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 lying around; and though Mr. Jones's tone is one of letting the chips fall where they may—off his or anyone else's shoulders—his effort is analogously strenuous…. (p. 403)
The undertaking has less, evidently, to do with information than with public speaking…. Yet this fancy-talk of the social sciences is not used to describe or even to analyze, but to condemn and to despise. There are times when the belief in original virtue, a concept Mr. Jones has invented to oppose the original sin of being Black in White America, sounds either histrionic or professional, and in Blues People, for all its clever discussions of Armstrong and Beider-becke, Bebop and Swing, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman (the way out, these...
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M. L. Rosenthal
[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 in Hellas: "The world's great age begins anew." In such work the quality of the poet's engagement with truth makes him incapable of using language dishonestly. But in part of "BLACK DADA NIHILISMUS" Baraka's political rhetoric cheapens his poem and dilutes its intended but merely contrived barbaric ferocity. His catalogue of names, for example, places Lumumba in the same category of race victims as characters in American comic strips and radio serials, nightclub performers, and prize-fighters, so that he weakens and at last loses the poem's original incantatory force.
Even in this poem, however,… Baraka has not betrayed himself entirely through an oversimplified rhetoric. He is the victim of his own best human...
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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 the bizarre, surrealistic white world and the more realistic scenes from black life. The down-to-earth black chorus that chides Sidney, warning him not to sell out, becomes predictable and tedious. So does the dizzy white nymphomaniac, who continually shinnies up poor Sidney as if he were some great phallic monument available to public climbers.
Eventually, what begins as a witty analysis of human appetite (not specifically black or white) dwindles into a simplistic morality tale, resolved as if by magic. All Sidney has to do is put on Black Muslim gear and chant a Muslim chant, and the evil that threatened him disappears, the girlfriend he abandoned when he married a white woman comes back to him, and all is well in...
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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 attention…. With a message so powerful and persuasive, original packaging or marketing is presumed unnecessary. Since style evinces individuality, it is anathema. Stylelessness (itself a style; an automaton's style) is a virtue. The more execrable your art, the more absolute your faith.
Ordinarily … the fact that an Amiri Baraka wins high grades for faith and correspondingly low grades for art would be of no interest. But once, in a former life, Baraka was LeRoi Jones and scoring the reverse. Skeptical, angry, eloquent, with an active and original intelligence, Jones was a playwright and poet on whom not just blacks and militants, but all lovers of art were putting their faith and their bets. For a moment he radicalized...
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Sherley Anne Williams
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 place him within the tradition of Western literary radicalism. But cannibalism has become such an ingrained part of the American Way, that to say this seems … to exclude Baraka from an equal place in Afro-American experience. That is, the literary achievement of Baraka the radical, the black militant, is used to glorify what Stevie Wonder aptly calls "That Bad Luck Way." (pp. 435-36)
The major tension in Afro-American poetry has been the dialectic between the Euro-American literate tradition—the cultural assumptions as well as the body of texts which are based on those assumptions—and Afro-American oral culture—music, speech and the patterns of living out of which they are created. This tension is symbolized in the...
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P. J. Laska
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."
Song is what's missing from Baraka's list of what the people need from poets.
Wedged in between the revolutionary rhetoric there are a couple of poems that let you know Baraka is still a major poetic voice. (p. 115)
A problem for political poetry is that of achieving an abstract statement raised up from the materials and linked dialectically with the content. A political poet runs the risk of assertion. Baraka's assertion has the fierce intensity characteristic of left-wing sectarian attitudes. (p. 116)
P. J. Laska, in The Minnesota Review (© 1978 by The Minnesota Review), Spring, 1978.
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