Amiri Baraka

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Amiri Baraka American Literature Analysis

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Baraka’s writings divide into three distinctive patterns according to both form and content. His first literary period, although sometimes unconventional in dramatic subject matter, is his most conventional in form. Written under the name LeRoi Jones, the work of this early period is distinguished by a preoccupation with self-identity as well as a nascent concern for the lack of a collective black consciousness.

The work of his second literary period, during which he had begun to write as Imamu Amiri Baraka, is more experimental in form and is marked by strong advocacy of black separatism. A romantic with a profound belief in humankind’s spiritual potential, the Baraka of this period sees whites as having distorted their spiritual capacities into materialistic oppression; therefore, he advocates the extinction of the white race (and its cultural artifacts) and the creation of a new black world. To that end, Baraka seeks to raise his readers’ consciousness of history amid racial identity so that, through dramatic involvement, they will be moved to active resistance.

The characteristics of this period (Baraka’s most universally acclaimed) are based upon his belief that art is a dynamic, utilitarian process that must have an integral role in any “living” black community by virtue of the experiences it offers for growth. The white culture, according to Baraka, has already self-destructed from a pervasive, incurable emotional and spiritual paralysis.

Consequently, Baraka rejects white American English through the re-creation of black speech patterns, whose words and sounds combine synergistically to produce a challenging syntax and a lyrical dramatic rhythm. Unlike his goal during his first literary period, Baraka’s intent at this stage is predominantly ethnocentric. He employs inflammatory and obscene language to startle his readers, to force their emotional awareness. Perceiving violence as the only viable means to black rebirth, Baraka consciously chooses a multisensory, surrealistic style that can assault his audience. His dramatization of historical injustices is uncompromising, as are his solutions. Furthermore, his consuming hatred of whites exacerbates the violence he advocates. His concern for the black oppressed is balanced to some degree by his affirmation that blacks, as the superior race, can overcome their oppressors and can establish self-sufficiency.

Baraka’s need to disavow the deceit and the deadliness he believes to be inherent in white English gradually leads to increased literary experimentation. Generally, his punctuation and his capitalization become extreme; for example, he uses open parentheses and diagonals for pauses. He may capitalize every letter of a word for emphasis, spell phonetically, invent abbreviations, and pun. Another characteristic is his extensive use of present participles to connote the dynamic process of living.

In Baraka’s nonfiction prose, he intermittently breaks the convolutions of his lengthy sentences with sentence fragments and asides addressed to the reader. His fiction is associational rather than chronological in content. In his poetry, he seeks the purest expression of his “beingness” by extending his verbal inventiveness, at times to the point of unintelligibility. His inversion of traditional symbols is particularly noteworthy. For example, the white god-figure and his dictums are false, created by the white race to victimize others; therefore, the sun, traditionally life-giving, becomes a symbol of black spiritual energy and a mortal threat to whites.

Slave Ship: A Historical Pageant (1967) is representative of his separatist ritual drama. As is typical of black nationalist theater, physical and emotional violence is portrayed in a series of evocative slave images meant to draw audience response on an emotional level. With little dialogue, the playscript depends heavily upon music, dance, sounds, and lighting to build—through horrifying black experiences—to the final affirmation of black beauty and power. When cast...

(This entire section contains 2568 words.)

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and audience unite, however, Baraka’s script calls for a disembodied head to be thrown amid the celebration, a graphic reminder that the struggle has not ended.

Baraka’s third literary phase is characteristically Marxist; he no longer uses Imamu as a part of his name. He seeks an intellectual rather than an emotional response to his writing. His style is didactic and propagandizing, and he has enlarged the scope of his concern from a focus on black cultural victimization and racial identity to a socialistic focus on the world’s oppressed. Instead of denouncing whites as the cause of America’s ills, Baraka defends all who have been victimized, regardless of race, and blames the world’s “dis-ease” on capitalists and imperialists. This does not, however, mean that he has abandoned his active participation in creating a unified black world of self-determination and nonoppression; in his third literary period he sees black nationalism being achieved as only one consequence of an inevitable socialist revolution.


First produced: 1964 (first published, 1964)

Type of work: Play

On the New York subway, Lula, a thirty-year-old white woman, seduces and murders Clay, a twenty-year-old black man.

Dutchman, winner of the 1964 Obie Award for best Off-Broadway production, is a riveting dramatization of psychosexual, interracial tensions. The title bears mythical implications, supported by Baraka’s own stage directions, which indicate a subway setting filled with modern myth. Despite Baraka’s insistence that the two main characters are individuals, not allegorical creations, he confines them within this subterranean set. The Dutch sailed the first slave-bearing vessel to the American colonies. The legend of The Flying Dutchman is one of a ship cursed to sail the seas eternally without ever finding safe harbor. Even if the first were a simple allusion, together these suggest that white America has doomed itself through its nonrecognition of blacks as human. If so, Lula, as the white representative, will inhabit the subway, preying upon her black victims until one galvanizes himself into action, freeing himself and both races through her murder.

Lula, the protagonist, controls scene 1. She enters from behind Clay, initiates their confrontive conversation, and sits beside him. Even though he is uncomfortable, she makes seductive overtures. Her accurate assessment of his middle-class background and assimilationist behavioral mask also fascinates him into continuing their conversation. Lula, the oppressor, condescendingly sees Clay as a stereotype and commands the topics with which they essentially talk at each other. By admitting that she is a liar—and later, that she is insane—Lula forces him into the untenable situation of having to process each of her statements as fact or fiction. Furthermore, it is she who offers Clay an apple that he accepts; critics have made much of the possible Adam and Eve analogy. Lula is also the initiator of physical aggression, first running her hand along Clay’s leg and later harshly grabbing and shaking his wrist.

Clay, in suit and striped tie despite the summer heat, has assimilated into the white world. He does not wish to call attention to himself. Clay sees Lula also as a stereotype—of the liberal white woman fascinated by fantasies of interracial sexual intercourse. Momentarily excited by her, he allows himself to become vulnerable by adapting to her mercuric emotional shifts.

In scene 2, as Lula describes her party plans in seductive detail, Clay begins to make physical advances. Their dialogue, strikingly fast-paced from the play’s opening lines, intensifies into a dueling rhythm as they both become more openly confrontational. They even capture the attention of normally apathetic fellow subway riders, who watch their interaction with some interest. A major shift occurs when Lula unmasks Clay, accusing him of having escaped to her (the white) side. Clay assumes control, and Lula defends herself with hysterics, singing and dancing in the train aisle. Clay refuses every invitation to join her until she goads him to restrain her by warning him that he is dying because of his assimilation, that he must release himself from his self-imposed bonds. He wrestles her (as well as the drunk who attempts to defend her) into submission, slapping her with full strength.

Baraka sees dance as an ultimate expression of life. Lula’s hysterical invitation, however, assumes a double meaning. Even though she may be offering Clay an apparent passageway out of his self-victimization, she is simultaneously inviting him into a new bondage: life on her terms. With no viable means of regaining his mask or escaping, Clay is finally free to expunge his rage. He erupts into a devastating diatribe that avows his contempt for those who surround themselves with illusions to avoid reality, his homicidal hatred of whites, and his need to assimilate so as not to commit mass murder. According to Clay, black art and music are escape valves that would be unnecessary if the artists would simply exterminate whites: “A whole people of neurotics, struggling to keep from being sane. And the only thing that would cure the neurosis would be your murders.”

Clay defeats himself, however, by retreating tiredly from an insistence upon action to the safety of words. He concludes with a warning not to trust assimilated blacks because someday they will embark on a genocidal rampage, using as their justification the same white rationalizations they have been taught.

As Clay bends to gather his books, Lula stabs him twice; after he has destroyed her illusions of him, she must destroy him. Whether her actions are premeditated can be interpreted dramatically through her interactions with the other passengers. Her earlier admission that she knows them even more intimately than she knows Clay and their easy acquiescence in disposing of his body suggest either complicity or a compelling fear. That their presence as her “crew” is prearranged is in keeping with the Dutchman myth. Her preparation to start the cycle once more with another young black who enters the car further supports the mythical interpretation.

In Dutchman, Baraka dramatizes two of his major themes. The first is that dehumanizing sexuality, in any form, leads to death. Clay and Lula’s sexual interaction is simply another layer of masking. It is sterile, with no spiritual or emotional intimacy. Baraka’s second theme is that psychic paralysis leads to annihilation. Clay has the opportunity to survive until he is caught in his own self-destructive trap. As a poet, he retreats into words and poetry when challenged because they are safe and comfortable, even when he recognizes the need for action. He does not see his art’s potential as a motivating agent for change, and he reverts to passive resistance, giving up. Consequently, his art, too, is sterile. It is Lula who survives, by committing the extreme guerrilla action in murdering him.

“An Agony. As Now.”

First published: 1964 (collected in Transbluesency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka, 1995)

Type of work: Poem

From within a white metal shell, the poet views nature and remembers himself.

In “An Agony. As Now,” from The Dead Lecturer (1964), Baraka describes in sensuous phrases his emotional and spiritual paralysis. The title of this poetry collection is a reference to the attempted suicide of the speaker. His sense of dissociation from the self who hates him is a normal part of the recovery process; however, Baraka adds another level of meaning. The inverted symbolism of white implies that assimilation, voluntary or involuntary, is a significant factor of the imprisonment.

Openings in the mask allow the persona to see, but the metal prevents any human contact. Introspectively addressing his ruminations to the soul he has sightlessly abandoned, he recalls a woman who ran from him to the forest of white “civilization” and a man decaying from psychic paralysis, “never beautiful.” The speaker’s mind races unencumbered to the sun in a series of associational images that offer a brief hope for resurrection with fragmented water imagery. Nevertheless, the torment escalates as he recognizes the corruption surrounding him. The sun is love, self-actualization, God, but the poet is trapped within himself and does not know how to reach the love, despite his need. Therefore, the sun reaches out to him, heating his white metal shell and burning awareness into him. His final scream is a scream of self-realization, a moment of truth, in which he relinquishes his detachment and accepts himself.

Baraka’s characteristic devices include the use of open parentheses and commas to stop his reader and to increase the associational possibilities of his phrasing. Inverted symbolism and the repetition of key words and phrases reinforce his meaning as he guides his reader on a journey from mind, through sun, God, and soul, to beauty. The speaker’s shell is the corrupting veneer of white civilization. To acknowledge his true identity, the black poet must reject the easy answers and accept his black consciousness as beautiful. Only after he destroys the facade will he again feel.

“Monk’s World”

First published: 1993 (collected in Funk Lore: New Poems, 1984-1995, 1996)

Type of work: Poem

The poet recalls his encounter with Thelonious Monk and his music in the jazz quarter of Manhattan.

One cannot fully understand “Monk’s World” without knowing about jazz. To Amiri Baraka, poetry is a form of music guided first by rhythm, without which words, which are rhythmic themselves, do not even exist. To look at “Monk’s World,” therefore, references to the background and the virtuosity of black music are indispensable. Originally appearing in a bilingual Italian publication Morso Dal Suono in 1993, the poem is a dedication to Thelonious Monk, the “High Priest of Bebop” in the 1940’s, and to his music, which has continued to inspire Baraka throughout his career.

Written in avant-garde language and free form, the poem begins with one of Monk’s most enduring jazz ballads, “Round Midnight,” where readers are brought into the jazz scene with Monk improvising the “hot” bebop music—the fire engine solo—in the Village Vanguard, a renowned Manhattan jazz club. Adding to the fervor and musicality of the poem are the terms that Baraka uses: “spaced funk” (“spaced” suggesting the state of being “spaced out” associated with drug taking, particularly marijuana, of which jazz musicians have been fond), “numbers & letters” (musical composition and improvisation), “black keys signifying” (the underlying messages or criticism on which the music plays), “weird birds” (bebop, which is “weird” because it is still new, radical, and somewhat oppositional compared to traditional jazz, and “bird” referring to the great American jazz musician Charlie “Bird” Parker).

Baraka described the music that he encountered with Monk as an “intimate revelation” in which the “black keys” answered his questions, in which the piano collected one’s feelings into its “diary.” The music speaks not only the words that one uses to communicate but also the unspeakable emotions that one desires to share. The atmosphere of the jazz quarter was brought to great intensity when Monk “dipped” and “spun” the music with which he “danced” at the audience, who in response want to get up and dance. “What’s happening?” appears twice as a question, or rather as an exclamation in the sixth stanza, to convey the celestial state of mind brought about by the music of “every googolplex” (immense quantity) of a second. John Coltrane, another great American jazz musician, was introduced onto the scene when Monk played with him. The second-to-last stanza makes references to Monk’s composition “Straight, No Chaser” and to Interstellar Space, in which Coltrane recorded compositions named after the planets.

The poem ends as an echo to the opening stanza where the fire engine solo becomes screaming blues and “cats” standing around turn into scatted flying things, bringing the music to its height and filling the night and the empty street with vigor and vibrancy—this is Monk’s world.


Baraka, Imamu Amiri (Vol. 10)