The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Essay - Critical Essays

Amiri Baraka


In his preface, Baraka states his intention to add understanding “where it has been difficult to see any sense.” He promises to take the reader from childhood (“a mist in which a you is moving to become another you”) to adulthood. Although the book was written, at least partially, as a response to critics and was intended for adult readers, it is a literary and cultural autobiography of interest to older teenage readers because of its subject matter and its lively prose style.

The strength of The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka is that it details textbook issues—the story of an outstanding African American in a landmark period of change. Baraka illuminates these times from the inside through a kinetic, jazz-oriented prose. The sheer volume of uncensored facts, scenes, memories, and conversations makes the story “messy” and, thus, lifelike.

Though the autobiography is in continual touch with cultural, political, and poetic issues, the story never strays from one man’s voice, first as a child and an adolescent in the intimacy of family, neighborhood, and school and later as an adult in the rough-and-tumble turbulence of fighting the established order. Using his own hip, poetic language, Baraka does not pretend to be objective. Rather, his approach focuses on retelling significant moments of self-discovery and on critically commenting on his actions.

Young adults will appreciate Baraka’s focus on the process of growth and discovery. For Baraka, as for most adolescents, growth occurred in spurts—with the influence of wars, politics, music, friends, and books. The autobiography’s tone and style shift as Baraka enters each new stage of his life. Though each...

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