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. See also Amiri Baraka Literary Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 2, 3, 5, 14.
A seminal figure in the development of contemporary black literature, Baraka is a controversial writer. According to some scholars, he succeeds both W. E. B. Du Bois and Richard Wright as one of the most prolific and persistent critics of twentieth-century America. His works, which cover a wide variety of literary genres, often concern such political issues as the oppression of blacks in white society and the oppression of the poor in a capitalist society. He received worldwide acclaim for his first professional production, "Dutchman," in 1964, and his subsequent work for the theater has provoked both praise and controversy. Various movements and philosophies have shaped Baraka throughout his life, from the Beat movement of the late 1950s to Marxist-Leninist thought which he has embraced most recently. The only constant in his life is change, making a study of his writing both a complex and challenging endeavor.
Born Everett LeRoy Jones in New Jersey in 1934, 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 famous 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 Yūgen, 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, he was invited to Cuba by the New York chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee and the visit changed the young writer's life. Baraka came to understand that politics had a place in art and he made it his life's work to incorporate his political, social, and spiritual beliefs into his writing. He would no longer be content with art for art's sake, but would use poetry and drama to teach the people, opening their eyes to reality as Baraka saw it. Following the murder of Black Muslim leader Malcolm X in 1965, Baraka divorced his white wife and move to Harlem. He dissociated from the white race 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, 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. His autobiography was published in 1984 and Money: A Jazz Opera (1982) was one his latest dramas produced.
"Dutchman" is widely considered Baraka's masterpiece in the drama genre. The play received an Obie Award for best Off-Broadway play and propelled the playwright into the public eye. "Dutchman" centers around an interracial encounter between Lula, an attractive, flirtatious white woman, and Clay, a young, quiet, well-dressed black intellectual. The seemingly random meeting on a New York subway ends with Lula murdering Clay. "Dutchman" is considered by many critics to be Baraka's first successful integration of the themes and motifs of earlier, less-successful works, merging mythical allusions, surrealistic techniques, and social statement. Another of Baraka's well-known plays, "The Toilet," is set in the bathroom of an urban high school and concerns a white homosexual boy who gets beaten up by a gang of black boys for sending a love letter to the leader of the black gang. The play is exemplary of several recurring themes in Baraka's work: the drama of the sensitive, isolated individual pitted against the social code of his community; marginalized individuals' self-hatred as perpetuated by society; and the failure of love, or of the ability to love in our society. During Baraka's period of Black Nationalism, he produced a series of works with increasingly violent overtones which called for blacks to unite and establish their own nation. Experimenting with ritual forms in his dramas, he wrote Slave Ship: A Historical Pageant, a vivid recreation of the passage of slaves to America that relies heavily on powerful images and music to help convey its meaning. His drama since 1974 reflects Baraka's latest political commitments to Marxist-Leninist-Maoist thought and Communism. S-l and The Motion of History are reminiscent of the agit-prop 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.
Critics have praised "Dutchman" for its "power," "freshness," and "deadly wit." Others were outraged by its vulgar language, its perpetuation of interracial hostility, and its portrayal of whites. "The Toilet" also met with mixed reviews, described by one critic as an "obscene, scatological, bloody confrontation of the races." Many scholars, including William J. Harris, have observed that critical assessment of Baraka's work has fallen into two general camps. Harris remarked: "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… 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…" Whatever the reaction to Baraka, no one is left unaffected by his works. People bristle at his depictions of "white America," critics assert, because he mirrors the ugly facets of American society.