Baraka, Amiri (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Amiri Baraka 1934–
(Born Everett LeRoy Jones; has also written as LeRoi Jones and Imamu Amiri Baraka) American poet, dramatist, short story writer, novelist, essayist, critic, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Baraka's career through 1997. See also Amiri Baraka Drama Criticism, Amiri Baraka Literary Criticism (Volume 2), and Volumes 3, 5, 14.
A seminal figure in the development of contemporary black literature, Baraka is a controversial writer. His career has encompassed the Beat movement, black nationalism, and the tenets of Marxist-Leninist philosophy, and his verse is imbued with such concerns as cultural alienation, racial tension and conflict, and the necessity for social change through revolutionary means. According to some scholars, he succeeded James Baldwin and Richard Wright as one of the most prolific and persistent critics of post-World War II America. Having rejected Western values, Baraka endeavors to create art with a firm didactic purpose: to forge a viable art form that reflects the true values of the African-American community and of oppressed peoples throughout the world.
Born in 1934 as Everett LeRoy Jones in Newark, New Jersey, Baraka spent his early childhood creating comic strips and writing science fiction. At school Baraka excelled in his studies, graduating from high school at the age of fifteen. He enrolled in Howard University in 1952 and just before beginning his first year, started spelling his name LeRoi. At Howard, Baraka studied with such noted black scholars as E. Franklin Frazier, Nathan A. Scott, Jr., and Sterling A. Brown who is regarded as the patriarch of African-American literary critics. Despite these exceptional teachers, Baraka found Howard University stifling and flunked out in 1954. He then joined the United States Air Force. In 1957, after being dishonorably discharged, he moved to New York's Greenwich Village and became part of the Beat movement. That same year he married Hettie Roberta Cohen and together they founded Yugen, a magazine forum for Beat poetry. During the next few years, he also established himself as a music critic, writing about jazz for downbeat, Metronome, and the Jazz Review. Baraka first received critical acclaim as a poet, for his collection Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note …, which was published in 1961. In 1960, Baraka was invited to Cuba by the New York chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. Baraka began to make it his life's work to incorporate his political, social, and spiritual beliefs into his writing. No longer content with art for art's sake, Baraka would use poetry and drama to teach people, opening their eyes to reality as he saw it. Following the murder of Black Muslim leader Malcolm X in 1965, Baraka divorced his white, Jewish wife and moved to Harlem. He dissociated from white people and dedicated himself to creating works that were inspired by and spoke to the African-American community. This same year, he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School in Harlem. He married Sylvia Robinson (she later changed her name to Amina Baraka), a black woman, in 1966. Around this time, Baraka's hatred of whites peaked. When a white woman asked him what whites could do to help blacks, he retorted, "You can help by dying. You are a cancer." In 1968 he converted to Islam and changed his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka, meaning "blessed spiritual leader." In 1974, in another radical shift, Baraka dropped the spiritual title of Imamu and declared himself an adherent of Marxist-Leninist thought. Rejecting Black Nationalism as racist in its implications, he now advocated socialism as a viable solution to the problems in America. He also repudiated his past anti-Semitic and anti-white statements. He concluded: "Nationalism, so-called, when it says 'all non-blacks are our enemies,' is sickness or criminality, in fact a form of fascism." In the fall of 1979, he joined the Africana Studies Department at State University of New York at Stony Brook as a teacher of creative writing. In 1979, as reported by William J. Harris in his 1985 retrospective study of Baraka and his work, "[Baraka] was arrested after two policemen allegedly attempted to intercede in a dispute between him and his wife over the price of children's shoes." While serving his sentence at a Harlem halfway house, Baraka wrote The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (1984). Since then he has written "Why's/Wise" (1985), an epic poem; The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues (1987) with his wife Amina Baraka; and "Reflections" (1988), a poem published in the periodical Black Scholar.
A sense of rebellion is the one consistent theme throughout Baraka's canon. Following the Beats' abandonment of traditional poetic structure and adopting their free use of slang, Baraka earned praise and respect as a poet with his first volume of poetry, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note…. This volume reflects the influence of "Howl" author Allen Ginsberg's poetry and Charles Olson's projective verse theory, which rejects closed, traditional forms in favor of what Olson termed "composition by field." In this collection, Baraka satirizes various aspects of post-World War II popular culture, particularly the heroic cowboys and comic book superheroes. The majority of the poems, however, discuss concerns typical of the bohemian milieu Baraka identified with, including themes of dislocation and detachment from mainstream society. Also in 1961, Baraka published Cuba Libre, an essay describing his trip to Cuba to join in the anniversary celebration of Fidel Castro's first revolutionary attempt. During this period of Baraka's metamorphosis from literary bohemian to black nationalist, he published some of his best-known works, including an analysis of contemporary black music, Blues People…. Negro Music in White America (1963), and a second volume of poetry, The Dead Lecturer (1964). Although Baraka wrote a number of plays during this period, Dutchman (1964) is widely considered his masterpiece. The play received the Obie Award for best Off-Broadway play and brought Baraka to the attention of the American public. Involving a conflict between a black middle-class college student and a flirtatious white woman, Dutchman is said to mark the emergence of Baraka's heightened racial awareness. The Slave (1964) also demonstrates the philosophical change Baraka was undergoing. This play revolves around a black revolutionary leader who confronts his ex-wife and her husband, both of whom are white. Another 1964 drama, The Toilet, concerned a white homosexual boy who is beaten up by a gang of black boys. After Baraka severed all of his ties with white people and culture, his writings, with increasingly violent overtones, called for blacks to unite and establish their own nation. Experimenting with ritual forms in his drama, he penned Slave Ship (1967), a recreation of the wretched circumstances experienced by enslaved Africans during their passage to America. Other works written during Baraka's black nationalist period are The System of Dante's Hell (1965), his only novel, and Tales (1967), a collection of short stories. After Baraka aligned himself with the socialist philosophy, his works began to call for a working-class revolt against the bourgeoisie. Baraka's works in this vein include Hard Facts: Excerpts (1975), a volume of poetry that includes several poems which accuse well-known black artists and activists of self-promotion—disguisedas nationalism—at the expense of working class African Americans. Baraka's dramas since 1974, including S-1 (1978), The Motion of History (1978), and The Sidney Poet Heroical (1979), reflect his commitments to Marxist-Leninist-Maoist thought and Communism. S-1 and The Motion of History are reminiscent of the agitprop dramas of the 1930s, particularly in their appeals to working-class solidarity and in their suggestion that working class revolution is society's only hope.
Baraka's first volume of poetry, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note …, met with general approval for its unconventional style and language. Critics would later observe that this is the only work of Baraka's that is "free from ethnic torment." Dutchman, Baraka's most widely studied and well received work, was acknowledged by Norman Mailer as "the best play in America." While some critics praised Dutchman for its "power," "freshness," and "deadly wit," others expressed outrage at its language, what they perceived as its perpetuation of interracial hostility, and its portrayal of whites. Baraka's next plays, The Slave and The Toilet, also met with mixed reviews. The latter play was described by one reviewer as an "obscene, scatological, bloody confrontation of the races in a school lavatory." Critic C. W. E. Bigsby called it "a barely stageable homosexual fantasy in which the setting is a urinal and the theme of the sexual nature of violence and the degradation of the white world." After becoming a vocal proponent of socialism, Baraka has been faulted for polemicism. In his study, Harris observed that assessment of Baraka has fallen into two general camps: "The white response … has been either silence or anger—and, in a few cases, sadness…. One general complaint is that Baraka has forsaken art for politics…. Another common accusation holds that Baraka used to be a good poet before he became a virulent racist. The reaction to Baraka in most of the black world has been very different from that in the white. In the black world Baraka is a famous artist. He is regarded as a father by the younger generation of poets; he is quoted in the streets—a fame almost never claimed by an American poet…." Many critics maintain that audiences bristle at Baraka's depictions of "white America," because he mirrors the ugly and hideous facets of American society.
∗A Good Girl Is Hard to Find (drama) 1958
∗Cuba Libre (essay) 1961
∗Dante (drama) 1961; also produced as The Eighth Ditch, 1964
∗Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note…. (poetry) 1961
∗Blues People: Negro Music in White America (essay) 1963
∗The Moderns: An Anthology of New Writing in America [editor] (anthology) 1963
∗The Baptism (drama) 1964
∗The Dead Lecturer: Poems (poetry) 1964
∗Dutchman (drama) 1964
∗The Slave (drama) 1964
∗The Toilet (drama) 1964
∗Experimental Death Unit #1 (drama) 1965
∗J-E-L-L-O (drama) 1965
∗The System of Dante's Hell (novel) 1965
∗A Black Mass (drama) 1966
∗Home: Social Essays (essays) 1966
Baptism (drama) 1966
Black Art (poetry) 1967
Black Music (essay) 1967
Madheart: A Morality Play (drama) 1967
Slave Ship: A Historical Pageant (drama) 1967
Tales (short stories) 1967
Black Spring (screenplay) 1968
Home on the Range (drama) 1968
Police (drama) 1968
Black Magic: Sabotage, Target Study, Black Art; Collected Poetry, 1961–1967 (poetry) 1969
Bloodrites (drama) 1970
It's Nation Time (poetry)...
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SOURCE: An interview in The Sullen Art: Interviews by David Ossman with Modern American Poets, Corinth Books, 1963, pp. 77-81.
[In the following interview, Baraka discusses his magazine, Yugen, his poetry, and his various literary influences.]
Jones published only two more issues of Yugen after his interview was recorded early in 1960. Since then, he has co-edited The Floating Bear and has seen Corinth's publication of his first book of poems, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, in association with his own Totem Press. Morrow has scheduled his study, Blues, Black & White America and Grove will do his System of Dante's Inferno. He continues working on prose, plays and on poems for a second collection.
[Ossman:] Yours seems to be one of the three or four "clique" magazines around today, in that if publishes a fairly restricted group of so-called "beat," "San Francisco" and New York writers. Why do you publish this group—this "stable" of writers?
[Baraka:] Well, it does seem to fall that way. But for a long time Dr. Williams couldn't get into the Hudson Review, and several other mature, older poets like Kenneth Patchen were never admitted there or in magazines like the Partisan Review or Sewanee. If those editors had a literary point of view in excluding their work, then I feel I have as much...
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SOURCE: "Blues People," in The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, edited and with an introduction by John F. Callahan, The Modern Library, 1995, pp. 278-87.
[In the following review, which originally appeared in The New York Review on February 6, 1964, Ellison points to both positive and negative aspects of Blues People.]
In his introduction to Blues People LeRoi Jones advises us to approach the work as
… a strictly theoretical endeavor. Theoretical, in that none of the questions it poses can be said to have been answered definitely or for all time (sic!), etc. In fact, the whole book proposes more questions than it will answer. The only questions it will properly move to answer have, I think, been answered already within the patterns of American life. We need only give these patterns serious scrutiny and draw certain permissible conclusions.
It is a useful warning and one hopes that it will be regarded by those jazz publicists who have the quite irresponsible habit of sweeping up any novel pronouncement written about jazz and slapping it upon the first available record liner as the latest insight into the mysteries of American Negro expression.
Jones would take his subject seriously—as the best of jazz critics have always done—and he himself should be so taken. He has attempted to place the...
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SOURCE: "Amiri Baraka: Revolutionary Traditions," in Heroism in the New Black Poetry: Introductions and Interviews, University Press of Kentucky, 1990, pp. 215-63.
[In the following interview, conducted in 1982 by D. H. Melhem and Michael Bezdek, Baraka discusses a variety of topics including his upbringing, his work, and his views on art and politics.]
Since the early 1960s, the figure to be reckoned with in Black political life and art has been Amiri Baraka. Controversial, responsive to changing social ambience, he has articulated the riotous "language of the unheard" (to invoke Martin Luther King's definition once again) within a vernacular and a new idiom of radical solutions. A founder of the Black Arts Movement of the sixties, he propounded a view that was, as the late Larry Neal put it, "radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community … the Black Arts Movement believes that your ethics and your aesthetics are one." Baraka's impact has been such that as early as 1973, Donald B. Gibson placed him among "major influences on black poetry: (1) the Harlem Renaissance of the twenties; (2) the protest writing of the thirties as reflected in the work of Richard Wright; (3) the beat movement of the fifties; (4) the life and work of a single poet, Amiri Baraka."
Amiri Baraka was born Everett Leroy Jones in Newark, New Jersey, on October 7, 1934, to...
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SOURCE: "Several Lives, Several Voices," in New York Times Book Review, March 11, 1984, pp. 11-12.
[In the following review, Gates outlines The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones.]
When I first met his father, Coyette Leroy Jones, I was shocked by his striking resemblance to his son. Amiri Baraka locates his first identity through this resemblance to his father: "That I was short and skinny with big eyes and looked just like my father. These were the most indelible. My earliest identity." If that's true then for much of a half-century, it is fair to say, he has been running away from that very identity.
LeRoi Jones predicted as much, even as early as 1964 when he wrote in "The Liar": "When they say, 'It is Roi / who is dead?' I wonder / who they will mean?" Anyone else who had hoped that his autobiography would at last answer this rhetorical question will be disappointed. What emerges here is not a unified, coherent pattern of a life, but reconstructions of a series of lives or selves, the lives of LeRoi Amiri Baraka Jones.
LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka is, without question, one of the most prolific Afro-American authors. In addition to his autobiography, he has published books of poetry, a novel and a collection of short stories, five books of essays, two books analyzing black music, 24 plays and four anthologies—all in the last 23 years. He has been a most mutable political...
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SOURCE: "Amiri Baraka on Directing," in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 21, No. 4, Winter, 1987, pp. 425-33.
[In the following interview, Baraka discusses his work as a director and his views on directing.]
Amiri Baraks is an artist of the 1960s' political scene still hard at work in the 1980s. Playwright, poet, political activist, Marxist, anti-Semitic, anti-feminist have all been used to label him, yet a less controversial label is often ignored—director. Most noted for his plays Dutchman and The Stave, Baraka has done some of his own directing and collaborated with directors such as Gilbert Moses, Jerry Benjamin, Jim Malette, Kdward Parone, Ernie McClintock, Irving Vincent, and Leo Garen in staging his Revolutionary Theater of the 1960s' Black Arts and Civil Rights movements.
In a recent interview at his office at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he is Director of Africana Studies, Baraka discussed several of his 1960s' plays from a director's perspective. Undoubtedly, he has been both impressed and skeptical about how his works have fared in the hands of other directors. What follows is a revelation of Baraka's own vision as director.
[Shannon:] The questions that I'd like to ask you today are specifically oriented toward directing. My first question is this: I see that you have directed several of your own sixties'...
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SOURCE: A review of The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 29, 1987, p. 6.
[In the following review, Ramsey offers a mixed assessment of The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues.]
When Amiri Baraka listens to music, he hears things that might escape us if we could not depend upon him to point them out with his eloquent insistence, indignation and anger. He hears political oppression, capitalist exploitation, racist duplicity and class struggle. The beauty in the works of the great jazz masters comes to him transformed through Marxist-Leninist dialectic into ideology and sociology. That may seem a grim and joyless route to music appreciation, but Baraka has been following it for more than a quarter of a century in poetry, plays, essays, reviews and album liner notes.
[The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues] is made up of work from each of those categories. It has the brilliance of Baraka at his analytical best, with musical and extra-musical considerations in balance, as in his essay on Miles Davis. It also has him at his polemical worst, as in this passage, from a piece about the drummer Max Roach on commercial exploitation of innovations by the great creative giants of black music: "And each time, the same corporations that had got over exploiting the African's tragic willingness to sell off pieces of weself [sic] to anybody...
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SOURCE: A review of Transbluency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1961–1995), in American Book Review, Vol. 17, No. 3, February-March, 1996, pp. 7, 30.
[In the following review, Wallenstein provides a positive assessment of Transbluency.]
Deeply political, Amiri Baraka writes poems that have bothered many, reflecting as they do his dream of revolution, where the social orders will be recast, the races realigned. Much of his work is topical, written for the moment, and, as with agitprop verse, it's run the danger of becoming an historical footnote. Perhaps to consciously counter this eventuality, Baraka has placed musicality at the center of his efforts as a poet. He has often stated his aesthetic or purpose: "The poetry I want to write is oral by tradition, mass aimed as its fundamental functional motive."
Paul Vangelisti, the editor of Transbluency, divides the selected poetry into three periods, the Beat, Black Nationalism, and, finally, Third World Socialism. Baraka's "lyrical realism" is a stylistic constant, and his "political avant-garde[ism]" is the impulse that holds the work together. Almost from the beginning, the poetry is infused with the poet's emotional conflict between his racial culture and his self-recognition as an educated black man having come of age within a white culture. He copes with this dichotomy in a variety of ways, from...
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SOURCE: "Manipulating Myth, Magic, and Legend: Amiri Baraka's Black Mass," in CLA Journal, Vol. 39, March, 1996, pp. 357-68.
[In the following essay, Shannon illustrates how Baraka drew upon myths, traditional symbols, popular literature, and established institutions in Black Mass.]
The assassination of Malcolm X on February 21, 1965, profoundly affected Amiri Baraka and gave fuel to his developing nationalist position. What resulted was a more focused appeal to the cultural consciousness of exclusively African-American audiences and a need for an experimental theatre. Inspired by the martyred Malcolm X, Baraka abandoned the restraints of self-defeating naturalistic themes and featured instead the uncompromising African-American hero; he satirized the racist aspects of popular white culture and, in so doing, sought to reverse the brain-washing trend among members of his African-American audiences; he parodied repressive African-American status symbols and institutions; and, above all, he exposed African-American viewers to positive images of themselves using the very same tokens of their oppression. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in his 1965 play Black Mass, written while he was based at the Black Arts Theater School in Harlem.
The play, which uses the Nation of Islam's myth of the origin of the white species as a story line, represents an eclectic array of...
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SOURCE: "Looking into Black Skulls: Amiri Baraka's Dutchman and the Psychology of Race," in Modern Drama, Vol. XL, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 74-82.
[In the following essay, Piggford explores Baraka's psychological analysis of black American men in Dutchman.]
Houston A. Baker, Jr. has rightly observed [in The Journey Back: Issues in Black Literature and Criticism, 1980] that "the radical chic denizens of Bohemia [and] the casual liberals of the academy" have never recognized LeRoi Jones's/Amiri Baraka's achievement as a playwright and a poet because his "brilliantly projected conception of black as country—a separate and progressive nation with values antithetical to those of white America—stands in marked contrast to the ideas set forth by Baldwin, Wright. Ellison, and others in the fifties." That is, according to the integrationist politics that continue to dominate discussions of race in the United States, what we might in the 1990s call the "African-American problem" is indeed seen as the African-American's problem to examine and solve, not the white's. Baraka's Black Power political agenda, which perceives the United States as a society at least as black as it is white, a country built on "oppression and destruction," stands in marked contrast to the general integrationist bent of American racial politics. The call to revolutionary action inscribed into his drama demands a...
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SOURCE: "Amiri Baraka: Angry Young Men," in Staging Masculinity: Male Identity in Contemporary American Drama, McFarland & Company, 1997, pp. 30-2.
[In the following excerpt from her Staging Masculinity, McDonough studies Baraka's treatment of black manhood in his works.]
While [Eugene] O'Neill, [Arthur] Miller, and [Tennessee] Williams were produced chiefly on the main stages of Broadway, the avant-garde, off-Broadway plays of Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), which were often written within and for the Black Revolutionary theater, became a powerful voice for issues of race within American culture, an issue that is at the heart of American identity. His confrontational style of theater is at the forefront of the 1960s off-off-Broadway movement that cultivated Shepard and opened the way for … other dramatists…. Baraka's theater, however, is distinctly masculine in its orientation, as Michele Wallace's Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman has so vividly and controversially demonstrated. Wallace argues that, like many other leaders of the Black Power movement, Baraka's fight for black power and black liberation in his plays and essays is focused chiefly on black manhood. Referring to Baraka's essay "American Sexual Reference: Black Male," which opens with the statement "Most American white men are trained to be fags" [Home: Social Essays, 1966], Wallace shows that "according to...
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Andrews, W. D. E. "The Marxist Theater of Amiri Baraka." Comparative Drama 18 (Summer 1984): 137-60.
Examines how Baraka's Marxist ideology is reflected in his plays.
Bone, Robert. "Action and Reaction." New York Times Book Review (8 May 1966): 3.
A negative assessment of Home: Social Essays.
Casimer, Louis J., Jr. "Dutchman: The Price of Culture Is a Lie." In The Binding of Proteus, edited by Marjorie W. McCune, Tucker Orbison, and Philip M. Withim, pp. 298-310. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1980.
Studies the treatment of myth and ritual in Dutchman.
Coles, Robert. "More Exiles." In Times of Surrender: Selected Essays, pp. 151-53. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1988.
A mixed assessment of Blues People.
Dieke, Ikenna. "Sadeanism: Baraka, Sexuality, and The Perverse Imagination in The System of Dante's Hell." Black American Literature Forum 19, No. 4 (Winter 1985): 163-66.
Explores the influence of the works of the Marquis de Sade on Baraka's works.
Van Duyn, Mona. "The Poet as...
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