Amiri Baraka Short Fiction Analysis
Amiri Baraka’s literary career has had three distinct periods. In the first period—the late 1950’s and early 1960’s—he was influenced by, and became a part of, the predominantly white avant garde Beat movement in the arts. By the mid-1960’s, Baraka had become a black nationalist (indicated by his rejection of the name LeRoi Jones), and many of his better-known plays, like Dutchman, reflect his confrontational racial views from this period. Since the 1970’s, Baraka has continued working as a political activist and writer, but his writing has increasingly encompassed a Marxist economic analysis in addition to his strong racial views. Nearly all of Baraka’s short stories—although they continued to be reprinted into the 1980’s and 1990’s—first appeared in his earlier black nationalist period in the 1960’s and reflected both the literary experiments of his Beat period and the increasingly political attitudes of his black nationalism. While many of these stories hold mainly historical interest today, the best are still compelling examples of how radical political views and experimental prose styles could be fused in the 1960’s, when a number of writers, both white and black, were trying to merge their art and their politics.
This collection of fiction was published in 1967 and contains sixteen short prose pieces written during the previous decade and published in various small literary magazines. Most of these stories are distinguished by an experimental prose style wedded to a strong political analysis. The first nine in the collection have a fairly traditional narrative line. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Alternate Ending,” for example, is a six-page story that centers on the interaction between a fifth-grader and his racist teacher, but the brief story also includes multiple points of view and a surprise ending. The last seven stories in the collection, however, reject traditional storytelling for a poetic prose style closer to the rhythms of jazz. “Words” is prose poetry written in “the alien language of another tribe” and dated “Harlem 1965.” “Answers in Progress”—reprinted along with “Words” in Baraka’s 1979 Selected Plays and Prose—features spaceships and the musical group Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. So, while the prose content can often be combative and challenging, Baraka’s style is increasingly fragmentary in structure, poetic in style, and cryptic in meaning, particularly in the last stories collected in Tales. Put another way, readers can see Baraka in this collection moving away from traditional fiction toward poetry and essay.
“A Chase (Alighieri’s Dream)”
The story that opens Tales is only a few pages in length, but into it Baraka has packed a great deal of meaning. The title is the first clue, leading readers back through his novel (The System of Dante’s Hell) to the Italian Dante Alighieri, whose La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802) contains one...
(The entire section is 1254 words.)