Black Theatre, U.S.A., edited by James V. Hatch, Free Press, 1974.

Brown, Lloyd W., Amiri Baraka, Twayne, 1980.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, 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, 1971.

Dace, Letitia, LeRoi Jones (Imamu Amiri Baraka): A Checklist of Works By and About Him, Nether Press, 1971.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale, 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.

Fox, Robert Elliot, Conscientious Sorcerers: The Black Post-Modernist Fiction of LeRoi JoneslBaraka, Ishmael Reed and Samuel R. Delany, Greenwood Press, 1987.

Harris, William J., The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic, University of Missouri Press, 1985.

Hudson, Theodore, From LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka: The Literary Works, Duke University Press, 1973.

Lacey, Henry C, To Raise, Destroy, and Create: The Poetry, Drama, and Fiction of Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Whitson, 1981.

Ossman, David, The Sullen Art: Interviews with Modern American Poets, Corinth, 1963.

Sollors, Werner, Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a Populist Modernism, Columbia University Press, 1978.

Periodicals

Black American Literature Forum, Spring 1980; Spring 1981; Fall 1982; Spring 1983; Winter 1985.

Boundary, Volume 2, Number 6, 1978.

Chicago Defender, January 11, 1965.

Chicago Tribune, October 4, 1968.

Detroit Free Press, January 31, 1965.

Detroit News, January 15, 1984; August 12, 1984.

Down Beat, January 2, 1964; August 1987.

Ebony, August 1967; August 1969; February 1971.

Esquire, June 1966.

Essence, September 1970; May 1984; September 1984; May 1985.

Jet, January 16, 1975; July 23, 1984.

Modem Drama, February 1971; Summer 1972; September 1972; June 1974.

Ms., September 1983.

Nation, October 14, 1961; November 14, 1961; March 13, 1964; April 13, 1964; January 4, 1965; March 15, 1965; January 22, 1968; February 2, 1970.

Negro Digest, December 1963; February 1964; August 1964; March 1965; April 1965; March 1966; April 1966; June 1966; April 1967; April 1968; January 1969; April 1969.

Newsweek, March 13, 1964; April 13, 1964; November 22, 1965; May 2, 1966; March 6, 1967; December 4, 1967; December 1, 1969; February 19, 1973.

New Yorker, April 4, 1964; December 26, 1964; March 4, 1967; December 30, 1972.

New York Review of Books, January 20, 1966; May 22, 1964; July 2, 1970; October 17, 1974; June 11, 1984; June 14, 1984.

New York Times, April 28, 1966; May 8, 1966; August 10, 1966; September 14, 1966; October 5, 1966; January 20, 1967; February 28, 1967; July 15, 1967; January 5, 1968; January 6, 1968; January 9, 1968; January 10, 1968; February 7, 1968; April 14, 1968; August 16, 1968; November 27, 1968; December 24, 1968; August 26, 1969; November 23, 1969; February 6, 1970; May 11, 1972; June 11, 1972; November 11, 1972; November 14, 1972; November 23, 1972; December 5, 1972; December 27, 1974; December 29, 1974; November 19, 1979; October 15, 1981; January 23, 1984.

New York Times Book Review, January 31, 1965; November 28, 1965; May 8, 1966; February 4, 1968; March 17, 1968; February 14, 1971; June 6, 1971; June 27, 1971; December 5, 1971; March 12, 1972; December 16, 1979; March 11, 1984; July 5, 1987; December 20, 1987.

Saturday Review, April 20, 1963; January 11, 1964; January 9, 1965; December 11, 1965; December 9, 1967; October 2, 1971; July 12, 1975.

Studies in Black Literature, Spring, 1970; Volume 1, Number 2, 1970; Volume 3, Number 2, 1972; Volume 3, Number 3, 1972; Volume 4, Number 1, 1973.

Time, December 25, 1964; November 19, 1965; May 6, 1966; January 12, 1968; April 26, 1968; June 28, 1968; June 28, 1971.

Village Voice, December 17, 1964; May 6, 1965; May 19, 1965; August 30, 1976; August 1, 1977; December 17-23, 1980, October 2, 1984.

Washington Post, August 15, 1968; September 12, 1968; November 27, 1968; December 5, 1980; January 23, 1981; June 29, 1987.

Washington Post Book World, December 24, 1967; May 22, 1983.

Joan Goldsworthy

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Imamu Amiri Baraka

Imamu Amiri Baraka

The African American author Imamu Amiri Baraka (born 1934 as Everett LeRoi Jones) became influential during the 1960s as a spokesperson for radical black literature and theater.

Born as Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, on October 30, 1934, Baraka studied at Rutgers, Columbia, and Howard universities and at the New School for Social Research. After taking a bachelor of arts degree at Howard in 1953, he spent two years in the U.S. Air Force in Puerto Rico.

Baraka's life may be divided into two major periods. As a resident of New York City's Greenwich Village, LeRoi Jones led the life of a typical white American. He married a caucasian woman, Hettie Cohen, and they had two children. He and his wife published Yugen, a poetry magazine, and he coedited a literary newsletter, Floating Bear. Jones's political commitment began when he visited Cuba in 1960.

In 1965 Jones moved to Harlem and began the second period of his life. Here he lived a totally African American and separatist life. As founder and director of the Black Arts Repertory Theatre School, he made every aspect of his life "black" and opposite to the "white" life he had previously known.

Religious Conversion and Political Activism

Converted to the Kewaida sect of the Muslim faith, he took the name Imamu Amiri Baraka and moved to Newark, New Jersey. "Imamu" is the Swahili word for spiritual leader; "Amiri Baraka" is the Arabic name Jones adopted. In Newark he directed Spirit House, a religious, cultural, and educational black community. He lived with his second wife, their son, and his wife's three daughters by a previous marriage.

During the 1967 racial rebellions in Newark, Baraka was severely beaten and then arrested and charged with carrying a concealed weapon. The judge fined him $25,000 and read one of Baraka's poems, which he regarded as obscene, as justification for the exorbitant fine. National indignation was aroused by this injustice, and the fine was paid by the contributions of Baraka's supporters. He later appealed the case and won. The 1970 election of the African American Kenneth Gibson as mayor of Newark was due partly to Baraka's leadership of a fervent voter registration campaign among African Americans of the city.

As a black nationalist political leader, Baraka was a key figure in the organization of the Congress of African Peoples in 1970 and the National Black Political Assembly in 1972. Political writings during this period cover such topics as the development of a black value system and black political institutions and include the essay collection Raise, Race, Rays, Raze: Essays since 1965 (1971). However, by 1974 Baraka had undergone yet another reassessment of his cultural and political orientation. In a dramatic turnabout he rejected black nationalism and proclaimed himself a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist. After 1974 Baraka produced a great deal of socialist poetry and essays espousing revolutionary politics.

Literary Achievement

The most startling feature of Baraka's literary work is his arresting vocabulary, which communicates shocking states of emotion as well as ideas that indicate new intellectual dimensions and frontiers of the mind. He was a brilliant myth-maker, breaking icons and clichés and destroying the stereotypes and shibboleths of the old racist myth—the myth of race and sex in America. As poet, essayist, and playwright, he pressed for new cultural understanding in the turbulent society of modern America.

Baraka's writing reveals the influence of black music on his sensibilities. Jazz especially influenced the rhythms of his poetry, although the imagery and style of his early poetry reflect wide reading in classical poetry of all countries and especially the influence of contemporary "beat" poetry. However, his subject matter was from the start almost entirely the plight of African Americans.

During the 1960s Baraka wrote three volumes of poetry: Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961), The Dead Lecturer (1964), and Black Magic Poetry (1969). His many plays of the period include Dutchman (1964), which won the Obie Award and marked the beginning of black revolutionary theater, The Slave, Slave Ship, Arm Yrself or Harm Yrself or Harm Yrself, Jello, and The Toilet. Experimental Death Unit #1, A Black Mass, Great Goodness of Life, and Madheart were published as Four Black Revolutionary Plays (1969). He authored three collections of non-fiction, Blues People (1963), Home, a group of social essays (1966), and Black Music (1967); a novel, The System of Dante's Hell (1965); and a group of short stories entitled Tales (1967). During this period he also edited The Moderns: An Anthology of New Writing in America (1963) and coedited an anthology of new African American writing, Black Fire (1968).

Later Works

While Baraka produced numerous political writings during the 1970s—some of which were later collected in 1984's Daggers and Javelins: Essays, 1974-1979—his literary efforts of the decade include the drama collection The Motion of History, and Other Plays (1978), as well as The Sidnee Poet Heroical, in Twenty-Nine Scenes (1979). A first Selected Poetry was issued in 1979 in addition to such later verse collections as Reggae or Not! Poems (1981) and Transbluesency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1961-1995) (1995). Funk Lore (1996) features poems written from 1984 to 1995. Both 1995's Wise, Why's, Y's and 1996's Eulogies offer his insight into notable African American figures of the 20th century. Baraka's autobiography was published in 1984.

Further Reading

Examinations of Baraka's literary achievement may be found in William J. Harris The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic (1985), Henry C. Lacey, To Raise, Destroy, and Create: The Poetry, Drama, and Fiction of Imamu Amiri Baraka (1981), Lloyd Wellesley Brown, Amiri Baraka (1980), Werner Sollors, Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a "Populist Modernism" (1978), Kimberly W. Bentson, Baraka: The Renegade and the Mask (1978), Theodore R. Hudson, From LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka: The Literary Works (1973), and Robert Elliot Fox, Conscientious Sorcerers: The Black Postmodernist Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, and Samuel R. Delany (1987). □

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Baraka, Amiri 1934–

Baraka, Amiri 1934–

(Fundi, a joint pseudonym, Everett LeRoi Jones, LeRoi Jones)

PERSONAL: Born Everett LeRoi Jones, October 7, 1934, in Newark, NJ; name changed to Imamu ("spiritual leader") Ameer ("blessed") Baraka ("prince"); later modified to Amiri Baraka; son of Coyette Leroy (a postal worker and elevator operator) and Anna Lois (Russ) 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. 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).

ADDRESSES: Office—Department of Africana Studies, State University of New York, Long Island, NY 11794-4340. Agent—Joan Brandt, Sterling Lord Literistic, 660 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10021.

CAREER: State University of New York at Stony Brook, assistant professor, 1980–83, associate professor, 1983–85, professor of African studies, 1985–. Instructor, New School for Social Research (now New School University), New York, NY, 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), co-director. 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, co-founder 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.

MEMBER: All-African Games, Pan African Federation, Black Academy of Arts and Letters, Black Writers' Union, United Brothers (Newark), Newark Writers Collective.

AWARDS, HONORS: 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; appointed poet laureate of State of New Jersey (position abolished, 2003).

WRITINGS:

PLAYS

(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, 1970–71), Sterling Lord, 1966.

(Under name LeRoi Jones) The Toilet (also see below; produced with The Slave: A Fable Off-Broadway, 1964), Sterling Lord, 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, 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, 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, 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-act; 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, 1971; and Rochelle Owens, editor, Spontaneous Combustion: Eight New American Plays (includes Ba-Ra-Ka), Winter House, 1972.

SCREENPLAYS

Dutchman, Gene Persson Enterprises, Ltd., 1967.

Black Spring, Jihad Productions, 1968.

A Fable (based on The Slave: A Fable), MFR Productions, 1971.

Supercoon, Gene Persson Enterprises, Ltd., 1971.

POETRY

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, 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, 1966.

Black Magic (also see below), Morrow (New York, NY), 1967.

A Poem for Black Hearts, Broadside Press, 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, 1970.

Spirit Reach, Jihad, 1972.

Afrikan Revolution, Jihad, 1973.

Hard Facts: Excerpts, People's War, 1975, 2nd edition, Revolutionary Communist League, 1975.

Spring Song, Baraka, 1979.

AM/TRAK, Phoenix Bookshop, 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, 1980.

Reggae or Not!, Contact Two, 1982.

LeRoi Jones—Amiri, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1991.

Transbluency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1961–1995), Marsilio, 1995.

Funk Lore: New Poems, 1984–1995, Sun & Moon Press, 1996.

Beginnings and Other Poems, House of Nehesi (Freder-icksburg, VA), 2003.

ESSAYS

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 (contains "Cuba Libre," "The Myth of a 'Negro Literature,'" "Expressive Language," "The Legacy of Malcolm X, and the Coming of the Black Nation," and "State/meant"), 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, 1971.

Kawaida Studies: The New Nationalism, Third World Press, 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.

EDITOR

January 1st 1959: Fidel Castro, Totem, 1959.

Four Young Lady Poets, Corinth, 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 co-author) In-formation, Totem, 1965.

Gilbert Sorrentino, Black & White, Corinth, 1965.

Edward Dorn, Hands Up!, Corinth, 1965.

(And contributor) Afro-American Festival of the Arts Magazine, Jihad, 1966, published as Anthology of Our Black Selves, 1969.

(With Larry Neal and A.B. Spellman) The Cricket: Black Music in Evolution, Jihad, 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, 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, 1974.

(With Amina Baraka) Confirmation: An Anthology of African-American Women, Morrow (New York, NY), 1983.

OTHER

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, 1967.

Striptease, Parallax, 1967.

Tales (short stories), Grove (New York, NY), 1967.

(Author of preface) Black Boogaloo (Notes on Black Liberation), Journal of Black Poetry Press, 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, 1990.

(Author of introduction) Eliot Katz, Space, and Other Poems, Northern Lights, 1990.

The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1991.

Thornton Dial: Images of the Tiger, Harry N. Abrams (New York, NY), 1993.

Jesse Jackson and Black People, Third World Press, 1994.

Shy's Wise, Y's: The Griot's Tale, Third World Press, 1994.

(With Charlie Reilly) Conversations with Amiri Baraka (also see below), University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1994.

Eulogies, Marsilio Publishers (New York, NY), 1996.

The Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, foreword by Greg Tate, Lawrence Hill, 2000.

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.

SIDELIGHTS: 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 black 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, with Dissent contributor Stanley Kaufman, 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, Rich-ard 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 been often 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. Darryl Pinckney commented in the New York Times Book Review that Dutchman survived the test of time better than other protest plays of the 1960s due to its economic use of vivid language, its surprise ending, and its quick pacing.

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 review 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 socioeconomic 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 Amiri Baraka 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. Black 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. Randall noted in Black World that younger black poets Nikki Giovanni and Don L. Lee (later Haki R. Madhubuti) were "learning from LeRoi Jones, a man versed in German philosophy, conscious of literary tradition … who uses the structure of Dante's Divine Comedy in his System of Dante's Hell and the punctuation, spelling and line divisions of sophisticated contemporary poets." More importantly, 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. Hatred of non-whites, he declared in the New York Times, "is sickness or criminality, in fact, a form of fascism." 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 has 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." A Choice contributor also praised the volume, calling it "a landmark volume in African American literature." Transbluency: 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 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 yet considered some of 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:

BOOKS

Allen, Donald M., and Warren Tallman, editors, Poetics of the New American Poetry, Grove (New York, NY), 1973.

Anadolu-Okur, Nilgun, Contemporary African American Theater: Afrocentricity in the Works of Larry Neal, Amiri Baraka, and Charles Fuller, Garland (New York, NY), 1997.

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, 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, 1978.

Bigsby, C.W.E., Confrontation and Commitment: A Study of Contemporary American Drama, 1959–1966, University of Missouri Press, 1968.

Bigsby, C.W.E., The Second Black Renaissance: Essays in Black Literature, Greenwood Press (Westport, CT), 1980.

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, Thomson 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, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1987.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson 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, 1971.

Debusscher, Gilbert, and Henry I. Schvey, editors, New Essays on American Drama, Rodopi, 1989.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Thomson 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.

Elam, Harry Justin, Taking It to the Streets: The Social Protest Theater of Luis Valdez and Amiri Baraka, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1997.

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.

Fox, Robert Elliot, Conscientious Sorcerers: The Black Postmodernist Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Baraka, Ishmael Reed, and Samuel R. Delany, Greenwood Press (Westport, CT), 1987.

Frost, David, The Americans, Stein & Day, 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, 1969.

Gwynne, James B., editor, Amiri Baraka: The Kaleidoscopic Torch, Steppingstones Press, 1985.

Harris, William J., The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic, University of Missouri Press, 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, 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, 1987.

Kofsky, Frank, Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music, Pathfinder, 1970.

Lacey, Henry C., To Raise, Destroy, and Create: The Poetry, Drama, and Fiction of Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Whitson Publishing Company, 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, 1963.

Rexroth, Kenneth, With Eye and Ear, Herder & Herder, 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.

PERIODICALS

American Book Review, February, 1980; May-June, 1985.

African-American Review, summer-fall, 2003, special Baraka issue.

Atlantic, January, 1966; May, 1966.

Avant Garde, September, 1968.

Black American Literature Forum, spring, 1980; spring, 1981; fall, 1982; spring, 1983; winter, 1985.

Black Issues Book Review, Robert Fleming, "Trouble Man," p. 22.

Black World, April, 1971; December, 1971; November, 1974; July, 1975.

Booklist, January 1, 1994, p. 799; February 15, 1994, p. 1052; October 15, 1995, p. 380.

Book Week, December 24, 1967.

Book World, October 28, 1979.

Boundary 2, number 6, 1978.

Callaloo, summer, 2003, Matthew Rebhorn, "Flying Dutchman: Maosochism, Minstrelsy, and the Gender Politics of Amiri Baraka's 'Dutchman'," p. 796.

Chicago Defender, January 11, 1965.

Chicago Tribune, October 4, 1968.

Commentary, February, 1965.

Contemporary Literature, Volume 12, 1971; winter, 2001, Michael Magee, "Tribes of New York," p. 694.

Detroit Free Press, January 31, 1965.

Detroit News, January 15, 1984; August 12, 1984.

Dissent, spring, 1965.

Ebony, August, 1967; August, 1969; February, 1971.

Educational Theatre Journal, March, 1968; March, 1970; March, 1976.

Esquire, June, 1966.

Essence, September, 1970; May, 1984; September, 1984; May, 1985.

Jazz Review, June, 1959.

Journal of Black Poetry, fall, 1968; spring, 1969; summer, 1969; fall, 1969.

Library Journal, January, 1994, p. 112; November, 1995, pp. 78-79.

Los Angeles Free Press, Volume 5, number 18, May 3, 1968.

Los Angeles Times, April 20, 1990.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 15, 1983; March 29, 1987.

Nation, October 14, 1961; November 14, 1961; March 13, 1964; April 13, 1964; January 4, 1965; March 15, 1965; January 22, 1968; February 2, 1970; November 18, 2002, Art Winslow, "Prosody in Motion," p. 11.

Negro American Literature Forum, March, 1966; winter, 1973.

Negro Digest, December, 1963; February, 1964; Volume 13, number 19, August, 1964; March, 1965; April, 1965; March, 1966; April, 1966; June, 1966; April, 1967; April, 1968; January, 1969; April, 1969.

Newsweek, March 13, 1964; April 13, 1964; November 22, 1965; May 2, 1966; March 6, 1967; December 4, 1967; December 1, 1969; February 19, 1973.

New York, November 5, 1979.

New Yorker, April 4, 1964; December 26, 1964; March 4, 1967; December 30, 1972; October 14, 2002, Nick Paumgarten, "Goodbye, Paramus."

New York Herald Tribune, March 25, 1964; April 2, 1964; December 13, 1964; October 27, 1965.

New York Post, March 16, 1964; March 24, 1964; January 15, 1965; March 18, 1965.

New York Review of Books, May 22, 1964; January 20, 1966; July 2, 1970; October 17, 1974; June 11, 1984; June 14, 1984.

New York Times, April 28, 1966; May 8, 1966; August 10, 1966; September 14, 1966; October 5, 1966; January 20, 1967; February 28, 1967; July 15, 1967; January 5, 1968; January 6, 1968; January 9, 1968; January 10, 1968; February 7, 1968; April 14, 1968; August 16, 1968; November 27, 1968; December 24, 1968; August 26, 1969; November 23, 1969; February 6, 1970; May 11, 1972; June 11, 1972; November 11, 1972; November 14, 1972; November 23, 1972; December 5, 1972; December 27, 1974; December 29, 1974; November 19, 1979; October 15, 1981; January 23, 1984; February 9, 1991.

New York Times Book Review, January 31, 1965; November 28, 1965; May 8, 1966; February 4, 1968; March 17, 1968; February 14, 1971; June 6, 1971; June 27, 1971; December 5, 1971; March 12, 1972; December 16, 1979; March 11, 1984; July 5, 1987; December 20, 1987.

New York Times Magazine, February 5, 1984.

Salmagundi, spring-summer, 1973.

Saturday Review, April 20, 1963; January 11, 1964; January 9, 1965; December 11, 1965; December 9, 1967; October 2, 1971; July 12, 1975.

Skeptical Inquirer, January-February, 2003, Kevin Christopher, "Baraka Buys Bunk," p. 8.

Studies in Black Literature, spring, 1970; Volume 1, number 2, 1970; Volume 3, number 2, 1972; Volume 3, number 3, 1972; Volume 4, number 1, 1973.

Sulfur, spring, 1992.

Sunday News (New York, NY), January 21, 1973.

Time, December 25, 1964; November 19, 1965; May 6, 1966; January 12, 1968; April 26, 1968; June 28, 1968; June 28, 1971.

Times Literary Supplement, November 25, 1965; September 1, 1966; September 11, 1969; October 9, 1969; August 2, 1991.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), March 29, 1987.

Village Voice, December 17, 1964; May 6, 1965; May 19, 1965; August 30, 1976; August 1, 1977; December 17-23, 1980; October 2, 1984.

Washington Post, August 15, 1968; September 12, 1968; November 27, 1968; December 5, 1980; January 23, 1981; June 29, 1987.

Washington Post Book World, December 24, 1967; May 22, 1983.

ONLINE

Academy of American Poets Web site, http://www.poets.org/ (July 19, 2001), "Amiri Baraka."

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Baraka, Amiri 1934–

Amiri Baraka 1934-

(Born Everett LeRoy Jones; also wrote under the pseudonyms LeRoi Jones and Imamu Amiri Baraka.) American playwright, poet, essayist, short story writer, and novelist.

For additional information on Baraka's career, see BLC, Ed. 1.

INTRODUCTION

Baraka is regarded as a controversial writer and prominent figure in the development of contemporary African American literature. His work explores themes of cultural alienation; racial tension and conflict; sexual, ethnic, and racial identity; and the necessity for social change through revolutionary means. Whether dealing with issues of race, sexual orientation, or institutionalized discrimination, Baraka is notorious for both infuriating and inspiring his readers. He is often viewed as a successor to the literary tradition of Richard Wright and James Baldwin and as a spokesman for the power of art as a means to enlighten and empower African American and oppressed peoples throughout the world.

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

Baraka was born in 1934 in Newark, New Jersey. After graduating high school at the age of fifteen, he enrolled at Howard University in 1952 and changed the spelling of his name to LeRoi. At Howard, he studied under such renowned black scholars as E. Franklin Frazier and Sterling A. Brown before flunking out in 1954. He served briefly in the U.S. Air Force and then moved to New York's Greenwich Village in 1957. Identifying with the Beat movement, Baraka married Hettie Roberta Cohen, a white woman of Jewish heritage, and founded Yugen, a journal of Beat poetry. Though he also attracted attention as a local jazz music critic, Baraka's initial critical recognition arose from his poetry collection, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961). Baraka began to incorporate a strong political element into his writing after being invited to Cuba by the New York chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee in 1960. His essay "Cuba Libre," inspired by his trip, received the Longview Best Essay of the Year award in 1961. Baraka's transformation into a dedicated political activist occurred after the murder of Malcolm X in 1965. Divorcing his wife and moving to Harlem, he dissociated himself from whites and focused his attention on composing political essays and poetry that would expose discrimination and foster a strong sense of African American identity. To help create works that would speak to and inspire the African American community, he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School. That same year, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and subsequently married Sylvia Robinson, a black woman, in 1966.

In 1968 he converted to the Nation of Islam, adopting their political stance of Black Nationalism and changing his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka, meaning "blessed spiritual leader." Another radical change occurred in 1974 when Baraka dropped the spiritual title of Imamu and declared himself a devout Marxist-Leninist. Baraka's new socialist beliefs caused him to reject Black Nationalism as a racist system of thought, and he likewise recanted his past anti-white and anti-Semitic statements. In 1979 he began teaching creative writing in the Africana Studies Department at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. In 1981 he received the Poetry Award from the National Endowment for the Arts, and he was awarded the Langston Hughes Medal for outstanding contribution to literature in 1989. Baraka was also appointed poet laureate of New Jersey in 2002, though the position was later abolished due to the outcry over his allegedly anti-Semitic poem "Somebody Blew up America," which deals with the September 11th terrorist attacks. Baraka lives in Newark with his family.

MAJOR WORKS

In Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, Baraka satirizes post-World War II popular culture and reflects the detached perspective of the bohemian lifestyle. The essays in Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1963) highlight his concern with the marginalization of black artists as contributors to American culture. Dutchman (1964), a play detailing the sexual sadism inflicted upon a young black man by a white woman, is generally regarded as one of Baraka's masterpieces. Utilizing a minimalist structure and infused with symbolic references, Dutchman was recognized as the Best American Off-Broadway Play of 1964. The Toilet, another drama from the same year, is an example of Baraka's treatment of homosexuality. In typically gritty fashion, the play portrays the beating of a white homosexual boy by a group of black youths. A Black Mass (1966) is a play loosely based on the Nation of Islam's mythological explanation for the origin of black people and the devilish nature of whites. Baraka employed the basic tenets of this myth in his Faustian story of a black magician who accidentally unleashes white evil upon the world. The System of Dante's Hell (1965), Baraka's only novel, is widely considered the author's attempt to break away from the influence of the Beat poets. The narrative is loosely based upon Dante's Inferno and places a semi-autobiographical protagonist into an urban wasteland of racial oppression and sexual violence.

Baraka's views on the role of the black artist in contemporary society are outlined in Home: Social Essays (1966), which also displays the author's passionate identification with the Black Nationalist movement and includes the essay "Cuba Libre." Transbluesency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1961-1995) (1995) contains representative verse from every phase of the author's career. Reviewers contend that the collection exhibits Baraka's tendency toward introspection as well as his political consciousness. Funk Lore (1996) is comprised of previously uncollected poems dating back to 1984, many of which focus on Baraka's passion for jazz. The Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka (2000) offers three new short stories, The System of Dante's Hell, and a collection previously published as Tales (1967). Reviewers praise his innovative style in the stories of the volume, contending that it provides an insightful and alternative look at Baraka and his chief concerns of race, poverty, and sex. Continuing Baraka's quest for social justice, the essays comprising The Essence of Reparation (2003) explore themes of racism, oppression, self-determination, and colonialism and argue that making reparations to African Americans is a necessary step in the struggle for full citizenship and equal rights. That same year, Somebody Blew up America was published amidst controversy over his provocative poem, "Somebody Blew up America," which accused Israel of involvement in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. His latest collection of short fiction, Tales of the Out & the Gone (2006), includes stories written in the early 1970s through the turn of the century. Intermixing wordplay and psychological exploration, the stories reflect the evolution of Baraka's narrative style and thematic concerns.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

There has been a wide range of critical opinion on Baraka's body of work. Many critics have viewed him as a promising poet who evolved into a virulent racist and anti-Semite. Others have seen his political and philosophical evolution as a fascinating reflection of the political, cultural, and social evolution of modern America. Some critics have viewed Baraka as a champion of African Americans and have commended his intention to create literature that focuses on the real concerns of the African American community. Recent criticism has examined the role of the Nation of Islam and of anti-gay invective in his work. Both his use of free verse and his experimentation with poetic rhythm have been cited as significant contributions to postmodern literature, and his plays have found a permanent place in the repertoire of experimental theater. Although Baraka's controversial work has alienated many readers and critics, commentators agree that he has played a seminal role in the development of minority literature and remains a profound influence on generations of African American writers.

PRINCIPAL WORKS

A Good Girl Is Hard to Find (play) 1958

Yugen [editor and publisher] (journal) 1958-62

Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note [as LeRoi Jones] (poetry) 1961

Blues People: Negro Music in White America [as LeRoi Jones] (essay) 1963

The Baptism: A Comedy in One Act [as LeRoi Jones] (play) 1964

Dutchman [as LeRoi Jones] (play) 1964

The Slave: A Fable [as LeRoi Jones] (play) 1964

The Toilet: A Play in One Act [as LeRoi Jones] (1964)

The System of Dante's Hell: A Novel [as LeRoi Jones] (novel) 1965

A Black Mass [as LeRoi Jones] (play) 1966

Home: Social Essays [as LeRoi Jones] (essays) 1966

Tales (short stories) 1967

Black Magic: Sabotage, Target Study, Black Art; Collected Poetry, 1961-1967 (poetry) 1969

Four Black Revolutionary Plays: All Praises to the Black Man [as LeRoi Jones] (plays) 1969

Afrikan Revolution: A Poem (poetry) 1973

AM/TRAK (poetry) 1979

The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka (autobiography) 1984

Daggers and Javelins: Essays, 1974-1979 (essays) 1984

The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader (poetry) 1991

Transbluesencey: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1961-1995) (poetry) 1995

Eulogies (poetry) 1996

Funk Lore: New Poems, 1984-1995 (poetry) 1996

The Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka (short stories) 2000

The Essence of Reparation: Afro-American Self-Determination & Revolutionary Democratic Struggle in the United States of America (essays) 2003

Somebody Blew up America and Other Poems (poetry) 2003

Tales of the Out & the Gone (short stories) 2006

CRITICISM

Greg Tate (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Tate, Greg. "Foreword: Vicious Modernism." In The Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, pp. vii-xviii. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2000.

[In the following essay, Tate provides an overview of Baraka's short fiction, arguing that "for its complexity, invention, confessional recklessness, and biding contribution to complicating the African presence in American letters, the fiction of Amiri Baraka deserves a closer read from contemporary audiences."]

There are many great writers whose work, when imposed on the unsuspecting reader, will not suffer for lack of biographical details. The subject of this essay is not one of them. To read Amiri Baraka is to read someone who has written as romantically about his social passions, prejudices, and bodily functions as Joyce wrote of Bloom's. He is also a man who has led a public life full of political furor and controversy, and has never excluded those activities from the arena of his art. The juggling of avant-garde literature and grassroots rabble-rousing form the heart and marrow of his life, and might even be said to be his life. Though the performance has not always been graceful, the performer continues to intrigue those who've followed our good brother's progress since the sixties.

Like Bertolt Brecht, Baraka has strung the chewy "literary value" of his output around the harder nut of his theories about political art. Reading Baraka for pleasure requires that one swallow whole his hatreds, his poesy, and his sarcastic wit. One's gender category or ethnic group might turn one into the target of his ire, which has made many readers ask, Why should I bother?

But assessing Baraka's prowess as a poet, novelist, playwright, and essayist without bringing his prejudices into the matter is akin to appraising a jazz musician's sense of harmony without considering his or her sense of rhythm, taste, and history. Baraka's literary forms are so rich and provocative because of his personality, not in spite of it. As could also be said of hip-hop MCs, Baraka's best art puts a premium on projecting his bad attitude.

* * *

In the matter of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, then, the facts are roughly these: born Everett Leroy Jones to a postal supervisor father and a social worker mother on October 7, 1934, in Newark, New Jersey, the future father of the Black Arts movement grew up lower middle class in an integrated neighborhood. He attended a high school heavily populated by Italians and Jews, excelled academically, played team sports, and graduated at the tender age of sixteen. He attended Rutgers for a year before transferring to Howard University, an institution he left after two years to join the Air Force and train as a bombardier (an experience he later portrayed as an "Error Farce"). After service he moved to New York and took up residence on the Lower East Side to pursue a writing career. In a short time he became a close friend and confidant of several leading lights of the American avant-garde, including but not exclusive to the Beat and Black Mountain groups. In 1958 he married his first wife, the former Hettie Cohen, a writer/editor/educator best known as the author of How I Became Hettie Jones, generally regarded as one of the better memoirs of the era. This union produced two daughters: Kellie, now an internationally known fine arts curator, and Lisa, an accomplished journalist and screenwriter, known for film adaptations of work by Toni Morrison, Dorothy West, and Terry McMillan and for the black feminist essay collection Bulletproof Diva.

Jones's first book of poems, Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note, published in 1961, was rapidly followed by The Dead Lecturer (1964) and Black Art (1966). Blues People, published in 1963, is now generally regarded as the most trenchant book of critical theory about African American musical history. Black Music, published in 1967, is an equally influential compilation of essays about sixties experimental jazz. In 1964 Baraka had three major plays produced: The Toilet, The Slave, and, most notably, Dutchman, which won that year's Obie award. Also to be reckoned with in this prolific period are Home (1966), a sharp-tongued volume of essays, and the legendary production of his play Slaveship (1967) by his company Spirit House Movers.

In 1965, propelled by the assassination of Malcolm X, Jones uprooted himself from his bohemian life downtown and moved to Harlem, leaving wife and children behind, to pursue a course of activism that estranged and alienated him from many of his white friends, admirers, and fellow travelers. By 1967 he had become the era's most vociferous black cultural nationalist, had taken the name Imamu Amiri Baraka (Swahili for "spiritual leader, blessed prince"), and embarked down a concomitant political and literary path.

Later that year, during the Newark riots of 1967 he was beaten bloody by Newark police, then arrested and charged with sedition. During his trial two poems were entered as evidence of his guilt. In 1970 he was instrumental in the election of Newark's first African American mayor, Kenneth Gibson. In 1972 he became a dedicated Marxist-Leninist, a move that alienated him from many of his friends, followers, and fellow travelers in the cultural nationalist camp. A few months before the Newark rebellions, Baraka married his second wife, dancer, painter, poet, and activist Amina Baraka (the former Sylvia Robinson). They produced five children, Obalaji, Ras (already a well-known poet and political activist), Shani, Amiri Jr., and Ahi. Together with Amina's two daughters from a previous marriage, Vera and Wanda, they composed the Baraka family.

In the ensuing decades Baraka has continued writing, lecturing, teaching, and organizing—most recently in support of his son Ras's campaign for mayor of Newark.

In the estimation of literary scholar Arnold Rampersad, Baraka is one of four major figures—the others being Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, and Richard Wright—who have shaped the course of African American literature. Baraka has sustained his prominence outside mainstream American literary circles—a feat unto itself, since his writing and politics have at various points been unfriendly if not downright hostile toward Jews, gays, white men and women, and the black middle class. Yet his most popular works—the poems, Blues People, and Dutchman —have never long been out of print, and he continues to find receptive imprints for current work as well.

* * *

This collection unites the two known volumes of fiction in the Baraka canon, The System of Dante's Hell (1965) and Tales (1967), with four uncollected short stories and the never-before-published 6 Persons (1973-74). Baraka's narrative writing tends not to be as well known or as widely discussed as his essays, plays, poetry, and mercurial politics. Partly this is because fiction is the one medium where he didn't ignite and incite the core audience as volubly as he did those for drama, poetry, and music criticism. But in fiction Baraka has been at his most inventive, vulnerable, and self-critical. To be sure, these books are anything but light reading. As polemically charged as any of Baraka's other writing, they are also more taxing of a reader's time, patience, and powers of comprehension than even the more vaunted black experimental fictions of Ishmael Reed and Clarence Major. There is the added rub that while the average reader of experimental fiction may find much formally enticing about the books, he or she may also be turned off by the antiwhite, antigay, anti-Semitic, and misogynistic sentiments that pepper them liberally. For all but the most devoted Barakaphiles, these may be the least inviting of his major works, and so have come to reside in a kind of literary limbo. Their ideal readers are folks with equal admiration for the man's fearless black socialism and his restless assaults on literary convention.

The degree to which Dante's Hell, Tales, and 6 Persons read as a warped strain of autobiographical literature is the degree to which they yield the most pleasure. Céline, Miller, and Burroughs seem probable models here, as does the general twentieth-century trend of writing about cities as if they were protagonists, where the narrator figures both as topographer and as a character living in the head of the metropolis. This tendency, first seen in the poetry of Baudelaire, was further evolved by Joyce and Proust, adumbrated by Walter Benjamin, counter-acculturated by Samuel R. Delany in Dhalgren, and recently redirected at the field of urban planning by architect-theorist Rem Koolhaas.

Like those writers' texts, Baraka's fictions are unapologetically diaristic, demanding that we allow Baraka as much room for naked honesty, casual obser- vation, offhand brilliance, and utter human failure as any fictional character we may have ever loved or loathed. With the possible exception of Delany, no African American writer has laid as much of his sexual anxiety between covers. In "The Screamers" he contradicts any notion of him as a lifetime hipster with the confession that during slow dances "amateurs like myself, after the music stopped, put our hands quickly into our pockets and retreated into the shadows. It was as meaningful as anything else we knew."

It may indeed be the self-lacerating nature of Baraka's fiction that keeps readers who are hostile to his militancy as much at bay as sympathizers. Who wants to know about the angst of a militant black monster? But Baraka's fiction vitally demands that the ferocity of black rage and the fragility of the black individual's neuroses be given equal sympathy.

My brother stands there beat and bleary eyes. His friends with him shambling, a rude group, a motion, a place in the universe. "We demand to be loved. We demand to be alive. We demand to be looked at like human beings. We demand that we are always so beautiful. And dirty. And bent. And drunk. And ignorant…. Our friend here is hurt. Is injured. Help him lady."

And he stands there with his opening of the sweater, and his droopy pants, and shows the stab wounds. The blood and tearing gap. His heart just beneath it, throwing the blood to the top.

          ("No Body No Place," p. 210)

Baraka's life has not been so atypical of other American bad boys who rerouted the national culture (especially those who lived to a ripe old age rather than burned out before age thirty)—early recognition for youthful genius and promise, an Oedipal period of rebellion, followed by rejection for vociferous public displays of social disruption. The intertwining of the private and public selves is perhaps matched in American letters only by Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer, who have also become bigger names in the public imagination than have any of their books. They are all also linked to the most explosive of sixties rhetoric, and through the activism of that time have come to signify three different responses to the gauntlet the decade threw down to writers of conscience and extreme charisma.

Many of the spiritual crises lined out in Dante's Hell and Tales have to do with Baraka's turmoil over whether thinking or feeling is a more honest and radical response to American society—particularly for the black outsider, who, whether deified or demonized by whites, is perpetually the victim of misunderstanding. Baraka's fiction is, if nothing else, a rebuke to the refusal to recognize the consciousness and complexity of African American culture's human by-products.

As history has shown, what he couldn't work out on his fiction's pages he would work out on the barricades. But the interior battles described in his fictional prose are acutely resonant of the times they were written in, when every value white America held as sacrosanct was being challenged and overturned, if not pillaged and burned. Because of the social history of his evolution into a writer and activist, Baraka had a unique vantage point on that burning question of the day: the role of the artist in the revolution. The fictions document his slow docking in the bay of self-consciousness and worldliness—his initial uncertainty about where he belonged in the struggle, and just who were His People, really?

* * *

Though earmarked early as a bright middle-class black boy headed for the Respectable Professional Negro track, Baraka jumped ship to seek out an earthier reality among the lumpen proletariat of Newark's ghettoes. It is this Diogenian search for truth in experience that fuels The System of Dante's Hell, a bildungsroman stylistically like no other in African American literature, but thematically not so different from those found in the most famous works of the Black Novel's big three—Wright, Ellison, and Baldwin. Not least of the similarities is the way each relates the torment visited upon young black men stuck between two worlds that had little use and few answers for their schizophrenic psyches.

In the chapter called "The Eighth Ditch (is Drama," the Jones of the sixties bickers with his adolescent predecessor. The cadence and mode of address is not so far removed from those found in Dutchman :

64

—What do you know? You sit right now on the surface of your life. I have, at least, all the black arts. The smell of deepest loneliness. (Moves his fingers on the other's shoulders) I know things that will split your face & send you wild-eyed to your own thoughts!

46

—Oh? I'm stronger than people think. I'm an athlete, and very quick-witted. Ha, I'll bet you wdn't play the dozen with me. (Looking up)

64

—No…. I wdn't do that. You'd only make me mad and I'd have to kick your ass. I want more than yr embarassment!

          (p. 76)

Dante's Hell is the book whose creation Baraka credits with the cesarean birth of his singular voice. Joyce's Ulysses is an obvious influence on Baraka's experimen- tations, not just syntactically but in the obsession with viewing the folkways of his birthplace through a consciously artsy lens. The book also marks him stepping away from the influence of Charles Olson and Robert Duncan. In interviews Baraka has said Olson's theories of a Projective Verse encouraged his desire to write poetry that spoke about his life and didn't obey the patented gentility of the then-dominant New Yorker school. Duncan's early novels, as critic Robert Elliot Fox has pointed out, contain prose constructions and syncopations that read like textbook Baraka. The role of Dante, whose Inferno Baraka studied extensively at Howard, lies in providing a structural and moralistic grid Baraka purports to invert from the very outset:

I put The Heretics in the deepest part of hell, though Dante had them spared, on higher ground.

It is heresy, against one's own sources, running in terror, from one's deepest responses and insights … the denial of feeling … that I see as basest evil.

We are not talking merely about beliefs, which are later, after the fact of feeling. A flower, turning from moisture and sun, would turn evil colors and die.

          (Contents, p. 17)

From there the book proceeds in ways that are maddeningly referential to the author's Newark upbringing, jumping back and forth in time between incidents, personalities, and social rituals. Some passages are little more than character sketches of folks Baraka encountered during what seemed to have been a convulsive rite of passage from childhood to adolescence.

The writing is lush in description, full of lyrical feeling in the more episodic moments, and displays a tendency typical of Baraka's work at this stage to collapse philosophical, carnal, poetic, and racial epiphanies into a litany of self-affirmation and self-loathing:

We danced, this face and I, close so I had her sweat in my mouth, her flesh the only sound my brain could use. Stinking, and the music over us like a sky, choked any other movement off. I danced. And my history was there, had passed no further. Where it ended, here, the light white talking jig, died in the arms of some sentry of Africa. Some short-haired witch out of my mother's most hideous dreams. I was nobody, now, mama. Nobody. Another secret nigger. No one the white world wanted or would look at.

          (p. 108)

What the book captures in embryonic formation is Baraka's lifelong rage against bourgeois respectability. To some degree that battle is also against that most respectable of literary endeavors, the Negro Novel, which by the sixties had become a cornerstone of American race relations. Baraka's novel is, in its experimental bent and exploded views of mental minutiae, a sort of mockery of the prevalent notion that the job of the Negro novelist was to explain black men to white men. If this novel has an agenda it is to be so far up its own ass as to only be concerned with what one young black man has to say to himself. While for Ellison, the tradition of the novel wears the status of a national hero, Baraka's critical writing barely deems it worth examining at all. The exception is an essay included in Home in which he berates the state of so-called Negro writing. There is a degree to which Baraka is actually upholding a tradition of Oedipal infighting, initiated by Wright and brought to a boil by Baldwin and Ellison—of mainstream-approved black writers banishing their competing brethren and sistren to the land of the wannabes.

Reading that essay today reminds one that Baraka was once as much of an elitist as Ellison. The willful difficulty of Dante's Hell only shows just how precious he could get. Yet like Ellison, Baraka had no interest in writing that did not embrace his folkways and his bookish concerns. He seems bent on demonstrating to his white colleagues the ways in which being an African American allowed him to expand the provinces of American fiction. Baraka was not just mimicking his influences, but passionately inventing forms that addressed his readings in Western literature and philosophy as well as his abiding passion for black working-class culture. Eschewing racial polemics in favor of self-revelation, Baraka used his fiction, as he would his other mediums, to stab away at American middle-class existence as not just corny but sterile, moribund, and inhuman. Like Wright, Ellison, and Baldwin, Baraka reveals the existential dimensions of black Americanness—the mental anguish that evolved from trying to see oneself as fully human under American apartheid. The fondness and tenderness with which Baraka writes of whores, junkies, winos, and criminals is all about humanizing people whose capacity for intelligence and feeling belie the stereotypes. Dante's Hell magnificently illuminates the consciousness of America's ghettoes—all the deep thinking about Being and Nothingness hidden beneath the surface. The book demands to be read as a flow of verbal energy rather than as a linear narrative, though the last chapter, where his young seviceman incarnation encounters a willful and motherly prostitute named Peaches, settles so comfortably into straight narration as to seem calculated to quiet those who'd bark that he wrote experimental prose because he couldn't tell a story. Of course he could, and in his inimitable style, too.

* * *

If The System of Dante's Hell is Baraka's Ulysses,Tales is his Dubliners, a loose collection of short narrative vehicles that display Baraka's capacity for sociological introspection to great advantage. "The Alternative" details the harassment of two gay men by students in an all-male dorm in Howard University in the fifties. Like the Eighth Ditch chapter of Dante's Hell, it is a play thinly dressed up in fictional trappings. More conventional stories—"Salute," "Uncle Tom's Cabin: Alternate Ending," and "Heroes Are Gang Leaders" —work his time in the Air Force and the Village into driving, suspenseful scenarios rife with deft character descriptions and incisive dialogue. Some are little more than thumbnail sketches for Baraka to show how brilliant he can be conducting a jam session with his own pen. As in his poetry, there are lines that scream their origins from Baraka's singular sense of wit, syntax, and life-affirming sarcasm. They remind one of Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis in their commitment to an elliptical, disjunctive, darting attack, one very much at odds with the verbose rhythmic cascade generally asociated with the so-called jazzy writing of Jack Kerouac. Just as jazz musicians converted stentorian Western concert instruments into vessels of spontaneous broken rhythms and lightfooted virility, Baraka used short prose to resonantly capture his most fleeting sense-impressions.

The most outstanding piece of Tales is "The Screamers," a story many critics and readers consider to be Baraka's best piece of short fiction. It is certainly a masterpiece of concision; in six pages Baraka reports of a riot that jumped off during a rhythm and blues performance in fifties Newark while simultaneously providing an anthropological precis on the ritual importance of fashion, gesture, music, and manners in a roughneck urban juke joint. The prose itself is a wonder of cinematic detail, sociological revelation, music criticism, and poetic illumination. As in many a Baraka work, the language is the protagonist, though the central story in this instance would be compelling in the hands of a hack. Baraka the adult sophisticate and Baraka the virgin explorer of forbidden spaces converge to create a pungent hybrid:

The dancers ground each other past passion or moved so fast it blurred intelligence. We hated the popular song, and any freedman could tell you if you asked that white people danced jerkily, and were slower than our champions. One style, which developed as Italians showed up with pegs, and our own grace moved towards bellbottom pants to further complicate the cipher, was the honk. The repeated rhythmic figure, a screamed riff, pushed in its insistence past music. It was hatred and frustration, secrecy and despair. It spurted out of the diphthong culture, and reinforced the black cults of emotion.

          (p. 184)

Tales is arranged in two sections, which demarcate Baraka's life and thinking in bohemia versus what it was becoming after the move to Harlem and the adoption of cultural nationalism. Two pivotal stories from the latter portion are "Words" and "Answers in Progress." The former is most notable for the meditative instructions it concludes with—an eerie Afro-Zen contemplation of Black militancy as a form of spiritual asylum.

We do not need to be fucked with.
We can be quiet and love the silence.
We need to look at trees more closely.
We need to listen.
 
          (p. 194)

"Answers" juxtaposes alien tourists and Harlem Mau Mau in a manner that now seems typical of spaced-out sixties radicalism. The story's concluding lines carry a Baraka trademark—revolutionary prophecy lyrically combined with mundane sensuality:

White came in with the design for a flag he'd been working on. Black heads, black hearts, and blue fiery space in the background. Love was heavy in the atmosphere. Ball wanted to know what the blue chicks looked like. But I didn't. Cause I knew after tomorrow's duty, I had a day off, and I knew somebody waitin for me at my house, and some kids, and some fried fish, and those carrots, and wow.

That's the way the fifth day ended.

          (p. 222)

* * *

6 Persons, written after Baraka's conversion to Marxist-Leninism, is a fascinating contribution not only to his fictive oeuvre but to his autobiographical writings as well. More frenzied and stylistically daring than The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones, it is a freewheeling (if not cartwheeling) examination of his evolutionary arc—from the fanciful childhood fan of comic books and radio plays to the teenage urban drifter and bebop aficionado to studious college boy to displaced Air Force pilot to aspirant New York intellectual to Black Power advocate to Black Marxist. For Baraka followers, the record of changes won't seem revelatory, but the telling is an extraordinarily artful and mercilessly sarcastic attack on his own past. Of his feeble attempts at becoming a regular college Lothario, he recalls,

You were outside on the balcony with this Delta pledgee, an art student, with short wavy dirty blond hair, and lightskinned bumpy complexion. She was weird tho. And then, you kept drinking, LJ, and you cdn't drink then, going back into the kitchen for more. And you and this babe were mated off by the others, and you were getting dizzy, LJ, and it seemed to you you were really getting over, and you had on a brand new Brooks Brothers grey flannel vine, rich white boy style, and suddenly LJ, the pretty babe was drifting, drifting, away … and then, my man, hey cat, you were drunk and on the floor and vomiting all over everything….

You remember that, LJ?

          (p. 262)

Of his stumble through the prevailing currents of progressive American cultural politics of the late fifties and early sixties he writes:

Anglo-Germanic rebellion was called Blk Mountain. Also crammed in its juicier times with Monk and Sonny Rollins. Pound vs Whitman was what it came down to. The same king of jazz, this time with a beard and boyjones. For the immigrants to rally behind. Pound right back to Germanic Anglo correct vision and version. The fact that Pound was a fascist made him the true object of niggers' worship. The fact that he sd outright he hated them made him the object of fond regard. Damn, how pure can they get?? These particular niggers here whose story this is. Anything totally esoteric they dug. And even the fact that Pound was s'posed to have thot niggers simple barbarians. There was even dudes like light-skinned Steve J in Bostown who was absolutely Poundian and wrote exactly, even letters, like him, and echoed the same exact anti-nigra tone.

          (p. 322)

For its complexity, invention, confessional recklessness, and abiding contribution to complicating the African presence in American letters, the fiction of Amiri Baraka deserves a closer read from contemporary audiences. Distant from the furor that surrounded the author when the stories were first published, today's readers should be able to give these major works the copious attention they have always deserved.

Meta DuEwa Jones (essay date 2003)

SOURCE: Jones, Meta DuEwa. "Politics, Process, & (Jazz) Performance: Amiri Baraka's ‘It's Nation Time.’" African American Review 37, nos. 2-3 (2003): 245-52.

[In the following essay, Jones underscores the importance of considering Baraka's poetry within the context of his performance of the piece, focusing in particular on the controversial poem "It's Nation Time."]

Politics

In a recently published book, Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual, the scholar Jerry Watts invokes Baraka in iconic fashion. He prefaces the book with the following admonition:

In the best of worlds, it would be unwise to call out the name Amiri Baraka in a crowded hall of black intellectuals. To bring up Baraka in a symposium on art and politics is to bring a conversation to a standstill. One of the most controversial Afro-American intellectuals of the last forty years, Baraka is admired, hated, feared, dismissed, adored, and despised.

          (x)

The recent broil over Baraka's recital of the poem "Somebody Blew up America" has only served to intensify the poet's controversial status. With calls by some state and local officials to force Baraka to resign from his post as New Jersey's poet laureate, one could add to Watts's alliterative list of verbs the darkly descriptive dethroned.

But Watts's perspective on Baraka's position as an intellectual is of lesser relevance, for this essay's purposes, than is Watts's position on Baraka's poetry. Of his second poetry collection, It's Nation Time, Watts opines:

None of the three poems [in the book] is impressive. The redundancy and tendentiousness of the themes make it appear as if Baraka had run out of ideas…. [He] may have done himself a disservice in trying to force his strong polemical impulses into a poetic form. His didactic intentions overwhelm his artistic sensibilities and make the poetry abysmal.

          (236-37)

Watts diametrically opposes the polemic and didactic to the artistic and the poetic, rendering Baraka's form as distinctly separate from—instead of an extension of—verbal content. Watts's critique highlights the timeworn division drawn between art and politics (as opposed to art as politics), and his method for critical analysis entails focusing on the semantic substance of the poems on the page. Thus, he disregards the poems' formal structure and the performance environment in which they emerged and through which Baraka planned to articulate them. This neglect of the potential presentation context leads to what might seem to some to be a well-founded dismissal of Baraka's poetry, especially work penned during his prolific outpouring in the 1970s such as It's Nation Time.

Ironically, Watts's censure of "It's Nation Time," and concurrently Baraka's poetics, occurs in the same chapter, "Amiri Baraka as Black Arts Poet and Essayist," which readily acknowledges, first, Baraka's talent and popularity as a performance artist, particularly during the Black Arts Movement (BAM), and, second, the importance of performance (poetry and drama were the favored genres of Movement participants) as one of the political strategies Baraka and other Black Arts artists employed to reach a black mass audience. Indeed, Watts proclaims, "One had to hear Baraka in order to experience the Imamu," or spiritual leader (237). Yet Watts's inattention to the dynamic effects of Baraka's speaking voice when he recites his poetry amounts to a mishearing and, consequently, a misreading of his corpus. More specifically, I contend that, through the arena of performance, a dimension of Baraka's poetics emerges that counters a one-dimensional interpretation of his poetry as appallingly flattened by his political motivations. As the poet and critic Charles Bernstein justly observes, "… performance, in the sense of doing, is an underlying formal aesthetic as much as it is a political issue in Baraka's work" (7). If a primarily page-based analysis of Baraka's poetics leads to its underestimation, then a formal audio and visual analysis of Baraka's poetry-in-performance can potentially enrich our appreciation of his poetics.

As this essay will demonstrate, Baraka's additions to and alterations of verses, his shifts from speech into song, and his imitations of the sounds of instruments while performing his poems all suggest that, in a performance context, his work engages in a process of revision modeled upon the improvisatory ethos of jazz. The essence of Baraka's jazz-influenced poetry, like its counterpart, jazz music, is in the performance. Visual representations of Baraka's poems on the page alone do not sufficiently define the forms of his art or aesthetic. Thus my analysis emphasizes the improvisatory interaction that occurs between Baraka and accompanying musicians in recorded jazz-and-poetry performances. I will focus on two moments of Baraka's vocal delivery of the title poem in the book Watts critiques—It's Nation Time. Considering "It's Nation Time" within the context of performance takes into account an implicitly political aspect of his writing; that is, the local—and historical—context in which his verse emerges. It also suggests, in contrast to Watts, that the political can inform and enrich the poetic, and vice versa.

How do sites of performance extend the possibilities of poetic form? What is the significance of discrepancies between the performed and printed versions of Baraka's poems? Do recitals of jazz-influenced poems remain consistent irrespective of the performance venue, or do they change over time and under different circumstances? My method of examination engages the above questions.

Process

Baraka's stated philosophy for his method of reading and performing signals a critically appropriate method for discerning his poetics. "You have to start and finish there … your own voice … how you sound," he declared in a statement on poetics included in the New American Poetry anthology (Baraka, "How?" 16). When reciting his poems, he marshals his voice in a manner which reveals that he deliberately uses his vocal chords as an instrument to be played. He employs a wide variety of tonal registers and often emphasizes dissonance or euphony in particular verses by varying the intensity of speed and volume while reading. The spontaneity and continual alteration so highly valued in jazz translates to Baraka's poetry when it is performed. He does not read the same poems in the exact same manner in different contexts. His is an intentional inconsistency that results from what the scholar and poet Nathaniel Mackey refers to as Baraka's "exaltation of process," of "the doing, the coming into being," of an artistic product. As Mackey astutely observes, "the closeness of improvised music to the primacy of process is the quality Baraka strives for in his poems" (32). Baraka is a process artist (Harris xv) for whom the process of creating a poem possesses an artistic value which is superior to the actual poem produced—what he calls the "artifact." "Even the artist," Baraka avows,

is more valuable than his artifact, because the art process goes on in his mind. But the process itself is the most important quality because it can transform and create, and its only form is possibility. The artifact, because it assumes one form, is only that particular quality or idea. It is, in this sense, after the fact, and is only important because it remarks on its source.

          (qtd. in Mackey 32)

Baraka's belief that the "artifact" is limited to "one form" is revealing. His desire to explore multiple possibilities in the form of his poetic compositions engenders this hierarchy between process and product. Furthermore, he draws an analogy between this creative process and the "at the time" characteristic of "live music." He contends that its particular value lies in the listener's ability to contemplate "the artifact as it arrives," to listen "to it emerge." Baraka's practical application of this process-based poetics is manifest in his divergent deliveries of the hallmark poem "It's Nation Time."

The charismatic characteristic of Baraka's performance style is exemplified in his two different recorded recitals of "It's Nation Time." "What time is it?—Nation Time" became a catch phrase artists and activists alike used during the peak of the Black Arts/Black Power period in the early to mid-seventies. The poet and critic Kalamu ya Salaam maintains that Baraka's poem, which riffs on the phrase, served as a virtual anthem of black cultural nationalism (21). The poem's anthem-coining qualities and circulation value are apparent in the politician Jesse Jackson's recollection of his frequent use of the phrase at national political assemblies:

I had drawn much of the strength of Nationtime from a poem written by LeRoi Jones, Amiri Baraka at that time. The sense of people saying, "What's happening?" … Say, … "It's Nationtime, it's time to come together. It's time to organize politically … It's time for blacks to enter into the equation."

          (qtd. in Woodard 209)

Jackson's remarks—as we shall see shortly—strikingly resemble, almost verbatim, the opening lines of Baraka's poem. One could, of course, argue that this re- semblance is not remarkable, since the poem's propagandistic phrasing captured the common political sentiments of the time. ya Salaam, in fact, is one of many critics who have commented on the doctrinaire aspects of Baraka's poetry, and indeed they are evident in "It's Nation Time." 1 Yet, I want to highlight the manner in which Baraka's performance reveals elements of the poem's jazz inflection while also potentially deflecting some of its didacticism.

The poem begins and ends with the slogan "It's Nation Time." Baraka chants it at varied intervals throughout the poem's narrative. "It's Nation Time" also functions as an invocation in his reading of the poem on the It's Nation Time: Visionary Music recording he made with musical accompaniment (Baraka). Idris Muhammed immediately follows Baraka's statement of the phrase by initiating a clamorous drum roll that lasts for nearly six seconds. As the drum roll subsides, a group of African drummers play a softer beat as background while Baraka recites:

Time to get
together
time to be one strong fast black energy
    space
        one pulsating positive magnetism,
    rising
time to get up and
be
come
be
come, time to
        be come
        time to
        get up be come
 
black genius rise in spirit muscle …
 
          ("Nation Time" 240)

Baraka's method of reciting "time to be one strong fast black energy space / one pulsating positive magnetism, rising" enacts the lines' meaning; an energetic pulse marks his rapid delivery. Yet he controls this vigor, inserting a slight half-second's pause between "be come" each time he repeats the fragmented word. Baraka's diction, if not elegant, is precise. He emphasizes the long vowel in the e in become and pronounces the word come with a clipped attack on the consonant c. His arrangement of "be come" on separate lines suggests that the visual shift marks a space for a slight silence to occur during his performance.

In contrast to many of Baraka's poems of this period, whose peripheral (and often parenthetical) words provide explicit recital cues, Baraka appears to embed performance directions within the printed text of this poem. Thus, at the moment that Baraka says, "sun man get up rise," he drastically—and breathlessly—increases the speed and volume of his vocal delivery. Consequently, his pace makes his speech nearly indecipherable when he recites the lines

… heart of universes to be
future of the world
the black man is the future of the world
be come
rise up
future of the black genius spirit reality
move
from crushed roach back
from dead snake head
from wig funeral in slowmotion
from dancing teeth and coward tip
from jibberjabber patme boss patme
    smmich
 
          (240)

One could argue that, textually, the poem's verbal content does not merit deciphering, since it is fairly transparent up until the lines' surrealist imagery in "crushed roach back," "dead snake head," and "wig funeral in slowmotion." On the page, the poem may not seem so visually compelling, but Baraka's reiteration of bald pronouncements develop the poem orally and aurally. His structurally varied repetition in phrases such as "Time to get, Time to be one, Time to get up, Time to be come" and "future of the world," "the black man is the future of the world" moves the poem along rhythmically and musically in the performance. Baraka's characteristic phrasal repetition, Nathaniel Mackey claims, "gives the sense of wrestling with definition, a sense of anxiety regarding the possibility of arriving at a stable sense of what these phrases mean" (44). Thus, Baraka's reiteration of the lines "black energy space," "black genius rise in spirit muscle, and "the black man is the future … of the black genius spirit reality" potentially destabilize more than codify a fixed notion of "blackness," even as these same phrases, regrettably, limit the conceptual notion of racial authenticity in masculinist terms.

(Jazz) Performance

Baraka's use of anaphora and repetition—his "changing same"—also indicates that a jazz aesthetic structurally influences the poem's form. Repetition and riffs are crucial within jazz improvisation. As the ethnomusicologist Ingrid Monson attests, in jazz performance, "frequently an exchange will begin with the repetition of a particular musical passage or a response with a complimentary musical interjection." Jazz musicians' bring repetition into play in performance to help to create "a participatory musical framework against which highly idiosyncratic and innovative improvisation can take place" (Monson 89). Likewise, Baraka's reiteration enables the percussionist that accompanies him to punctuate and puncture his reading rhythm. Baraka's reading style concurrently encourages and mimics musical interaction. For instance, he recites the following lines in a swift and percussive manner:

It's nation time
 
Boom
Booom
BOOOM
 
Dadadadadadadadadadad
Boom
Boom
Boom
Boom
Dadadadad adadadad
 
          (240)

Baraka's use of repetition in a visual depiction of scatting in the above passage, at its worst, is typographically and syntactically ineffectual. In the realm of what Stephen Henderson called the "cold technology of the printed page" (30), it fails to connote meaning or even an intentional irrationality. But as Mackey observes, in Baraka's poetry, "the use of repetition is almost purely musical, in that sound seems to take precedence over sense" (44). And the sounds do make sense—they function logically and dialogically—within the context of Baraka's recitation to percussive musical accompaniment. The verses' aural aspects pinpoint the poem's power. Baraka's onomatopoetic approximation of a drumming chorus counterpoints the drummer, Idris Muhammed, who interjects and echoes his utterances. Moreover, after finishing the phrase "Dadadadad adadadad," Baraka departs from the printed words on the page and engages in an intense impromptu dialogue with the saxophonist. He begins a series of high pitched yells—"OW! OW! OW!" is the closest textual approximation—that function as a call which summons the saxophonist's response. Instead of trading solos, they trade screams. As the pitch of Baraka's screams increases, the saxophonist parallels his tonal evocation by playing a series of correspondingly shrill notes. Baraka's extratextual vocalizations suitably fit within jazz improvisational standards, where "the musicians are compositional participants who may ‘say’ unexpected things or elicit response from other musicians. Musical intensification is open-ended rather than predetermined and highly interpersonal in character—structurally far more similar to a conversation than to a text" (Monson 81). Baraka and the saxophonist converse, using the words, music, and sheer sound as the combined ingredients for their joint performance.

A culturally politicized component exists in Baraka's performative iterations in "It's Nation Time." The vocal and instrumental "screams" put in practice the ethos underpinning Baraka's improvised interjections. Mackey maintains that, "as a deliberate affront to the dominant culture's canons of musicality, ‘honking’ [or screaming] challenges and delegitimates that culture's distinction between music and noise, its imposition of hegemonic expectations as to what constitutes acceptable sound." Honking strikes a deliberately discordant note. According to Mackey, honking's "recourse to what would otherwise be thought of as noise" reflects a racial discord because symbolically it "marks the divide between black and white, accenting the dissonant relations within a white-supremacist society, the discrepant rift between racist practices and professed democratic ideals" (29). Baraka's remarks on "honking" among rhythm and blues saxophonists suggest that their unconventional musical gestures cued his performance style. "The point" of these instrumental peals, Baraka notes, "was to spend oneself with as much attention as possible, and also to make the instruments sound as unmusical, or as Non-Western, as possible. It was almost as if the blues people were reacting against the softness and ‘legitimacy’ that had crept into black instrumental music with the advent of swing" (qtd. in Mackey 29). Baraka's intentionally unmusical, discordant notes possess a unique and parodic music as he moves in his delivery of "It's Nation Time" through speech, scream, and song.

The difference between Baraka's two distinct performances of the penultimate and final stanzas of "It's Nation Time" illuminate his bridging the boundary between speech and song. The recorded performance of "It's Nation Time" took place at the Congress of African Peoples in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1970. The significance of the historical and political context for Baraka's reading cannot be overestimated. In his study of Baraka's pivotal role in the organizational development of black cultural nationalism, Komozi Woodard explains that the Congress was one of "four national organizations" which led to the "birth of a black national political community" (160). Woodard also notes that 1970 marked the beginning of a period during which the politics of black cultural nationalism reached its zenith. As one of the key conveners of the Congress, Baraka was an instrumental figure, in multiple senses of the word. When he delivered his poem before the throng of Congress attendees, he recited the lines:

It's nation time eye ime
It's nation ti eye ime
            chant with bells and drum
it's nation time2

And he sang the word time and protracted his enunciation of the i with a pronounced vibrato, mimicking the sound of a saxophone (Baraka, I'll Make Me a World ). His stylization of this phrase suggests that jazz inflection can be present in a poem whose content does not ostensibly indicate any relationship to that tradition. This indicates the reason that examining the performances is essential to a more comprehensive appreciation of jazz-influenced poetry. Paradoxically, the "eye" spelling in the lines signals a visual instead of a musical emphasis. Yet "chant with bells and drum" reflects Baraka's recurrent phrasing of "it's nation time" and the accompaniment of a saxophonist and a drummer in his performance on the It's Nation Time: Visionary Music album.

Baraka's reading of this particular stanza gestures in a direction different from his previous reading at the Congress of African Peoples. He still protracts the i in time, but his pronunciation seems deliberately disharmonic. He utters "t-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-me" in a raspy tone with a stuttering effect and repeats this several times, varying the length of the I each time. Unlike his mellifluous delivery of the poem at the Congress, his speech-song seems taut, even anti-melodic, grating the ear instead of pleasing it (It's Nation Time ). The divergence between Baraka's readings in different contexts points to the variety of his performance approach. For example, in the published version of the poem's last stanza, Baraka states:

It's nation time, get up santa claus
 
      (repeat)
 
it's nation time, build it
      get up muffet dragger
      get up rastus for real to be rasta farari
      ras jua
      get up got here bow
 
              It's Nation
                 Time!
 
          (242)

However, in both recitals, on two different recordings, Baraka inserts additional addressees, departing from the printed phrase "get up santa claus," and expanding it to include "get up roy wilkins, get up diana ross, and get up dione warwick." Moreover, the line "get up got here bow" is transformed into "get up nigger, come over here, take a bow, brother" (Baraka, I'll Make Me a World and It's Nation Time ). These alterations highlight the immediacy, fluidity, and theatricality of the performance.

Admittedly, this sense of immediacy is illusive, since these performances are mediated through the realms of videotape and vinyl. Nevertheless, the performance environment does allow for flexibility in the form and tone of his verse unrealizable in the printed version of "It's Nation Time." The poem in print does not provide Baraka the opportunity to alter the poem's potential aural effect or to add and extract words in different verses. Despite Baraka's movement away from solely print-bound possibilities in his poetry, Harryette Mullen observes that the videotape of poets such as Baraka emphasizes "the poet reading the text." These readings are, according to Mullen, "unlike the oral composition of the griot or the free improvisations of the jazz musician" in that they "highlight the African-American poet's performance of the written, transforming wordscript into ‘soulscript’" (10-11). Accordingly, the video clip of Baraka performing at the Congress of African Peoples captures Baraka's downcast eyes while he flips the poem's pages—even though he recites the last stanza while directly facing the audience.

Does the presence of the page, a poet's use of his or her written text in a public reading negate the possibility for improvisation to enter the work, as Mullen seems to suggest? If so, then the label "jazz-inspired" only accurately refers to the poem in print but not in performance—even for a poet as dynamic and spontaneous as Baraka. I would argue that for a poet such as Baraka, who is so thoroughly immersed in the jazz tradition, improvisation enters the work at the level of composition—regardless of whether printed versions of his poems are a present feature in his live and recorded performances. Baraka has consistently and continually moved, metaphorically and literally, from the page to the stage in his poetic delivery. As I have briefly demonstrated in this essay, this movement should be considered in aesthetical and political terms. Baraka's performance methods—including the noisy wailings of his jazzed texts—formally express a key element of his aesthetic agenda, namely, engaging the power and the politics of sound. Scholars of Baraka's poetry should heed his early call "to start and finish there," with the sounds of his voice deployed dynamically in performance, to ensure a more comprehensive criticism of his aesthetics.

Notes

1. See for example, Henry Lacey's discussion of the Marxist "sloganeering" that, according to Lacey, mars Baraka's otherwise laudable evocation of Coltrane in his poem "AM/TRAK" (21).

2. Baraka, "It's Nation Time," Amiri Baraka Reader 242. Note that this citation is of the poem as it appears in the Reader. In the performance he reads the line "It's nation ti eye ime" three times.

Works Cited

Baraka, Amiri. "How You Sound?" Baraka, LeRoi 16-17.

———. I'll Make Me A World: A Century of African American Arts. Evening 3, Hour 5. Videocassette. Prod. Denise A. Greene. PBS Video, 1999. 60 min.

———. "It's Nation Time." 1970. Baraka, LeRoi 240-42.

———. It's Nation Time: Visionary Music. LP. Black Forum Records. B-457L, 1972.

———. The LeRoi Jones / Amiri Baraka Reader. Ed. William J. Harris. New York: Thunder's Mouth P, 1991.

Bernstein, Charles. Introduction. Close Listening. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. 7.

Harris, William J. Editor's Note. Baraka, LeRoi xv.

Henderson, Stephen. Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References. New York: Morrow, 1973.

Lacey, Henry. "Baraka's ‘AM/TRAK’: Everybody's Coltrane Poem." Obsidian II 1.1-2 (1986): 12-21.

Mackey, Nathaniel. Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993.

Monson, Ingrid. Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996.

Mullen, Harryette. "A Beat for Which There Is No Notation." The American Poetry Archives Videotape Catalogue. San Francisco: American Poetry Archives/The Poetry Center, 1991.

Watts, Jerry Gafio. Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual. New York: New York UP, 2001.

Woodard, Komozi. A Nation Within A Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black Power Politics. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1999.

ya Salaam, Kalamu. "Why Spoken Word Rules." Black Issues Book Review Mar.-Apr. 1999: 21.

Joseph Heithaus (essay date 2003)

SOURCE: Heithaus, Joseph. "‘Hunting Is Not Those Heads’: The Jones/Baraka Critic as Taxidermist." African American Review 37, nos. 2-3 (2003): 365-69.

[In the following essay, Heithaus analyzes Baraka's poetic language and technique.]

Everything mortal dies, beautiful
language is easily broken.
Dead words shall live
and live words shall die,
and only the mouths of men can decide,
only what's said is said
and therefore alive.
 
          (Horace, "The Art of Poetry")

I always had to learn to run fast, because (laughing) you'd say certain things to people you didn't know would provoke them to such an extent. You have to get in the wind.

          (Baraka, qtd. in Reilly 194)

"Error Farce," "Air Force" (Autobiography); "raise," "race," "rays," "raze" (Raise Race Rays Raze); "wise," "why's," "Y's" (Wise Why's Y's). Repeat these sequences aloud to understand the difference between what LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka's homonyms are on the page and what they are "in the wind." Aloud, his words bring a fusion and confusion of sound and beat and meaning. Read silently, they bring intellectual delight. The title of this essay is "‘Hunting is Not Those Heads’: The Jones/Baraka Critic as Taxidermist," but it could just as easily be called "Baraka Wails/Whales," because when I say Amiri Baraka wails/whales I'm talking about giant living forces in constant motion, I'm talking about music, I'm talking about hunting a white enigmatic beast, and I'm talking about something that, if it isn't handled right, can wash up on the beach and start to smell. The critic and reader of Baraka must understand that the inherent ambiguity of spoken words like /wl/ or /rs/ is only a small part of the subtle word play Baraka employs to exploit the tension between the spoken and the written word. Many of Baraka's poems can be read as actions that reach far beyond the limits of the page. They are self-conscious efforts to thwart the confinement of written language and its semantic limits. Indeed, the expansive and elusive quality of the language performed and written by this "wailing" and "whaling" poet is intrinsically connected to the living man who has continually refused the certainty of staying in a single place or identity.

In his 1964 essay "Hunting Is Not Those Heads on the Wall," Baraka (then Jones) makes clear what would be a constant in his aesthetics throughout his opus—art is action, verb, hunt (Home 173-78). Art is founded in "thought" which, he states, "is more important than art" and certainly more important than artifact (173). He implies that the aesthete, the academician, is like a deist worshiping the art, the static thing, without understanding that the thing is a function of its creation by a creator. Jones writes:

The artist is cursed with his artifact, which exists without and despite him…. The academic Western mind is the best example of the substitution of artifact worship for lightning awareness of the art process…. The process itself is the most important quality because it can transform and create, and its only form is possibility. The artifact, because it assumes one form, is only that particular quality or idea. It is, in this sense, after the fact, and is only important because it remarks on its source.

          (173-74)

When I think of these words and the metaphor of the title "Hunting Is Not Those Heads," I imagine the academy not as a deist's temple, but as a taxidermist's shop, with the scholar as the taxidermist. It is our job to handle dead things. We do taxidermy, which means we arrange skin; we try to put the appearance of life back into what was destroyed in the hunt. If we play out the metaphor further, we can assume some artists, some poets are excellent shots who leave us with an abundance of skin to shape—and others are not. Some poems seem bludgeoned on the page while others seem still to be brimming with life.

The reason that we are celebrating Baraka in the new millennium is that he is a poet who not only knows how to hunt, who shoots straight to the heart, but who also understands that the poems he gives us are only glimpses of something that has already happened. It is he, often within the very poems themselves, who challenges us to look to the source, to see the process and not the product, to see that the "only form is possibility."

Baraka's poems live, or seem to live, because of his keen and constant awareness of their potential to be dead. From his earliest poems, his use of ellipses, unclosed parentheses, white space, homonyms, and puns make reference to a place off the page always alive and without limits or, as in "A Poem for Willie Best," to an undefinable place "neither / front nor back" (Transbluesency 63). In the final gesture of that poem, Baraka enacts a number of these techniques to refuse closure, and in so doing plays out the tension between confinement and freedom that inheres in both the form and meaning of the poem. The poem both identifies with Willie Best, confined by the white stereotype of "sleep-'n'eat," and undermines the limits of that confinement. The last word and phrase of the poem—" (Hear?"—in the sense of the poem enacting the dialect of "sleep'n'eat," places us inside that stereotyped identity by having us voice the simple word that punctuates his speech. But through typography, syntax, and the semantic play of the homonym, the poem becomes a conduit into a space that is in unlimited motion. We are neither "Hear"/here nor there. We are asking a question in an aside that refuses to end. We are called to listen to the speaker, while asking to "hear" ourselves.

This early poem from Dead Lecturer shows how Baraka's use of the open forms of modernism and the avant-garde of the fifties undergoes what William J. Harris calls "Jazzification" in his seminal book The Jazz Aesthetic. Baraka's sheer virtuosity of language and technique allows him to "invert this white form" and move the poem into "postwhite" space (Harris 92-93).

* * *

The first time I heard Amiri Baraka read his work was in New Jersey at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in 1986. This is what I remember: My friend and I had been to a number of readings already. It was late afternoon and under a large tent a very forgettable white poet mumbled his poems and I began to fall asleep, and then my friend nudged me when a small black man stood up behind a podium. That man wailed. He performed a poem found in Eulogies called "Wailers" as an elegy for Larry Neal and Bob Marley. In this poem the sounds /wl/ and /wlêer/ repeat continually. Baraka's reference to Melville in the poem's seventh line sets up the homonym that carries the poem on its big whale back. On the page the word "w - h - a - l - e" appears only once, but the notion of "confronting the white mad beast," of killing whales, of being "w - h - a - l - e - r - s" is implied in every "w - a - i - l" shouted out.

It is perhaps the homonym, the sound that sends us in several directions at once, the pun that leads to a reevaluation of the word, that is most central to Baraka's poetic. Surely he is not alone in his use of the homonym, but in the titles and phrases I quote above, it is apparent that Baraka is a particular virtuoso of this kind of verbal play, where a single sound or phrase can become, with Baraka's writing or uttering it, what Stephen Henderson almost forty years ago called in a slightly different context a "mascon—a massive concentration of black experiential energy" (44). Say this poem aloud:

Hey, Bob, Wail on rock on Jah come
    into us as real vision and action
Hey, Larry, Wail on, with Lester and
    the Porkpie, wailing us energy
for truth. We Wailers is all, and on past
    that to say, wailing for all
we worth. Rhythm folks obsessed with
    stroking what is with our
sound purchase.
 
          (Eulogies 21)

It is this "sound purchase" that is so much a part the subtle depth of Baraka's play. It is, of course, a wonderfully potent phrase when we realize that the root of "purchase" is chase. So a "sound purchase" might be a perfect pursuit, a sensible chase, a solid hunt, as well as an economic exchange—"a wailing for all we worth," for sound, itself, the very stuff of poetry and song. And it is a chase for a measurement of depth as well.

Baraka tells us that he and Larry Neal and Bob Marley and perhaps all we readers purchase rhythm and sound to get to depth, vision, action, and truth. You "hear"? Speaking and thinking about these poems in certain ways helps us to discern their purchase. To see the chase. To make the sound become something more than sound, but reality and action.

Baraka does, of course, what many great African American writers do, he destroys the language—"razes" it, as it were, and then builds it back up again in a new way—he "raises" it. The dead skin we are trying to arrange and stuff is both a symbol of that destruction and a living, breathing animal performance of the rebuilding.

* * *

I turn now to what can be perceived to be the "deadest" of Baraka's work, the poem "It's Nation Time," which appears in The Jones/Baraka Reader but is absent from Transbluesency. This poem, so embedded in Baraka's early Black Nationalist phase, seems in some ways bound intensely to the context that produced it. I quote only one or two words from the poem. And that's the crux—is it one word or two?

be
come
 
          (It's Nation 21)

This phrase, we can call it a kind of ad hominem homonym, appears five times in the poem, several times in a row toward the beginning, and Baraka builds on it as he repeats "come out" later in the poem. The poem calls me to do something I personally can't do—"be come / black genius rise in spirit muscle." In 1970 when this was published I was a seven-year-old white boy riding my bike through my white suburb of Cincinnati totally unaware of any black world around me—downtown or back east in Newark or New York. Nevertheless, this poem, bound deeply in time and race, still has this potent phrase that tells me, a white "taxidermist" in the new millennium, that it is also about "home" and about the movement toward home. The poem is about the present and the future. It is in some ways a dead poem because that present is in the past, but that future, that will "come, come, come out," is still happening. The poem, it turns out, isn't as dead, or wrong-headed, or agit-prop, as one might argue. It is that piece of language split in two that is the mantra for the birth of a nation to "BE," and it remains powerful for what it "BE COMES"—a signifier in which a single word is destroyed, razed, to be come a word that builds and raises.

* * *

I conclude with a train and not a whale, a reference to a fellow Ohioan, John Parker, and not a dead old skin one can get caught in and caught up in, but a jail. In each "Y's" of the Griot's Song Wise, Why's, Y's, we find a parenthetical reference to musical accompaniment.

In "History-Wise #22" it is the "Black Mountain Blues" of Bessie Smith (famous in Baraka's opus for what Clay says she's saying when she sings). There in Bessie's song about Black Mountain, we find the jail (and we also find in the very title, "Black Mountain Blues," a reference to a poetry movement which was, in a way, a jail from which LeRoi Jones sprang). And in the fourteenth line of the poem we find John Parker, a fearless engineer on the underground railroad, and it doesn't take much thought to figure out what t-r-a-i-n(s) / t-r-a-n-e(s) we might be riding. This is just one more poem where we see in the poem its own making. We can see what happened before the poem in the white space and the history referred to, and in the words and their form; we can see the poem's history and process and performance.

Now, imagine Bessie Smith singing about a horrible upside down place. A place where everything is violent and terribly wrong,

Back in Black Mountain
a child will smack your face.
Babies crying for liquor
and all the birds sing bass.
 
          (Cole in Harry's Blues Lyrics)

while the poet transforms the poem into a train:

           The
           real
           sub
           way
           Ms. "Moses" Streamliner
           John Parker's Darker
Sparker
 
          (83)

The underground railroad is put on the rails and hurtles along the tracks. But the most amazing thing about the poem is the way it ends. The poem ends with one of the biggest "Why's" of all: W-H-Y-Y-Y-Y-Y is wailed out as only a train can. It is a profound wail of agony, questioning, and celebration. It is a poem easily made alive by any taxidermist. It is a poem in constant motion. It is a poem of slavery, a poem about getting out of prison, but, most importantly, a poem that asks profoundly: Why the prison? why the train? at all.

* * *

And what is the taxidermist's purchase in all of this? It is that Baraka's poetry, when discussed and written about, involves arranging skin, seeing and being the hunter and the hunted, understanding that the name of the man who wrote the poem has changed and changed and changed again. That the poem is simply the artifact of a process still in motion. That when reading Baraka's work, we must take perhaps the most potent play of language he's given us to heart. Imamu suggests, "I'm am You"—Imamu—"I'm am You." Whether we are white, black, brown, red, or yellow, we must read his work as if we wrote it, say it like we mean it, and sing it like we think it should be sung.

Works Cited

Baraka, Amiri (LeRoi Jones). Home: Social Essays. New York: Morrow, 1963.

———. It's Nation Time. Chicago: Third World P, 1970.

———. Transbluesency. New York: Marlilio, 1995.

———. Wise, Why's, Y's. Chicago: Third World P, 1995.

Cole, H. "Black Mountain Blues." Harry's Blues Lyrics & Tabs Online. 21 Jan. 2002. http://blueslyrics.tripod.com/lyrics/janis_joplin/black_mountain_blues.htm

Harris, William J. The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1985.

Horace. "The Art of Poetry." Trans. Burton Raffel. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David Richter. New York: St. Martin's P, 1989. 69.

Henderson, Stephen. Understanding the New Black Poetry. New York: Morrow, 1973.

Reilly, Charlie, ed. Conversations with Amiri Baraka. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1994.

FURTHER READING

Criticism

Epstein, Andrew. "Amiri Baraka and the Poetics of Turning Away." In Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry, pp. 166-93. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Perceives the concept of "turning away" from stasis and the embrace of reinvention and evolution as central to Baraka'a life and work.

Gwiazda, Piotr. "The Aesthetics of Politics/The Politics of Aesthetics: Amiri Baraka's ‘Somebody Blew up America.’" Contemporary Literature 45, no. 3 (autumn 2004): 460-85.

Examines the controversy surrounding the post-September 11 poem "Somebody Blew up America," noting that "the way in which the episode has played out among government officials, the news media, and the general audience brings to the forefront some of the more troubling aspects of poetry's current isolation from the mainstream of American culture."

Piggford, George. "Looking into Black Skulls: Amiri Baraka's Dutchman and the Psychology of Race." Modern Drama 40, no. 1 (spring 1997): 74-85.

Interprets Dutchman as a call to overthrow a white-dominated social order and finds the play to be Baraka's attempt to "psychoanalyze the black male in America."

Shannon, Sandra G. "Manipulating Myth, Magic, and Legend: Amiri Baraka's Black Mass." CLA Journal 39, no. 3 (March 1996): 357-68.

Outlines the myriad techniques Baraka utilizes in his play Black Mass to instigate a sense of cultural nationalism in African Americans.

Watts, Jerry Gafio. Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual. New York: New York University Press, 2001, 577 p.

Full-length study of Baraka's politics and literary work.

Additional coverage of Baraka's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: African American Writers, Eds. 1, 2; American Writers Supplement, Vol. 2; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 63; Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 1:1; Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1941-1968; Concise Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Contemporary American Dramatists; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 21-24R; Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 27, 38, 61, 133; Contemporary Dramatists, Eds. 3, 5, 6; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 10, 14, 33, 115, 213; Contemporary Poets, Eds. 4, 5, 6, 7; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 5, 7, 16, 38; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 8; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-Studied Authors, Multicultural Writers, Poets, and Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; Drama Criticism, Vol. 6; Drama for Students, Vols. 3, 11, 16; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Major 21st-Century Writers, 2005; Modern American Literature, Ed. 5; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 4; Poetry for Students, Vol. 9; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Twayne Companion to Contemporary Literature in English, 1:1; Twayne's United States Authors; World Literature Criticism Supplement; and World Poets.

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