Introspective yet concerned with public, political issues, Amiri Baraka’s works frequently focus on his personal attempt to define an African American identity. Born into a close-knit family that had migrated from the South, Baraka was a bright student. In adolescence Baraka became aware of differences between African American middle-class and working-class lives and viewpoints. He recalls the identity crisis that grew out of his developing class awareness in such works as “Letter to E. Franklin Frazier,” his novel The System of Dante’s Hell, and short stories collected in Tales (1967). His interest in jazz and blues also began in adolescence and was reinforced by the mentorship of poet Sterling A. Brown, one of Baraka’s professors at Howard University.
After an enlistment in the Air Force, Baraka settled in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1957 and began publishing Yugen, a poetry magazine that became one of the important journals of the Beat generation. After the success of his play Dutchman and his recognition as an important critic for his study Blues People: Negro Music in White America, the assassination of Malcolm X was a shocking event that caused Baraka to reject his previous faith in the possibilities of a racially integrated society. In 1965, he embraced a Black Nationalist political viewpoint and helped establish the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School in Harlem, which became the center of a nationwide Black Arts movement. This movement attempted to produce literature, music, and visual art addressed to the masses of African Americans. The Black Arts movement aimed at expressing a unique ethnic worldview and what Baraka called “a Black value system.” His works of this period often depict a hostile white society and question whether middle-class aspirations and individualism endangered the progress of African Americans as a group. He saw the collective improvisation of jazz as a model for the arts and for political activism.
Turning to Marxism in 1974, Baraka extended these ideas. Dedicating his work to revolutionary action, Baraka suggested that the situation of African Americans paralleled that of colonized Third World peoples in Africa and Asia. Teaching at the State University of New York and other colleges, Baraka produced highly original poems, plays, and essays that continued to address controversial issues and to reach a wide international readership. His experiments with literary form—particularly the use of African American vernacular speech—also has influenced many younger American writers.