Baraka, Imamu Amiri (Vol. 10)
Baraka, Imamu Amiri 1934–
Baraka, formerly known as LeRoi Jones, is an American poet, playwright, short story writer, essayist, jazz critic, and editor. Baraka's subject is the oppression of blacks in white society and his work an intense emotional response to this condition. He received acclaim for his first professional production, Dutchman. His subsequent work for the theater has provoked both praise and controversy. His poetry and prose are characterized by difficult syntax, often obscuring the logic, but never the purpose, of his thought. Having rejected white values and white society, Baraka strives to create art with a firm didactic purpose: to forge an Afro-American art that reflects the values and sensibilities of the black community. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)
LeRoi Jones is already familiar to New Yorkers as the author of some sensational little plays, and to readers of poetry as the author of some sensational little poems, and if his book [Blues People: Negro Music in White America] fails to be sensational, it is not because he has tried to keep it from being so, but because his accommodation of his subject has been couched—bedded down, in fact—in that language of all languages most refractory to sensationalism: the latest jargon of the social sciences. It is almost French, Mr. Jones's enterprise, if we think of the ways Parisian intellectuals have of investing a complex popular phenomenon like the movies with whatever intellectual forces they happen to have...
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[Baraka's] poems and plays have explored the subjective effects of the dominant whites' violation of black mentality, and at the same time have acted out psychologically and in fantasy the politics of intransigeant confrontation. No American poet since Pound has come closer to making poetry and politics reciprocal forms of action. That is not necessarily a good thing. When the reciprocity comes out of the very nature of the language and feeling that engage the poet, when it amounts to a discovery as of the awakening of the senses, then we have to do with an accomplishment whose moral and aesthetic character are inseparable values: as in Hamlet or Coriolanus or, less grandly, in Shelley's glorious chorus...
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[Sidney Poet Heroical is] a slick, semi-musical satire of Sidney Poitier. In fact, Baraka's play attacks all blacks who "make it big" in white society, forget their roots, and begin to think, talk, and live "white." Much of Baraka's characterization is funny and effective: his portrait of Sidney's egotistical, ruthless buddy and mentor who prances across the stage in knee-high boots, skin-tight pants, and shirts invariably open to subnavel levels, and his white she-devils in glittery make-up, women propelled by extravagant sexual and economic tastes, are clever exaggerations of America's fortune-hunters and culture vultures.
But Sidney Poet Heroical … overworks the contrast between...
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Maybe humanism is not an adequate stand from which to review Amiri Baraka's political diatribe "S-1." Maybe devotion to a just perspective, temperate weighing of evidence, and fairness are luxuries that can no longer be afforded in our oppressed and ravaged society….
But if the situation in America were as bad, or even potentially as bad, as Baraka suggests, then there would be no call for this critique or this critic: We would have lost the battle for civility, compassion, and toleration that the American enterprise is all about and would have to relapse into silence or join the ranks of the shriekers.
Ordinarily, a piece of political claptrap like "S-1" would not be worth your...
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Fifty years from now when negroes and others take "English,"… they'll read: LeRoi Jones (aka Amiri Baraka) was at the cutting edge of mid-twentieth century American literature. Black Arts and Black Consciousness and Black Liberation will be explained away in a footnote like Harlem (a Negro area in New York) in the Norton Anthology of Literature. The process of cultural cannibalism, until now confined to black music, speech and dress, will have been extended to Afro-American literature.
Baraka's early association with the Beat poets, the finality with which, in his poetry, he shook off the dry husks of Pound, Williams, etc., and his political conversion to Marxist-Leninist-Maoist thought do...
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Hard Facts is a self-consciously communist poetry book, right down to the red cover with the silhouettes of Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin-Mao on the back. Baraka's consciousness is committed to class struggle and his poetics is materialist, but it too often falls short of dialectics…. [There] is the bad mouthing of the phonies with a hot stream of scream-of-consciousness hip talk mixed with revolutionary exhortations. All of which breaks our ear rather than sings to our needs. An atheist preacher is still a preacher, and one wonders how much respect for the multinational masses is really there. I'm reminded of a line from Baraka's earlier Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note: "Nobody sings anymore."...
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Baraka, Imamu Amiri (Vol. 14)
Baraka, Imamu Amiri 1934–
Baraka, formerly known as LeRoi Jones, is an American poet, playwright, short story writer, essayist, jazz critic, and editor. Baraka's subject is the oppression of blacks in white society and his work is an intense emotional response to this condition. He received acclaim for his first professional production, Dutchman. His subsequent work for the theater has provoked both praise and controversy. His poetry and prose are characterized by difficult syntax, often obscuring the logic, but never the purpose, of his thought. Having rejected white values and white society, Baraka strives to create art with a firm didactic purpose: to forge an Afro-American art that reflects the values and sensibilities of the black community. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)
[In Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note], where the poems are arranged chronologically, one can see even as the chaff flies that the grain is good. [Jones's] special gift is an emotive music that might have made him predominantly a "lyric poet," but his deeply felt preoccupation with more than personal issues enlarges the scope of his poems beyond what the term is often taken to mean…. I feel that sometimes his work is muddled, and that after the event he convinces himself that it had to be that way; in other words, his conception of when a poem is ready to printed differs from mine. But … he is developing swiftly and has a rich potential. Certain poems—especially "The Clearing," "The Turncoat," "Notes for a Speech"—show what he can do. They are beautiful poems, and others that are less complete have passages of equal beauty.
Since beauty is one of the least precise words in the language I had better define what I mean by it in this instance: the beauty in Jones's poems is sensuous and incantatory, in contrast to the beauty [found in poetry like Gil Sorrentino's] which is a sensation of exactitude, a hitting of nails on the head with a ringing sound. In his contribution to the notes on poetics at the back of … The New American Poetry, Jones speaks of Garcia Lorca as one of the poets he has read intensely; and what is incantatory (magical) in his work, while it is natural to him, may well have been first brought to the surface by the discovery of an affinity in the magic of Lorca. (p. 252)
Denise Levertov, "Poets of the Given Ground," in The Nation (copyright 1961 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 193, No. 12, October 14, 1961, pp. 251-53.∗
The fear which pervades LeRoi Jones's work is that of a loss of identity—a fear which becomes socially relevant when extended to the scale of racial assimilation. In this context violence functions … as a means of discovering and forging identity…. [Jones's] is a sensitivity, created by the extremes of racial guilt and discrimination, which can see no middle ground between man as victim and man as rebel…. While the violence which emerges as the strongest mark of Jones's work does at times show something of the ambivalence which Brecht had felt, there is an element of unabashed relish in its presentation, particularly in The Slave and The Toilet, which constantly threatens to undermine its validity both as drama and polemic. (p. 140)
LeRoi Jones's fierce commitment is such that he has felt himself bound, at times, to attack those who have apparently transcended the immediate concerns of racial injustice…. 'A writer' he insists, 'is committed to what is real, and not to the sanctity of his Feelings.' While this is a distinction which Kafka or Lawrence, for example, could not have felt to be a real one it is indicative of Jones's refusal to accept a humanistic interpretation of the racial situation. What is real is the economic and political history of the Negro; what is fanciful is the belief that racial friction is a moral failure which can be corrected by individual soulsearching…. [While] he has actively supported Civil Rights Jones's plays boast a simple objective, for, unlike Baldwin, his vision is not of a unified society but rather of a world in which the present order is inverted. In this context his attraction to violence becomes little more than an aspect of revenge while his plays are dedicated less to urging a humanistic commitment than a revolutionary separatism. (pp. 141-42)
Jones's insistence on the irrevocability of history, expressed in the bitter poem which had followed Kennedy's death ["Exaugeral Address" is in Dutchman] clearly demonstrated in racial terms…. [His] play challenges the whole proposition of integration. The question which he is asking is, 'integration into what?' Western rationalism, 'the great intellectual legacy of the white man', has in his eyes led merely to the rationalisation of repression and violence. (p. 146)
[The Slave] is described by Jones as a fable. As such it represents his attempt to circumvent what Pirandello, Artaud and Beckett had seen as the fundamental flaw of the theatre—the arbitrary and imprecise nature of language…. [Yet Jones] does not dispense with language or transform it into a ritualised sub-structure of intonation and timbre but relies, like Gelber and Albee, on what he calls a 'metalanguage'—the tangental communication of the parable. The parable which he presents here is an apocalyptic vision seen in purely racial terms. The Slave is in essence an extension of the conflict of Dutchman to what Jones clearly sees as its logical conclusion. 'Discovering racially the funds of the universe. Discovering the last image of the thing. As the sky when the moon is broken.' (pp. 147-48)
Despite a further indulgence in his particular forte for a gratuitous violence inflicted on his white characters The Slave does progress considerably beyond the oversimplifications of Dutchman. For when Walker Vessels, who in the main body of the play is the leader of a Negro revolt, delivers a prologue dressed as a field-slave, he condemns that which 'passes as whatever thing we feel is too righteous to question, too deeply felt to deny' as 'a deadly filth' …—a considerable advance over the dogmatic assumptions of Dutchman. For in that play … he was content to destroy one cliché but to replace it with another. If he attacked the deep-rooted association between black and evil he did so only to...
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Jones has named specific influences on his development as a writer. They include T. S. Eliot (especially on Jones' earlier, "academic" poetry), Ezra Pound (especially for imagery), William Carlos Williams (especially for a sense of speech in poetry), and Federico Garcia Lorca (for, among other things, helping him break from the Eliot influence). [Nathanael West, Mark Twain, and Eugene O'Neill may also be considered influences.] (p. 57)
It is safe to say that all the writers who gravitated to the Village during the late fifties and early sixties affected each other's work, directly and indirectly, and in varying degrees…. [Some] of his early contemporaries named by Jones as having influenced him at that time are Gary Snyder, Frank O'Hara, Robert Creeley, and Allen Ginsberg….
[Regardless] of sources and influences, Jones always has been stylistically a distinct writer. It is an understatement to say that the writing of LeRoi Jones is manneristic. There is in it a remarkable absence of mundane, pedestrian expression. Hackneyed language or a cliché is rare in his works, and when it does exist chances are that it originated with Jones and became trite because of his own repetition of it. Indeed, it seems as if he almost perversely determines to create new forms, new ways of structuring content, new phrases for new thoughts…. But the very inventiveness of his writing … makes for difficult reading. Some of his more individualistic and strangely presented works do seem to be either chaos or mere dross. Sometimes one may wonder if Jones is playing games with his readers—or with himself. (p. 58)
[One] must consider his theory of art as it applies to matters of form, technique and style, for Jones simply must be read on his own artistic terms: "Form is simply how a thing exists," he says. "Content is why a thing exists." To him, the two are inseparable….
One must keep in mind, too, Jones' tenet that the essence of art is process rather than artifact. One should examine Jones' writing with the attitude that his style is a record of a creative process, possibly a spontaneous creative process. To look only for rational, conscious, and ordered style in Jones' work is to subvert explication and to beg for a misreading or a nonreading. In connection with … the spontaneous element in Jones' writing one must also keep in mind his insistence upon initial reliance upon what is felt rather than upon what is thought…. And one must always keep in mind that Jones posits that "feeling predicts intelligence."
LeRoi Jones has written that "words themselves become, even informally, laws." The language that Jones employs to make his own laws, or definitions, comes by choice from his personal, sometimes private, and ethnic frames of reference. Shortly after his first published works, he consciously began to avoid "white" language in favor of "black" idioms, grammar, and syntax. (p. 59)
When one seeks to explicate Jones' language, one should … seek to understand his frame of reference. For example, the derogatory term "faggot" must be understood in Jones' ethnic context. If he uses it to describe an American of African descent, he is usually talking about a male who reacts to challenges (often ethnic-oriented challenges) to his manhood by pretending to ignore, by compromising, by capitulating. In this sense NAACP official Roy Wilkins in Jones' eyes is an "Uncle Tom," a compromiser of his innate blackness, and is therefore a "faggot." On the other hand, if Jones uses "faggot" to describe a white American male, he is talking, literally or symbolically, about a physical homosexual, a degenerated man who has perverted his natural physical urges. The white "faggot" is lower than the black "faggot" on Jones' acceptability scale. (pp. 59-60)
Especially in nonfiction prose, Jones is discursive, expansive, given to restatement. He tends to write complex and compound-complex sentences, with frequent appositional, parenthetical, and other subordinate grammatical elements. This is particularly noticeable in his earlier writing…. At other times this expansive style is characterized by staccato effects, sentence fragments, sudden grammatical shifts, exclamatory interpolations, and asides. (pp. 61-2)
[He] can be expansively lucid … [or] curtly cryptic. When he apparently wants to be, he is direct and explicit; when he apparently wants to be, he is indirect in the sense that his "meaning" is tied up in associational complexes of sound, image, and diction. His more bafflingly dadaistic and surrealistic style is especially apparent in his prose fiction…. [Sometimes an] entire piece evokes an impressionistic aura or mood that defies paraphrase into "meaning." (pp. 62-3)
[Punctuation] in his earlier nonfiction prose is generally standard, or conventional, but in his later nonfiction prose the punctuation is frequently unconventional. His prose fiction and poetry are a different case though, due in part to unconventional syntax but more often due to what must be artistic compulsion. It is not unusual for him to insert a comma between a subject and its verb, even when no elements intervene, as in "White, is abstract." He inserts a comma for separation, for pause, for impact…. Jones is fond of parentheses, and … uses the open parenthesis. He frequently will capitalize all letters in a word or group of words, and he frequently uses all lower case letters, even in titles of works. He has a tendency to use the diagonal, or slash, between words or parts of words, usually where meaning is purposely ambivalent, as in "STATE/MEANT." Sometimes he will write a contraction and omit the apostrophe, as "aint," or he will abbreviate a word, as "cd" for "could" and "blk" for "black." (pp. 63-4)
Jones is an incurable manipulator of words, almost always in an attempt for straight humor or for satire. He makes puns [and portmanteau words]…. Only Jones would write, "The undertaker was a stereotype nigger faggunder, taker." Jones also plays with the sounds of words…. [He puts words] into contexts that will twist meanings: he speaks of "Mozart's Ornithology" to connote jazzman Charlie "Bird" Parker's works being bastardized by white musicians. (pp. 64-5)
A major technique employed by Jones is humor…. [His] is incisive satire, satire informed by a certain "hip," or superior, sensibility, by an urbane sensibility developed in street lore, by a contempt born of too much perception…. His humor tends to be broad and farcical in his later works, those works intended to be "less uselessly 'literary'"—works intended to be more practical and more easily grasped by the masses of black people. (pp. 65-6)
Unusual symbolism and imagery, among other things, make difficult the explication of certain of Jones' works. Of course,… explication as getting literal "meaning" is fruitless since no "meaning" is intended. Because so much of his symbolism and imagery is abstruse, it is easy to overlook the fact that Jones does employ conventional symbolism and imagery. (p. 66)
Once the reader has a superficial grasp of the facts of Jones' life, some of his symbolism becomes apparent and requires no special study. Social workers and postal workers, for example, are obviously his mother and father, projected as decorous, middle-class oriented, and rather alienated from their inherent blackness. (p. 67)
Jones is not given to the use of abstract terms as symbol-images. There are, however, two which bear mentioning, God (sometimes with a lower case "g") and energy. The first, God, is used for normal denotations as well as for symbolic connotations. God, to LeRoi Jones, is a matter of definitions; he sees God meaning different things to different people…. To Jones the Christian God as conceived by Western whites is a God to suit their purposes…. It is not surprising … to find Jones later proclaiming that "The Black Man is making new Gods," black gods issuing from black spiritual consciousness…. In Black Music he says, "… God is, indeed, energy,"… and he thinks of "God as evolution. The flow of is."… (p. 69)
Energy as Jones uses the term is the divine force for creativity…. Blacks, he feels, are the possessors of natural energies, of divine powers of creativity.
A city boy and man, LeRoi Jones does not use much imagery connected with physical nature. He does, however, use sun, wind, flame, water, and forest. At times he will use sun traditionally, to mean enlightenment, happiness, wisdom, or "energy."… At times he will use sun to signify divine blackness, speaking at such times of blacks as "sun people" and warning others, in a reversal of meaning, to
Beware the evil sun …
turn you black
("Hymn for Lanie Poo")
Wind as a symbol connotes spiritual essence: "And let us think of soul, as anima: spirit (spiritus, breath) as that which carries breath on the living wind."… Flame, rather conventionally, means the unerring intellect or realistic perception. He assesses himself, in his preface to Black Magic, as "the soothsayer, one flayed by evil as a fountainhead of reality finally glimpses of true airflame." Water, river, ocean, wet and their cognates can often be interpreted as fecundity or creative refreshment of an abstract sort. It is that quality necessary for all life, a quality roughly opposite to T. S. Eliot's desert, cactus, and dry. The quality is a catalytic agent: "You are myself's river." Forest, in much the same...
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The inclusion of the 1967 work Slave Ship alongside the recent The Motion of History (1976) and S-I (1976) in [The Motion of History and Other Plays] reveals Baraka's movement from the view of what he terms "the petty bourgeois of the oppressed nationality," represented by Slave Ship, to a Marxist orientation, represented by The Motion of History and S-I.
After ten years Slave Ship remains a powerful document of mid-1960s Afro-American consciousness. White slavers cannot destroy the African spirit, and indeed unwittingly introduce black culture, especially music, into America via their slave ships….
In short scenes...
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Amiri Baraka, formerly LeRoi Jones, has lost none of his fury since the Black Power movement of the 1960's. He has, however, sacrificed artistic vitality on the altar of his political faith. Selected by Baraka, the work gathered in ["Selected Plays and Prose of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones" and "Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones"] is offered as a summation of his creative life…. The change revealed in Baraka's style over the years is dramatic—from Beat non-conformist to militant black nationalist to, lately, self-styled leader of a revolutionary vanguard, one who is fond of quoting Stalin, Mao and The Peking Review.
Baraka's writing is defined by vehement repudiations, littered with...
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Baraka, Imamu Amiri (Vol. 2)
Baraka, Imamu Amiri 1934–
Formerly known as LeRoi Jones. Baraka is a militant Black American poet and playwright whose works include Dutchman, The Slave, and The System of Dante's Hell. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)
One of the most talented of the Negro poets is LeRoi Jones, who has both skill as a maker of images and rhythms and daring as an exponent of new sexual and racial subject matter. But this is not to say that Jones is an "engaged" poet; he is too much the cool hipster to trust slogans and programs of any sort, though his sympathy seems generally liberal. He writes about color as an Existential reality….
His technique derives from projective verse; he stresses speech rhythm; and his diction is that of the hipster. In putting his poems together, he is not afraid of discontinuities—they represent reality to him—or prosaic statement if it serves his purpose; but he has more imagery than most hip poets, and he enjoys projecting a wild, comic, sexual fantasy to contrast with the boredom of urban life, of days confined by steel and concrete.
Stephen Stepanchev, "LeRoi Jones," in his American Poetry Since 1945 (copyright © 1965 by Stephen Stepanchev; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1965, pp. 195-98.
LeRoi Jones … has a natural gift for quick, vivid imagery and spontaneous humor, and his poems are filled with sardonic or sensuous or slangily knowledgeable passages. His first book, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1960), was interesting—as much of our newer poetry is—for the structural similarity of some of its pieces to jazz improvisation….
Jones … at first seemed to be finding a tangential way of making use of Negro experience and its artistic and psychological aspects in such a way as to enable himself, at the same time, to develop within the normal context of American poetry of this period. As he came into some prominence, however, and, for the time being at least, began to ally himself with the new tendencies toward intransigent hostility to the 'white' civilization, his poetry became more militant in its projection of that hostility.
M. L. Rosenthal, in his The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II (© 1967 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 188-91.
I am troubled by Jones's work and always have been, because I read him as a poet who is both blessed and cursed. He is blessed with the demon of language, and cursed in the way he uses it. Jones embraces both aspects of his lot with savage alacrity—without always knowing which is which and sometimes, I suspect, without caring….
[It] seems to me that politics is bad for poetry. One can say that the estheticization of politics is the mark of fascism and, if labels mean anything, Jones's work is thoroughly fascistic. It speaks, and very loudly, too, in messages sprayed on the walls of Newark; it is bullhorns, tear gas, clubbing, shotguns and sirens and all the sounds of warfare in the city and the ghetto; it is race propaganda of the most unashamed and often fulsomely vulgar sort, replete with voodoo-Muslim-family slang, cottonpatch-minstrel blues, rock and hyperjazz, ghetto voices and revivalist, spiritualist, shamanist, pseudo-Gullah wildness and craziness. In fact, it is passionately engaged, enraged leadership poetry. But when it is not political, it is often embarrassingly soft, as if the hands were stiff with toil or broken by torture. You can't say it is art, and you don't believe it's meant to be.
Curiously, aside from time and place, there is little difference between Jones's "black art" ideas and those of Yeats's upstanding fisherman in gray Connemara cloth. Both are naïve dreams that end in screams and marching chants: the poet in politics. And, though the poet wants to use men, he is the one used….
[Much] of Jones's work is vitiated for me because it tends to be schizoid. The problem seems to have long been for him the crucial one, and he shows his awareness of it by protesting much too loudly throughout these poems. Almost every word is both black and white, and Jones uses much magic to make white words signify black. But most of the time you feel he's strutting in his dashiki and spouting bad poetry, even nonpoetry, which can only be justified, if it ever can be, by its being read with the right beat and pronunciation and scored for the right audience with the right amplifier plugged in….
[One] recognizes the right of people to self-determination, whether by means of black studies curricula or black magic. I am sure that Jones means a lot to young black poets as example and leader. To the white world that publishes him I fear he will mean less, unless his poetry is read as symptomatology, which can be invaluable, or for intelligence on the state of the battle. I find myself forced to read him as an intelligence self-maddened.
Jascha Kessler, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1970 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, May 2, 1970; used with permission), May 2, 1970, pp. 36, 42-3.
Baraka urges blacks to observe their own culture, their own life style—understand and glory in its distinctiveness. Therefore, common objects are amplified in meaning, poetically given a significance more commensurate with their special place in black life. In Baraka's vision shoes are mirrors that one day might have lights on them….
"In Our Terribleness" is more than just a collection of sensitive photographs and poetic commentary. Beyond what might be considered a self-indulgent glorification of cultural attributes that blacks are already familiar with and that the nonblack reader would consider insignificant, Baraka's intent is revelatory. His "long image story in motion, paper-motion" is an exhortation for the spiritual unification of blacks….
"In Our Terribleness" is perhaps Amiri Baraka's greatest book. No doubt this is a result of his directing his work towards the black reader…. "In Our Terribleness" abundantly exemplifies that much sought after universality of literature. White readers and critics may have to come to terms with the long ignored humanity of blacks, however, before they discover its universal appeal.
For the present, "In Our Terribleness," as it was intended, is a book that will communicate almost exclusively with blacks. Couched in the language of the streets and intoned with the rhythms of jazz, it is both an expression and evocation of the rudiments of blackness, which whites may find somewhat perplexing.
Ron Welburn, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 14, 1971, pp. 10, 12.
Jones sees the black artist as a moralist [and he] is specific about the duties of the Revolutionary Theatre, born in the 1960's: it should force change; it should be change. It must cleanse black audiences of their ugliness. It must force them to see their beauty: the strength in their minds and in their bodies. It must take dreams and give them a reality. The ritual and historical cycles of reality must be isolated. Clearly, the Revolutionary Theatre, which Jones describes as a theatre of victims, is a political theatre, a weapon. It will show what the world is and what it should be…. The Revolutionary Theatre is moral. Its tasks are also those of its playwrights. Jones, one of the architects of this theatre, has taken his own advice….
In his essays addressed to black writers and in his dramas written with all black people in mind, LeRoi Jones is asking that black people remain separate from the polluted white-dominated mainstream in order to create an acceptable image of self. In order to find himself, the black man must destroy the image imposed on him by white America. Jones' plays are often peopled with angry black men and torn, ravaged black women, many of whom are engaged in finding their true selves or instructing others in how to find theirs….
Of the charges that critics have made against Jones' plays, one of the most frequent is that they lack form. His plays, however, are new attempts at form or new uses of old forms, such as the morality play and the minstrel show.
His method is often shocking. His language is naturalistic, for the most part, embroidered with obscenities that are sometimes lyrical. His audiences are often punished. But it is the shock and the flogging that might together produce the change he seeks. The fundamental problem in reform is to change men's hearts. Writing in fury and despair, Jones seeks, first, to liberate the minds of black people. The action he calls for is mainly mental; the warfare is internal. Only if the mental warefare fails can the open rebellion he prophesies in The Slave become a reality. This drama, one must remember, is subtitled "A Fable."
Whether or not one agrees with his methods, the plays of LeRoi Jones are important. Whether or not one accepts the inevitability of Jones' prophecies depends on how one reacts to his message. One can only hope that the revolution he calls for will be inward.
Jeanne-Marie A. Miller, "The Plays of LeRoi Jones," in CLA Journal, Vol. XIV, No. 3, March, 1971, pp. 331-39.
After The Dutchman, Jones' plays devalue dialogue in favor of film, ritual, and incantation. The rich images and controlled rhythms of the earlier plays give way to exclamations, blows, shots, montage effects. Conceived to carry a simple message—usually of hatred against whites—to black audiences, these plays ruthlessly smother Jones' verbal gifts.
Ruby Cohn, "LeRoi Jones," in her Dialogue in American Drama, Indiana University Press, 1971, pp. 295-302.
Baraka, Imamu Amiri (Vol. 3)
Baraka, Imamu Amiri 1934–
Formerly known as LeRoi Jones, Baraka is a prize-winning Black American poet, playwright, social critic, editor, and teacher now involved in community organization in Newark, New Jersey. His raw and obsessional poems and plays explore themes at the very center of the Black experience. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)
[LeRoi Jones'] symbolism draws upon traditional and "modern" myths respectively. His only novel, The System of Dante's Hell, explores the experiences of the northern ghetto and the Black South by transforming, and often reversing, the Greco-Christian mythology of The Inferno. At the same time, the symbolic structure of his poetry is often dominated by the myths of the contemporary comic strip.
On one level Jones treats the phenomenon of the comic strip as a whole, quite apart from the symbolic implications of specific archetypes. He views its production and popularity as a general symptom of social malaise. In The Dead Lecturer, Jones' second collection of poems, "The Invention of Comics" treats the physical grotesquerie of the comic strip as a physical symbol of a death-like world….
Lloyd W. Brown, "Comic-Strip Heroes: LeRoi Jones and the Myth of American Innocence," in Journal of Popular Culture, Fall, 1969, pp. 191-204.
Baraka, in his poetry, is master of long, rhetorically complex phrases, tumbling one after another with an ever increasing momentum, capped by pithy expressions which sum up an attitude, a posture, a feeling in a few words. His politics are revolutionary and many of his poems and most of his plays are characterized by a lust for the white man's blood. Baraka's emergence as the leading exponent of Neo-Black writing is symbolic of the waning of that trend in Black literature in which writers addressed themselves to white audiences….
Dutchman and The Slave were first produced in the middle of that turbulent decade of the sixties. The civil rights demonstrations of the early sixties were begun in non-violence yet often led to violence against the demonstrators. Stokely Carmichael's cry for Black power seemed to cleave the decade, as well as the civil rights movement, in half. And the bloody urban riots of the later sixties made the Watts rebellion of 1965 look like a picnic. The tension which characterized the decade also informs these plays. Yet, in analyzing the plays, one finds that one also analyzes their limitations as vehicles for Black expression. Their scenes and dialogues speak more to that aspect of Black life in which one tries to adjust to or gain some understanding from white society—without first being sure that one has adjusted to or understood one's self as part of and in relation to all Black people. Dutchman and The Slave thus serve as a point of reference so that one can begin to understand the necessity and urgency of the themes posited by the writings of Neo-Black artists….
Baraka, more than attempting to forge a new Black language or create, as he says, new gods, is embodying within his works many currents and traditions which have made life, Black life, what it is. His work is set in many different contexts and when looked at as art, having social and political, cultural and artistic contexts, one begins to perceive the depth and scope of his work.
The plays Dutchman and The Slave are given a place in this book because they come near the end of that hybrid tradition which has influenced Black fiction since 1853. The two plays bring this tradition to a logical fruition and point toward a new direction. Baraka performs a service like that of Richard Wright two decades before. By exposing Bigger Thomas' anger—and, by extension, the anger and bitterness of Bigger's real-life counterparts—to public view, Wright made it easier for other Black writers not only to explore Black anger but to move beyond the relatively simple statement of anger to a more complex analysis of Black in relation to white….
The characters in Baraka's early plays, particularly Clay and Walker, have all the fury of Bigger but it is their awareness, their ability to analyze and articulate their situation which is so terrible and shocking. Their fury and pain have been internalized to such an extent that even outward action, as in The Slave, brings no release and they, like Bigger, choke on their own rage. It is not without significance that The Slave and Dutchman take the physical form of dialogues or conversations between a Black man and white people, for just as Wright abstracts the message of Native Son by putting into the mouth of Bigger's white lawyer a long analysis of the social context of Bigger's crimes and the subsequent appeal to the white jury (white society), Baraka seeks to educate white society to the feelings and situations of the collective Black man.
Sherley Anne Williams, in her Give Birth to Brightness: A thematic Study in Neo-Black Literature (copyright © 1972 by Sherley Anne Williams; used with permission of The Dial Press), Dial, 1972, pp. 145-46.
Baraka, Imamu Amiri (Vol. 5)
Baraka, Imamu Amiri 1934–
Baraka, formerly known as LeRoi Jones, is a prize-winning Black American poet, playwright, director, editor, and community organizer closely associated with Black nationalism. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)
LeRoi Jones's Dutchman earned him a reputation as the Negro scourge of white complacency, an angry, knowing, ultracontemporary playwright. But his … short plays, The Toilet and The Slave, reveal him as an archsentimentalist, a dramatist who uses obscenities and wrath to mask a poverty of ideas and a painfully immature emotional structure. (p. 231)
[The Toilet] is entirely unconvincing. There has merely been an undramatized assertion that out of perversion can come love, a sentimental broad jump over all the intervening difficulties. Beyond this, the presence of a [secondary] white character who functions as a voyeur is an infuriatingly juvenile note introduced so that Jones can have it both ways. For the white boy speaks up against the brutality but at the same time is a fairy who clearly doesn't "belong there," where real life is going on.
The two plays are united by Jones's adolescent need to have his cake and eat it, to seem to be arguing for peace and reconciliation while flaying whites with every weapon his limited arsenal contains. The Slave is a "fable" set at some future time when a Negro insurrection is devastating the country. It is a pas de trois among a white liberal couple and the woman's first husband, a Negro who is now the leader of the rebellion. He breaks into their house and holds them at gunpoint, his purpose being to take away the two daughters he had by the woman. Jones's purpose presumably is to have the three engage in denunciation and counterdenunciation, giving both sides of the racial question. (pp. 231-32)
But on one level Jones writes like nothing so much as a lesser Edna St. Vincent Millay pontificating on the state of world and soul—"I have killed for all times any creative impulses I will ever have by the depravity of my murderous philosophies," the Negro says. On another level Jones employs frequent obscenities exactly the way people in real life do—to preclude the possibility, and danger, of thought. And though Jones allows the white man to call the Negro a maniacal, destructive racist, he stacks the cards ferociously against him. Once more the white is effete, incapable of satisfying the woman as the Negro did, and a liberal whose values pale before the apocalyptic vision of Negro power and healing violence.
In the end the Negro shoots the white man, after which a bomb flattens the house. "The children," moans the fatally injured wife. "They're dead," replies the Negro. Whatever tragic insight resides in these words comes too late. Jones has simply bypassed a terrain mined with all the explosive truths about human conflict. To traverse this dangerous ground he will need more resources—and more courage. (p. 232)
Richard Gilman, "Evasive Action" (1964), in his Common and Uncommon Masks: Writings on Theatre 1961–1970 (copyright © 1971 by Richard Gilman; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1971, pp. 231-32.
The Slave … is a blatant, unmodulated scream of racial abuse; its primary purpose, one assumes, was authorial self-gratification…. It is so devoid of conflict, of dramatic content—the whites are such pappy, wish-fulfilling projections ("Professor No-Dick"), the gunman such a sick, simple noise, that the only reasonable response, white or black, is one of embarrassed and annoyed detachment. Which, perhaps, is what Jones wanted.
The Dutchman … is quite another matter. It may be the most important imaginative literary document of the American race war since Native Son. And it works. Jones has here channeled his hate equally into two antagonists, a young Negro boy and the violent white female (a stunning part for an actress) who accosts him on a New York subway, and has managed to create in their encounter one of the more genuine and irresistible conflicts of the modern stage.
The dialogue between the two is almost perfect. It conveys the shrill, sharp, absolutely open insult-trading of cool modern neurotics, hiding nothing except everything, all very uptight New Yorky 1964. And just beneath it, one can feel the peeled-grape hypersensitivity, the heading-for-a-crackup comic tension. (pp. 74-6)
LeRoi Jones has published (in addition to his plays) [his] volumes of poetry, Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note (1961) and The Dead Lecturer (1964), and an expressionistic, semi-autobiographical, semi-pornographic prose thing called The System of Dante's Hell (1965). He is the most difficult of all the Negro poets, and it is hard to say whether any reader can be guaranteed a just repayment for his efforts. It is hard, in fact, to say anything sensible or useful about a poet who is himself not simply irrational but anti-rational; whose whole approach to poetic language reaches far beyond mere coherence or what we would call sense; who is highly suspicious of the whole nature of verbal communication. This may be one of those many occasions when the wise critic would simply shut up.
would be silence. To shut up, even such risk
as the proper placement
of verbs and nouns. To freeze the spit
in mid-air, as it aims itself
at some valiant intellectual's face.
But to give an idea, not to judge, not to interpret: There is, first, a small group of poems that work very nearly in the manner of ordinary sense (at least for a poet). The title poem and "The Turncoat" from the first volume, "Duncan Spoke of a Process," "If Into Love The Image Burdens," "I Substitute For The Dead Lecturer," "Snake Eyes," perhaps "Footnote To A Pretentious Book," and especially "The Liar" from the second volume: these are all quiet, poignantly quiet pieces of introspection, honest and painful, suggestive, intimate, coolly sad: Jones on Jones. They reveal, even in their own moody illogic, a man who wants very much to know who he is, and wants the reader to know and love him too. These are inside poems, straight from the pain. (pp. 96-7)
One familiar with Jones' plays, too, will catch, here and there, the violent racist anger, particularly in the two strong anti-syntactic "speeches," in "Black Dada Nihilismus," a Kill-All-the-Whites manifesto in dada, and in the surrealist abuse of "Rhythm and Blues" and "Green Lantern's Solo," two of his strongest poems. The violence here is a kind of nightmare violence, something one puts together out of frightening fragments. The two latter poems (from The Dead Lecturer) may be as close to a testament as Jones will ever offer, if one knew where to find it; the most honest possible expression of a man who simply cannot trust words to stay still.
I am deaf and blind and lost and will not again
sing your quiet verse. I have lost
even the act of poetry, and writhe now for
cool horizonless dawn …
More frequently, the communication is nowhere so definable. It is a nonverbal communication that uses words and phrases only as little pressures on the reader's consciousness, a communication that has very little to do with normal syntax or denotative structure. One reads, at best, a tone. The Suicide Note poems ("early LeRoi Jones"?) like "Hymn for Lanie Poo" have a brash, jazzy, young man's sound—a lot of pop-art black humor, jerky collages à la Rauschenberg of radio serial heroes or comic-strip characters taken seriously. As he admits,
are not music. They make no motions
for a dance.
One is denied even the surface attractions of rhythm, except for a jarring sort of skittery jerkiness, or occasional cool riffs on a theme; the "From an Almanac" poems come nearest to modern jazz. Otherwise, the reader must be content to rest passive, to float along with the unresolved surrealistic progress, as Jones plays about with his parentheses and camp gags and insets of sense in search of a style.
The Dead Lecturer poems are even sparer of sense, less attractive, more steely chill, devoid of even the comic gamey glibness of the earlier Jones. But they are even harder to reject absolutely. We have more odd noodling about with word noises, pages in which no single word group between periods coheres into sense. "Obscure" is too concrete a word: lists, insults, four-letter words, parentheses that don't close, lost commas, cold cuts of sound, allusions, dim suggestions of sex or of characters (there are two hazy "character" sequences, on Crow Jane and Willie Best) blend about in the half light, the murky background of dissonance, not nonsense but not sense. For lines and lines the words may lie positively dead, say nothing at all. Then out of it all leap sudden glints and rills of image or statement or pain, three words, a paragraph, a page. This happens especially in the abstract-expressionist protest poems like "Rhythm and Blues"; the evocative and crafted poems full of keen dreams and emergent pain: "A Contract," "The Politics of Rich Painters," all lethal and queerly vivid things. Here, in his non-sense, he attacks with surrealist vigor all the common muck that passes for sense.
It is all, ultimately, anti-rational poetry, an attempt at a new stimulation of consciousness through words made malleable. Jones of course is not the only one practicing it, and his identification with Beat poets like Duncan, Olson, and Snyder is appropriate. Rational criticism is unequipped, in the last analysis, to deal with such an effort, and finally irrelevant. It is poetry for the leisured, the patient, the energetic, for those who do not insist on an immediate show of gain for energies expended. (pp. 98-100)
David Littlejohn, in his Black on White: A Critical Survey of Writing By American Negroes (copyright © 1966 by David Littlejohn; reprinted by permission of Grossman Publishers), Viking, 1966.
For whatever reasons, no one has yet examined Dutchman simply as a play. Dramatically, Dutchman presents a theme developed in a carefully planned structure which itself is the life of this particular drama, and which stands as the turning point in Jones's artistic career.
The theme, as other critics have noted, is one of black identity and its existence in the world. It is presented in the relationship of a black man, Clay, and a white woman, Lula. But because commentators, in a rush to find the tempting "meanings" in their confrontation, have passed over the dynamics of their special interpersonal relationship, much of the play's significance has been lost. (p. 123)
Jones' thematic statement, that the authentic black self cannot survive, is an integral part of his play's dramatic structure. One need not have recourse to biography or sociology to see that Lula's approach, whether as a seductive woman or accusing white person, leaves no room for Clay's existence. It is not surprising that Jones' next play, The Slave, should cast his black hero as a revolutionist waging a hopeless war for his existence, for in Dutchman his back is squarely against the wall. The notion of an authentic self, and the course of existence it must follow, is central to Jones' works. His sociology bears this out, but it is more instructive to see the theme treated in his fiction, where it remains the key element in his art. Better than his two books of jazz criticism or even his Home: Social Essays is the story collection, Tales. These sixteen pieces plot the development of a black self, first seeking its reflection in the world of white intellectualism, and finally returning to an opposite set of polarities in authentic black existence. Repeated again and again are the alternatives of "reflection" and "action." (p. 125)
Jones' drama argues the same theme as his most sustained work of prose: that authentic existence is possible only in the vital act of warring against its challenges. His theatre is now self-proclaimed as "Black Arts" and, by necessity, "Revolutionary." White men are taken by the "Experimental Death Unit #1" and shot; "J-E-L-L-O," a play "about Jack Benny and Rochester, and what happens when Rochester diggs hisself," ends with Benny's murder. Dutchman, written at the point in Jones' life when he abandoned his white wife and his posture as a Village intellectual in favor of a more racial militancy, is not only substantial drama, but is cathartic within Jones' own career. The black man's self, otherwise repressed in a stifling cultural assimilation, must in fact go underground to preserve its very existence; and Jones' plays become guerilla theatre, treating the theme of a guerilla soul. (pp. 125-26)
Jerome Klinkowitz, "LeRoi Jones (Imamu Amiri Baraka): Dutchman as Drama," in Negro American Literature Forum (© Indiana State University 1973), Winter, 1973, pp. 123-26.
Baraka is generally recognized today not only as the first articulater of the requirements for a black literature but also as a kind of spiritual leader of black-poetry writers. Although it seems to me that he has had great difficulty in adhering to his own theory of what black poetry should be, he has nonetheless pointed the way for younger poets. During the late fifties and early sixties, he was a very successful contemporary poet and playwright, whose verse, though unique in its way, was not unlike that of other academic poets: complex, obscure, written primarily for academicians and other poets. After a period of transition, traceable in his poems and essays, he turned his back on the established powers responsible for making him a success, and set about working toward the organization of the black community in his hometown, Newark, New Jersey. His poetry underwent several significant changes (as did his name from Jones to Imamu Amiri Baraka), becoming aggressively militant in its tone and message, and directed, in the manner of Langston Hughes, to the people. Most of the younger black-poetry writers have followed his lead. (p. 16)
Donald B. Gibson, "Introduction" to Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Donald B. Gibson (© 1973 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey), Prentice-Hall, 1973, pp. 1-17.
LeRoi Jones' poetry describes a quest for a moral order which he feels ultimately impelled to create for himself and on his own terms. It begins as a moral order similar to T. S. Eliot's in The Waste Land and similar to the order insisted upon by the comic books and the radio serials of Jones' youth. The moral order Jones searched for is related to Eliot's hanged man, who appears frequently in Jones' work. But it is also related to the hero as something other than victim: to the existential hero who, like the Shadow, the Lone Ranger, and Green Lantern, can act individually to impose a strong moral order on a disordered world. Yet both of these visions are rejected…. All his heroes die; his values are inverted …; his only recourse is to become his own hero in the streets, to create his own black gods, and to preach a destruction of the old order as a means of preparing for the new. The pain and anguish he experienced in reaching this point—including the loss of faith in the old heroes and the old moral order—are the subject of the bulk of the poems in … three published volumes, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961), The Dead Lecturer (1964), and Black Magic (1969).
In view of the influences Jones recognizes in his own work, Baudelaire, Duncan, Olson, Ginsberg, to name a few, it may seem strange to isolate Eliot. But Eliot's influence is pervasive: it operates on many levels simultaneously. The fragmented structure of The Waste Land figures in many of Jones' more difficult poems, particularly in the poems of the fifties and early sixties. The vision of the world as wasted and infertile; the vision of a world having turned its back on God; the vision of rat's feet through the ruined city all seem as much a part of Jones' poetry as of Eliot's. Rhythms which are decidedly Eliotic crop up in crucial moments in the early—and sometimes the late—poems. And innumerable direct references and allusions to Eliot pepper all the poems, though they are most obvious and most frequent in the middle work. What all this seems to point to is an effort on Jones' part to understand the moral dilemma of his own situation as a black man in a white city, oppressed and displaced in his own land, in the mythic terms which satisfied Eliot and which concerned the ultimate problem of God, moral order, the disregard of man, and the hope of resolution through love and faith. In Eliot we find the thin edge of despair honed to razor sharpness only to be neutralized by faith in a God for whom justice is clear, unambiguous, and thorough—if not sudden and swift. (pp. 112-13)
Jones' almanac is a moral almanac, like Eliot's record of the seasons; both their landscapes are moral landscapes, with the wind and the cold not only affecting, but reflecting the souls of men. The differences in their views lie perhaps in the feeling, on Eliot's part, that though the world has been wasted by man, God could somehow still inspirit it if he wished. Eliot's view is that there is a moral order in the nature of things which man has somehow lost the key to…. But for Jones such is not at all so clearly the case. His almanac poems suggest a picture of despair. The winds are cutting, the people infertile, the children impossibly aged. The question of the soul and the question of religion figure strongly in the almanacs as they do in many of the rest of his poems. But Jones has no basic conviction that the basic moral order is there and needs only to be understood anew. Jones in no way renounces his faith in God, but he examines in painful detail his relation to Eliot's God. In these early poems the distinction between Jones' God and Eliot's God seems almost academic. The images Jones uses correspond closely enough to Eliot's to convince us that they are one and the same, the hanged man—Jesus Christ. But the fact seems to be that Jones is examining from the very first the nature of God, that he is trying to see himself in relation to Christ and Eliot's vision, and that he ultimately renounces Eliot's God on the grounds that the moral order is inverted because of the nature of the God himself. If he wishes to set things straight for himself, he must give up the Christian God and find his own. (pp. 115-16)
Critics who have seen nihilism and nothing more … in Jones' work are simply wrong. He is looking for something—for a God and a moral code—which will not destroy empires or him. By no means is he fearful of violence or destruction so long as it produces the destruction of the code that destroyed Moctezuma. He sees no irony in the need for such violence: no more than one sees in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, perhaps a reasonable analogy. (p. 119)
It may be said that one of Jones' solutions to the dilemma of what to do about Eliot's God, and what to do about the existential heroes of his comic book youth, is to supplant them both in his own person. (p. 125)
Perhaps it is merely a vatic pose Jones adopts in these poems, and he does not apotheosize himself at all. But there is a curiosity that lingers in the imagination regarding the name he has assumed since the publication of his poems, the Islamic name which appears in the "Explanation" to Black Magic. One wonders if God and the comic book heroes are dead forever, or if they have been absorbed into Jones' poetic unconscious waiting to poke out again. His name, Báraka, like Lorca's Duende, means many things. Its root is Hebrew: Brk, and it means a number of things: lightning, the blessed of God, virtue, inspiration, the muse. "Since lightning is a phenomenon everywhere attributed to the gods, báraka means the sudden divine rapture that overcomes either a prophet or a group of fervent devotees." It makes one think of the lightning bolt on Captain Marvel's chest, the faith that transformed a Billy Batson at the altar of Shazam, and the consequent faith that out of the scourge of action will come a new order, a new wholeness. (p. 126)
Lee A. Jacobus, "Imamu Amiri Baraka: The Quest for Moral Order" (copyright © 1973 by Lee A. Jacobus), in Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Donald B. Gibson, Prentice-Hall, 1973, pp. 112-26.
The mark of LeRoi Jones' poetry is the mark of his personality on the printed page. He is the most personal so far of the Afro-American poets. For him poetry is the flow of being, the process of human electricity interacting with the weight of time, tapped and possibly trapped on paper. Feelings, impressions, moods, passions move unedited through a structure of shifting images. Quick poems, light on their feet, like a fancy middle-weight. Mostly, his poems carry no argument, no extractable, paraphraseable statement. They operate prior to the pros and cons of rational, persuasive, politic discourse. Even after several readings, one is likely to remember mainly a flavor, a distinct attitude of spirit, an insistent, very personal voice.
His poetry is written out of a heavy anti-rationalist, anti-didactic bias. Its obligation is to the intentions of its own feelings. Its posture is in defiance of criticism. The critic is for him the sycophant and would-be legislator of official (white) reality, an implacable enemy, the best symbol of the spiritually dead pseudo-intellectuality of the West. (Lula in Dutchman is a white critic, if you watch closely.) Against the strictures and constipations of this official reality, his poetry is an imposition upon the reader of the actuality, the majesty even (hence, LeRoi) of his subjectivity. The personalism of his earlier poetry, particularly, is a challenge to the ready-to-wear definitions of the sociologically defined "Negro writer" lying in wait for him. (p. 127)
All his poems give the notion of being end-of-the-line thoughts, where attempts to reach an understanding dance on the edge of ambiguity. They are the works of an apprentice guru, "stuntin' for disciples," he later decided.
A major source of this creative orientation came from the streets. The hipsterism that nourished his poetry has to be regarded respectfully since whatever its limitations hipsterism was the germ of several cultural and social revolutions still turning in the world today. Hipsterism was a counter-assertion to brand-name, white values and the conformism of middle America, a serio-comic celebration of energies and forms unaccounted for, a mysticism (with some odd resemblances to Zen and other spiritual disciplines) of rhythms and tempos inside of and beyond metronomic, bureaucratic time, reflective of the polyrhythmic time of black music (particularly be-bop) and of the fluid, open time-space sensation of a pot high. Hipsterism was a new, Afro-American ontology, a style of knowing the world and acknowledging in the parody of one's own posture the craziness of a materialistic, hyper-rationalist, racist, self-contradictory square world on the one hand and the absurdity of a universe that mocked human values in its variousness and arbitrariness on the other.
An important aspect of hipsterism that LeRoi absorbed, less familiar than, say, the relationship to black music, was its deep fascination with the ghost-spirits and fantasy-figures of pop culture, the radio, movies, the comic book. (p. 128)
To borrow a figure whose fascination Jones shares with Blake, his poetry passes through a vortex—a point at which physical forces converge—such as the center of a whirlpool…. His development has been through one vortex into another (carrying a large segment of creative Afro-America with him). A reading of his works together shows that the crossing was not as sudden as its results were profound. More important, at the convergence-point of these two vortexes the themes, motifs, style, images are common to both, though sometimes inverted.
In brief, what we can see happening in Black Magic Poetry, 1961–1967 is the despair without reference-point of the earlier volumes discovering its most sufficient cause in the enormity of the fall of man under whiteness. (pp. 129-30)
The vagrant itches of his personal fantasies come home to a new cosmology, much indebted to Elijah Muhammad (see the dramatization of the Yacub myth in Black Mass). The natural order of the universe, in which "everything is everything" and man is in harmonious relation to nature and the gods, his imaginative and creative powers equal to his needs, has been interrupted disastrously by the intrusion of a counter-human homunculus (the white man) who maintains its parasitical existence feeding on the blood of living (nonwhite, essentially black) people and their cultures. A crucial image is the vampire. (p. 130)
But to characterize Jones' poetry rather than a particular segment of black nationalist ideology is to recognize the residue of the earlier, personal world-view transformed in the [later] work. For instance, the particular, non-conformist "craziness" of the be-bopper, one indigenous reference point for the adolescent Leroy, becomes the "black madness" of "Black Dada Nihilismus" and then the holier black madness of the intense, fiery, disorienting (to whites) commitment to blackness of the third section of [Black Magic Poetry]. (pp. 130-31)
What emerges is a diabolism, incipient from the earliest poems, whose main feature is the blaspheming of the hated religion, in this case the religion of whiteness. It is a commitment implied in the title, Black Mass, or in the poem "Black Art"… or in the whole conception of Black Magic Poetry. The black magic motive (black meant ironically) is the drive to weave an imaginative spell powerful and compelling enough to counteract in the minds of black people the spell of the white man for "To turn their evil backwards / is to / live"…. (p. 131)
It is as though his talent were lying around like an empty bag until filled by the spirit-breath of suddenly conscious black people and took stunning shapes from the idioms, rhythms, folklore, the needs and crises, the beauties of a self-defining Afro-America. Some of the Black Magic poems adapt the forms of blacktalk: the dozens in "T. T. Jackson sings" and "Word from the Right Wing"; wallwritings like "You cannot hurt / Muhammud Ali, and stay / alive"; hoodoo curses like "Babylon Revisited" and "Sacred Chant for the Return of Black Spirit and Power," raps such as "Poem for Half-White College Students," put-downs like "CIVIL RIGHTS POEM" and neo-African chants such as "Part of the Doctrine"…. But more of the poems are free-form reflective lyrics, alternately public and private, in which Jones shows remarkable growth as "a long breath singer" in contrast to the telegraphese of the earlier work. In these, where the inspiration is street talk and the long, cascading line of Coltrane and what might be called the Eastern-Astral school of black music, the utterance moves in one unimpedable breath, with its own swoops, cries, distributed vocal parts, sound effects and faultlessly chosen words to its cymbal-crash ending. Poems like "Poem for Black Hearts" and "Black People" are among the few works equal to the intensity and urgency of the black rediscovery years of the sixties.
The incandescent furies of [Black Magic Poetry] subside in subsequent poems, some of them collected in In Our Terribleness (1970). It is as though Jones sensed that simple, diabolical inversion of white values is another form of flattery and dependency and that the creative motif of despelling the white man had run its course. The later poems, more independently reflective of the spiritual needs of black people, are mellower, less satiric, showing a deeper turn into mysticism. This latest change in a poet who believes in change as a fundamental aspect of reality is signaled by the adoption of a new name, Imamu Amiri Baraka.
There are enough brilliant poems of such variety in Black Magic and In Our Terribleness to establish the unique identity and claim for respect of several poets. But it is beside the point that Baraka is probably the finest poet, black or white, writing in this country these days. The question still has to be asked whether he has fulfilled the vocation set for him by his own moves and examples. He has called himself a "seer" (one familiar with evil is the way he defined it) and holy man, but hesitates to claim (while vying for it) the fateful name of prophet. (pp. 131-32)
A poet's obligation, by contrast [with the prophet's], is to the integrity of his verbal rendering of his individual sensibility. The problem is whether Baraka's creative impulse, which is essentially underground, hip, urban, and avant-garde, can be made to speak for a nation of black people rather than for a set of black nationalists. Can he transcend the inclination to ad-lib on the changes of black consciousness (the way be-boppers ad-libbed on "Indiana") toward redefining that consciousness in the light of enduring values and in major works of sustained thought and imagination?
"We need a heavy book, like the Bible or the Koran," he writes in In Our Terribleness. This is doubtless too much to ask of one man. There are qualities, further, in his creative armament that run counter to that need. He seems to confuse fantasy, which is whimsical and gratuitous (consider "Answers in Progress" in Tales, 1967, and "All in the Streets" in Terribleness, both beautiful reveries) with myth, which, however non-rational its basis, holds firmly to a certain kind of cause-effect economy. His early avant-garde posture has given way to a mysticism that depends upon other people's orthodoxies, a gnosticism, really, that carries with it the aura of initiates, adepts and degrees of secret lore. The magic of his poetry owes almost as much to his enchantment with figures of pop culture like Mandrake, Lamont Cranston, Plastic Man, and The Green Lantern as it does to African cosmology and Arabic philosophers. Some of his symbols look like paraphernalia left over from a Shriner's convention. In his later work, black nationalism moves toward becoming a subdivision of the occult sciences, whereas something more broadbacked, comprehensive, open, accountable seems demanded by the ethos of black people—the kind of poetry (groping for a reference) Malcolm might have written, had he turned his genius in that direction.
The legacy of hipsterism, then, together with his still rather Baudelairean spiritual elegance, places Baraka's work always underground or aloft in relation to the meat and potatoes' scene where the straight world works out its dull, mediocre gimmicks. His peril is that his work must pass close to that fearful terrain—not conceding to whiteness all of the middle, ordinary world, where humans play out their messy lives—if it is going to take on the amplitude and range of black being.
The limitations I speak of, already dwindling in his latest pieces, really go beyond a consideration of Baraka as poet. There, the same qualities are adornments of his invented poetic cosmos, part of the spell-binding conviction of the work, adding tones to one of the distinctive, compelling, haunted modern voices, a voice like the nerve-endings of our terrible times. They are part of the legend, a legend supported by a list of accomplishments impressive in a writer just reaching midcareer. And he has become a prophet in the literary sense, establishing modes in which some of the most stirring impulses of black expressiveness have found form. Behind this record, still another title comes to mind for Baraka, one we used to confer only upon ourselves; he is "The Kid of Afro-American Writing." (pp. 133-34)
Clyde Taylor, "Baraka as Poet" (copyright © 1973 by Clyde Taylor), in Modern Black Poets, edited by Donald B. Gibson, Prentice-Hall, 1973, pp. 127-34.