Amiri Baraka 1934–
(Born Everett LeRoy Jones; has also written as LeRoi Jones and Imamu Amiri Baraka) American poet, dramatist, short story writer, novelist, essayist, critic, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Baraka's career through 1997. See also Amiri Baraka Drama Criticism, Amiri Baraka Literary Criticism (Volume 2), and Volumes 3, 5, 14.
A seminal figure in the development of contemporary black literature, Baraka is a controversial writer. His career has encompassed the Beat movement, black nationalism, and the tenets of Marxist-Leninist philosophy, and his verse is imbued with such concerns as cultural alienation, racial tension and conflict, and the necessity for social change through revolutionary means. According to some scholars, he succeeded James Baldwin and Richard Wright as one of the most prolific and persistent critics of post-World War II America. Having rejected Western values, Baraka endeavors to create art with a firm didactic purpose: to forge a viable art form that reflects the true values of the African-American community and of oppressed peoples throughout the world.
Born in 1934 as Everett LeRoy Jones in Newark, New Jersey, Baraka spent his early childhood creating comic strips and writing science fiction. At school Baraka excelled in his studies, graduating from high school at the age of fifteen. He enrolled in Howard University in 1952 and just before beginning his first year, started spelling his name LeRoi. At Howard, Baraka studied with such noted black scholars as E. Franklin Frazier, Nathan A. Scott, Jr., and Sterling A. Brown who is regarded as the patriarch of African-American literary critics. Despite these exceptional teachers, Baraka found Howard University stifling and flunked out in 1954. He then joined the United States Air Force. In 1957, after being dishonorably discharged, he moved to New York's Greenwich Village and became part of the Beat movement. That same year he married Hettie Roberta Cohen and together they founded Yugen, a magazine forum for Beat poetry. During the next few years, he also established himself as a music critic, writing about jazz for downbeat, Metronome, and the Jazz Review. Baraka first received critical acclaim as a poet, for his collection Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note …, which was published in 1961. In 1960, Baraka was invited to Cuba by the New York chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. Baraka began to make it his life's work to incorporate his political, social, and spiritual beliefs into his writing. No longer content with art for art's sake, Baraka would use poetry and drama to teach people, opening their eyes to reality as he saw it. Following the murder of Black Muslim leader Malcolm X in 1965, Baraka divorced his white, Jewish wife and moved to Harlem. He dissociated from white people and dedicated himself to creating works that were inspired by and spoke to the African-American community. This same year, he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School in Harlem. He married Sylvia Robinson (she later changed her name to Amina Baraka), a black woman, in 1966. Around this time, Baraka's hatred of whites peaked. When a white woman asked him what whites could do to help blacks, he retorted, "You can help by dying. You are a cancer." In 1968 he converted to Islam and changed his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka, meaning "blessed spiritual leader." In 1974, in another radical shift, Baraka dropped the spiritual title of Imamu and declared himself an adherent of Marxist-Leninist thought. Rejecting Black Nationalism as racist in its implications, he now advocated socialism as a viable solution to the problems in America. He also repudiated his past anti-Semitic and anti-white statements. He concluded: "Nationalism, so-called, when it says 'all non-blacks are our enemies,' is sickness or criminality, in fact a form of fascism." In the fall of 1979, he joined the Africana Studies Department at State University of New York at Stony Brook as a teacher of creative writing. In 1979, as reported by William J. Harris in his 1985 retrospective study of Baraka and his work, "[Baraka] was arrested after two policemen allegedly attempted to intercede in a dispute between him and his wife over the price of children's shoes." While serving his sentence at a Harlem halfway house, Baraka wrote The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (1984). Since then he has written "Why's/Wise" (1985), an epic poem; The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues (1987) with his wife Amina Baraka; and "Reflections" (1988), a poem published in the periodical Black Scholar.
A sense of rebellion is the one consistent theme throughout Baraka's canon. Following the Beats' abandonment of traditional poetic structure and adopting their free use of slang, Baraka earned praise and respect as a poet with his first volume of poetry, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note…. This volume reflects the influence of "Howl" author Allen Ginsberg's poetry and Charles Olson's projective verse theory, which rejects closed, traditional forms in favor of what Olson termed "composition by field." In this collection, Baraka satirizes various aspects of post-World War II popular culture, particularly the heroic cowboys and comic book superheroes. The majority of the poems, however, discuss concerns typical of the bohemian milieu Baraka identified with, including themes of dislocation and detachment from mainstream society. Also in 1961, Baraka published Cuba Libre, an essay describing his trip to Cuba to join in the anniversary celebration of Fidel Castro's first revolutionary attempt. During this period of Baraka's metamorphosis from literary bohemian to black nationalist, he published some of his best-known works, including an analysis of contemporary black music, Blues People…. Negro Music in White America (1963), and a second volume of poetry, The Dead Lecturer (1964). Although Baraka wrote a number of plays during this period, Dutchman (1964) is widely considered his masterpiece. The play received the Obie Award for best Off-Broadway play and brought Baraka to the attention of the American public. Involving a conflict between a black middle-class college student and a flirtatious white woman, Dutchman is said to mark the emergence of Baraka's heightened racial awareness. The Slave (1964) also demonstrates the philosophical change Baraka was undergoing. This play revolves around a black revolutionary leader who confronts his ex-wife and her husband, both of whom are white. Another 1964 drama, The Toilet, concerned a white homosexual boy who is beaten up by a gang of black boys. After Baraka severed all of his ties with white people and culture, his writings, with increasingly violent overtones, called for blacks to unite and establish their own nation. Experimenting with ritual forms in his drama, he penned Slave Ship (1967), a recreation of the wretched circumstances experienced by enslaved Africans during their passage to America. Other works written during Baraka's black nationalist period are The System of Dante's Hell (1965), his only novel, and Tales (1967), a collection of short stories. After Baraka aligned himself with the socialist philosophy, his works began to call for a working-class revolt against the bourgeoisie. Baraka's works in this vein include Hard Facts: Excerpts (1975), a volume of poetry that includes several poems which accuse well-known black artists and activists of self-promotion—disguisedas nationalism—at the expense of working class African Americans. Baraka's dramas since 1974, including S-1 (1978), The Motion of History (1978), and The Sidney Poet Heroical (1979), reflect his commitments to Marxist-Leninist-Maoist thought and Communism. S-1 and The Motion of History are reminiscent of the agitprop dramas of the 1930s, particularly in their appeals to working-class solidarity and in their suggestion that working class revolution is society's only hope.
Baraka's first volume of poetry, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note …, met with general approval for its unconventional style and language. Critics would later observe that this is the only work of Baraka's that is "free from ethnic torment." Dutchman, Baraka's most widely studied and well received work, was acknowledged by Norman Mailer as "the best play in America." While some critics praised Dutchman for its "power," "freshness," and "deadly wit," others expressed outrage at its language, what they perceived as its perpetuation of interracial hostility, and its portrayal of whites. Baraka's next plays, The Slave and The Toilet, also met with mixed reviews. The latter play was described by one reviewer as an "obscene, scatological, bloody confrontation of the races in a school lavatory." Critic C. W. E. Bigsby called it "a barely stageable homosexual fantasy in which the setting is a urinal and the theme of the sexual nature of violence and the degradation of the white world." After becoming a vocal proponent of socialism, Baraka has been faulted for polemicism. In his study, Harris observed that assessment of Baraka has fallen into two general camps: "The white response … has been either silence or anger—and, in a few cases, sadness…. One general complaint is that Baraka has forsaken art for politics…. Another common accusation holds that Baraka used to be a good poet before he became a virulent racist. The reaction to Baraka in most of the black world has been very different from that in the white. In the black world Baraka is a famous artist. He is regarded as a father by the younger generation of poets; he is quoted in the streets—a fame almost never claimed by an American poet…." Many critics maintain that audiences bristle at Baraka's depictions of "white America," because he mirrors the ugly and hideous facets of American society.