Amiri Baraka

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Amiri Baraka Short Fiction Analysis

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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.

Tales

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 of the most powerful descriptions of hell in all of literature. Baraka’s hell is the modern ghetto, and in particular Newark, New Jersey, where he grew up. As critic Lloyd Brown describes “A Chase,” “The story as a whole is a nightmarish series of images through which the writer presents an overview of life in the black ghetto.” The story’s narration is a surreal and staccato stream of consciousness through which the young protagonist links together a number of disparate images:Faces broke. Charts of age. Worn thru, to see black years. Bones in iron faces. Steel bones. Cages of decay. Cobblestones are wet near the army stores. Beer smells, Saturday. To now, they have passed so few lovely things.

Like the protagonist in “The Screamers,” the narrator here is in a dreamlike,...

(This entire section contains 1254 words.)

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and finally nightmarish, flight through the streets of the inner city. Hell, Baraka shows, is here and now, and there seems to be no escape from it.

“The Screamers”

Reprinted at least half a dozen times since its appearance in Tales, generally in collections of African American fiction, “The Screamers” is by far Baraka’s best-known short story. The narrative covers one night in a black jazz nightclub in Newark (probably in the early 1950’s) from the perspective of a young man listening to “Harlem Nocturne” and other popular dance tunes. What makes this night unique is the performance of saxophonist Lynn Hope, who in an inspired moment leads the musicians through the crowd and out into the streets. “It would be the form of the sweetest revolution, to hucklebuck into the fallen capital, and let the oppressors lindy hop out.” The police arrive and attack the crowd, a riot ensues, and the marchers “all broke our different ways, to save whatever it was each of us thought we loved.” The story has a number of elements common to Baraka’s fiction: the positive depiction of African American cultural forms (including a kind of “bop” jazz language), the conflict between this culture and white oppressors, and the metaphor of black art—here music, but it could as easily stand for writing—as an inspirational cultural form which, while it cannot finally overcome white oppression, at least achieves a moment of heightened consciousness for the people (here called “Biggers,” in reference to the central character, Bigger Thomas, of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son) listening to the music and moved by it.

“The Death of Horatio Alger”

The titles of Baraka’s stories—such as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Alternate Ending” or “A Chase (Alighieri’s Dream)”—often carry the larger meaning of the work, even when the story makes no further reference to it. In the case of “The Death of Horatio Alger,” the tale seems a fairly simple description of a childhood fight. The narrator of the tale, Mickey, is playing dozens—a black word game of insults aimed at participants’ parents—with his best friend, J.D., and in front of three white friends. J.D. misunderstands one of the insults and attacks Mickey, and then they both attack the three white boys (who do not understand the black word game to begin with). The story is thus about communication and its failure, but also about the Horatio Alger myths of equality and freedom and about the alienation Baraka’s protagonists often experience. As Lloyd Brown accurately writes of the story, “In stripping himself of insensitive white friends and Horatio Alger images of American society, Mickey is putting an end to his alienation from his black identity.”

“The Alternative”

Plot line in “The Alternative” has been replaced by multiple images substituting for short-story narrative. The setting is a black university, and the story reverberates with references from that environment (such as Thomas Hobbes, Albert Camus, Federico García Lorca, and Nat King Cole) and the piece is thus the most allusive in the Tales collection. It is clear that this setting is also part of the cause of the alienation of the central character, Ray McGhee, in this surreal depiction of college dormitory life. Like many of Baraka’s plays (such as Dutchman), “The Alternative” describes the tension between an individual outsider and the group. In Lloyd Brown’s interpretation of the story, he says,The erudition that is the key to middle-class success and future leadership also sets him apart from other blacks, even from those who, like himself, have chosen the middle-class ‘alternative.’

The lack of a linear plot line, and its replacement by lines of dialogue and images, may explain why in later decades Baraka has dropped attempts at fiction to write nonfiction prose, poetry, and drama, to the exclusion of prose fiction.

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