Amiri Baraka Essay - Critical Essays

Amiri Baraka American Literature Analysis

Baraka’s writings divide into three distinctive patterns according to both form and content. His first literary period, although sometimes unconventional in dramatic subject matter, is his most conventional in form. Written under the name LeRoi Jones, the work of this early period is distinguished by a preoccupation with self-identity as well as a nascent concern for the lack of a collective black consciousness.

The work of his second literary period, during which he had begun to write as Imamu Amiri Baraka, is more experimental in form and is marked by strong advocacy of black separatism. A romantic with a profound belief in humankind’s spiritual potential, the Baraka of this period sees whites as having distorted their spiritual capacities into materialistic oppression; therefore, he advocates the extinction of the white race (and its cultural artifacts) and the creation of a new black world. To that end, Baraka seeks to raise his readers’ consciousness of history amid racial identity so that, through dramatic involvement, they will be moved to active resistance.

The characteristics of this period (Baraka’s most universally acclaimed) are based upon his belief that art is a dynamic, utilitarian process that must have an integral role in any “living” black community by virtue of the experiences it offers for growth. The white culture, according to Baraka, has already self-destructed from a pervasive, incurable emotional and spiritual paralysis.

Consequently, Baraka rejects white American English through the re-creation of black speech patterns, whose words and sounds combine synergistically to produce a challenging syntax and a lyrical dramatic rhythm. Unlike his goal during his first literary period, Baraka’s intent at this stage is predominantly ethnocentric. He employs inflammatory and obscene language to startle his readers, to force their emotional awareness. Perceiving violence as the only viable means to black rebirth, Baraka consciously chooses a multisensory, surrealistic style that can assault his audience. His dramatization of historical injustices is uncompromising, as are his solutions. Furthermore, his consuming hatred of whites exacerbates the violence he advocates. His concern for the black oppressed is balanced to some degree by his affirmation that blacks, as the superior race, can overcome their oppressors and can establish self-sufficiency.

Baraka’s need to disavow the deceit and the deadliness he believes to be inherent in white English gradually leads to increased literary experimentation. Generally, his punctuation and his capitalization become extreme; for example, he uses open parentheses and diagonals for pauses. He may capitalize every letter of a word for emphasis, spell phonetically, invent abbreviations, and pun. Another characteristic is his extensive use of present participles to connote the dynamic process of living.

In Baraka’s nonfiction prose, he intermittently breaks the convolutions of his lengthy sentences with sentence fragments and asides addressed to the reader. His fiction is associational rather than chronological in content. In his poetry, he seeks the purest expression of his “beingness” by extending his verbal inventiveness, at times to the point of unintelligibility. His inversion of traditional symbols is particularly noteworthy. For example, the white god-figure and his dictums are false, created by the white race to victimize others; therefore, the sun, traditionally life-giving, becomes a symbol of black spiritual energy and a mortal threat to whites.

Slave Ship: A Historical Pageant (1967) is representative of his separatist ritual drama. As is typical of black nationalist theater, physical and emotional violence is portrayed in a series of evocative slave images meant to draw audience response on an emotional level. With little dialogue, the playscript depends heavily upon music, dance, sounds, and lighting to build—through horrifying black experiences—to the final affirmation of black beauty and power. When cast and audience unite, however, Baraka’s script calls for a disembodied head to be thrown amid the celebration, a graphic reminder that the struggle has not ended.

Baraka’s third literary phase is characteristically Marxist; he no longer uses Imamu as a part of his name. He seeks an intellectual rather than an emotional response to his writing. His style is didactic and propagandizing, and he has enlarged the scope of his concern from a focus on black cultural victimization and racial identity to a socialistic focus on the world’s oppressed. Instead of denouncing whites as the cause of America’s ills, Baraka defends all who have been victimized, regardless of race, and blames the world’s “dis-ease” on capitalists and imperialists. This does not, however, mean that he has abandoned his active participation in creating a unified black world of self-determination and nonoppression; in his third literary period he sees black nationalism being achieved as only one consequence of an inevitable socialist revolution.


First produced: 1964 (first published, 1964)

Type of work: Play

On the New York subway, Lula, a thirty-year-old white woman, seduces and murders Clay, a twenty-year-old black man.

Dutchman, winner of the 1964 Obie Award for best Off-Broadway production, is a riveting dramatization of psychosexual, interracial tensions. The title bears mythical implications, supported by Baraka’s own stage directions, which indicate a subway setting filled with modern myth. Despite Baraka’s insistence that the two main characters are individuals, not allegorical creations, he confines them within this subterranean set. The Dutch sailed the first slave-bearing vessel to the American colonies. The legend of The Flying Dutchman is one of a ship cursed to sail the seas eternally without ever finding safe harbor. Even if the first were a simple allusion, together these suggest that white America has doomed itself through its nonrecognition of blacks as human. If so, Lula, as the white representative, will inhabit the subway, preying upon her black victims until one galvanizes himself into action, freeing himself...

(The entire section is 2568 words.)