Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
In “An Agony. As Now,” from The Dead Lecturer (1964), Baraka describes in sensuous phrases his emotional and spiritual paralysis. The title of this poetry collection is a reference to the attempted suicide of the speaker. His sense of dissociation from the self who hates him is a normal part of the recovery process; however, Baraka adds another level of meaning. The inverted symbolism of white implies that assimilation, voluntary or involuntary, is a significant factor of the imprisonment.
Openings in the mask allow the persona to see, but the metal prevents any human contact. Introspectively addressing his ruminations to the soul he has sightlessly abandoned, he recalls a woman who ran from him to the forest of white “civilization” and a man decaying from psychic paralysis, “never beautiful.” The speaker’s mind races unencumbered to the sun in a series of associational images that offer a brief hope for resurrection with fragmented water imagery. Nevertheless, the torment escalates as he recognizes the corruption surrounding him. The sun is love, self-actualization, God, but the poet is trapped within himself and does not know how to reach the love, despite his need. Therefore, the sun reaches out to him, heating his white metal shell and burning awareness into him. His final scream is a scream of self-realization, a moment of truth, in which he relinquishes his detachment and accepts himself.
Baraka’s characteristic devices include the use of open parentheses and commas to stop his reader and to increase the associational possibilities of his phrasing. Inverted symbolism and the repetition of key words and phrases reinforce his meaning as he guides his reader on a journey from mind, through sun, God, and soul, to beauty. The speaker’s shell is the corrupting veneer of white civilization. To acknowledge his true identity, the black poet must reject the easy answers and accept his black consciousness as beautiful. Only after he destroys the facade will he again feel.
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Benston, Kimberly W. Baraka: The Renegade and the Mask. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1976.
Benston, Kimberly, W., ed. Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones): A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1978.
Brown, Lloyd W. Amiri Baraka. Boston: Twayne, 1980.
Fox, Robert Elliot. “LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka: A Scripture of Rhythms.” In Conscientious Sorcerors: The Black Postmodernist Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, and Samuel R. Delany. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.
Harris, William J. The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986.
Hudson, Theodore R. From LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka: The Literary Works. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1973.
Lacey, Henry C. To Raise, Destroy, and Create: The Poetry, Drama, and Fiction of Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones). Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1981.
Watts, Jerry G. Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual. New York: New York University Press, 2001.
Woodard, Komozi. A Nation Within a Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black Power Politics. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.