(Everett) LeRoi Jones Essay - Critical Essays

Jones, (Everett) LeRoi

Jones, (Everett) LeRoi 1934–

A Black American poet and playwright, Jones is now using the name Imamu Amiri Baraka. He is the author of Dutchman, The Slave, and The System of Dante's Hell. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

In 1965, LeRoi Jones was a young, black, literary lion…. While in 1965 and into 1966 he kept cursing, ranting and raving and writing about himself, about beautiful black and hateful white America, for his efforts he received the John Hay Whitney Award, became a Guggenheim Fellow, taught classes at the New School for Social Research and at Columbia University. He was laved with cocktail party love and lionized with literary laurels and cash monies.

At first, the blasé New York culture scene was titillated by his maledictions. He was invited to all the enchanted-circle beautiful-people parties, literary events, show business orgies, and hip gatherings. The more he attacked white society, the more white society patronized him. Who'd have suspected that there was so much money to be made from flagellation? Whitey seemed insatiable; the masochistic vein was a source of hitherto untapped appeal, big box office stuff, and LeRoi Jones was one of the very first to exploit it.

Naturally the smart money crowd, the commercial-intellectual establishment, decided he was running a game, that he was into a gimmick, a commercial pose, a successful device. After all, LeRoi had been around the Village for years, had run with the white beatniks in the early '50s, had married a white Jewish girl. So how could he really mean what he was saying? Actually mean it…? In 1965, black and white men of good will were integrating the South together. Civil rights was still a possibility. So how could LeRoi be so serious? He was ours. Wasn't he?

He wasn't, and he w as serious. He demonstrated this fact by an act that not even the cynical New York art world could pass off as a publicity bit or another tasteless tantrum. Jones, on the very brink of the American dream of fame and fortune, withdrew from the magic circle and went uptown. All the way uptown—to Harlem—leaving the high art scene to his white colleagues. The intellectual establishment could and did take the insults, obscenities, bad manners and name calling. But what was unforgivable, the one thing they couldn't take, was to be deserted, stood up. LeRoi Jones left them….

But what is the purpose of Jones? Obviously, not what it seems, for LeRoi Jones is obviously not what he seems. He is no martyr, unless we martyr him. Neither is he a black bogey-man, a Mau-Mau monster or, as several of his former white friends have described him, a bad-talking clown. He is a poet, a playwright, a conscience, a consciousness.

Stephen Schneck, "LeRoi Jones; or, Poetics & Policemen or, Trying Heart, Bleeding Heart," in Ramparts, June 29, 1968, pp. 14-19.

It is the compulsive, genocidal nature of the society diagnosed by Jones which accounts for the dismal prediction which Clay's murder symbolizes [in Dutchman]. If the pattern is to be broken at all, the play suggests, it must be broken by a black man who, unlike Clay, rejects Lula and a degrading masochistic identity before it is too late.

It is to the unconsciously racist society that the title Dutchman probably refers. A "Dutchman" in underworld jargon is a killer whose duties include disposing of the corpse. In the murder carried out by Lula, the unpreparedness of Clay, and the disposal of the body by the anonymous riders of the train, Jones portrays the behavior of a collective Dutchman, whose action has the logic and relentless appearance of premeditation, although it is actually subconscious and compulsive. The essentially sick and guilt-ridden behavior of American white society and the hidden anger and self-hatred of black America are strikingly exposed.

Julian C. Rice, "LeRoi Jones' Dutchman: A Reading," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 12, No. 1, 1971 (© 1971 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), pp. 42-59.

LeRoi Jones, one of the most talented black writers of the sixties, has expressed [an] antimainstream aesthetic in his essays, poems, and dramas; and an increasing number of talented young black authors seem to be following Jones's lead…. The works of LeRoi Jones constitute the finest literary results of this revolutionary aesthetic. Jones's poems dislocate, they force language into new meanings in a truly Eliotian fashion, and his dramas—notably Dutchman and The Slave—show a fine technical control and a sometimes startling sense of idiomatic rhythms…. Despite the fact that Jones's work does not bring us to the doorstep of this very day in the history of black American literature,… surely we can say that Jones's craftsmanship, command of language, and range have not been transcended by a more recent black American author.

Houston A. Baker, Jr., in his Black Literature in America, McGraw, 1971, p. 18.