Baraka, Imamu Amiri (Vol. 3)
Baraka, Imamu Amiri 1934–
Formerly known as LeRoi Jones, Baraka is a prize-winning Black American poet, playwright, social critic, editor, and teacher now involved in community organization in Newark, New Jersey. His raw and obsessional poems and plays explore themes at the very center of the Black experience. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)
[LeRoi Jones'] symbolism draws upon traditional and "modern" myths respectively. His only novel, The System of Dante's Hell, explores the experiences of the northern ghetto and the Black South by transforming, and often reversing, the Greco-Christian mythology of The Inferno. At the same time, the symbolic structure of his poetry is often dominated by the myths of the contemporary comic strip.
On one level Jones treats the phenomenon of the comic strip as a whole, quite apart from the symbolic implications of specific archetypes. He views its production and popularity as a general symptom of social malaise. In The Dead Lecturer, Jones' second collection of poems, "The Invention of Comics" treats the physical grotesquerie of the comic strip as a physical symbol of a death-like world….
Lloyd W. Brown, "Comic-Strip Heroes: LeRoi Jones and the Myth of American Innocence," in Journal of Popular Culture, Fall, 1969, pp. 191-204.
Baraka, in his poetry, is master of long, rhetorically complex phrases, tumbling one after another with an ever increasing momentum, capped by pithy expressions which sum up an attitude, a posture, a feeling in a few words. His politics are revolutionary and many of his poems and most of his plays are characterized by a lust for the white man's blood. Baraka's emergence as the leading exponent of Neo-Black writing is symbolic of the waning of that trend in Black literature in which writers addressed themselves to white audiences….
Dutchman and The Slave were first produced in the middle of that turbulent decade of the sixties. The civil rights demonstrations of the early sixties were begun in non-violence yet often led to violence against the demonstrators. Stokely Carmichael's cry for Black power seemed to cleave the decade, as well as the civil rights movement, in half. And the bloody urban riots of the later sixties made the Watts rebellion of 1965 look like a picnic. The tension which characterized the decade also informs these plays. Yet, in analyzing the plays, one finds that one also analyzes their limitations as vehicles for Black expression. Their scenes and dialogues speak more to that aspect of Black life in which one tries to adjust to or gain some understanding from white society—without first being sure that one has adjusted to or understood one's self as part of and in relation to all Black people. Dutchman and The Slave thus serve as a point of reference so that one can begin to understand the necessity and urgency of the themes posited by the writings of Neo-Black artists….
Baraka, more than attempting to forge a new Black language or create, as he says, new gods, is embodying within his works many currents and traditions which have made life, Black life, what it is. His work is set in many different contexts and when looked at as art, having social and political, cultural and artistic contexts, one begins to perceive the depth and scope of his work.
The plays Dutchman and The Slave are given a place in this book because they come near the end of that hybrid tradition which has influenced Black fiction since 1853. The two plays bring this tradition to a logical fruition and point toward a new direction. Baraka performs a service like that of Richard Wright two decades before. By exposing Bigger Thomas' anger—and, by extension, the anger and bitterness of Bigger's real-life counterparts—to public view, Wright made it easier for other Black writers not only to explore Black anger but to move beyond the relatively simple statement of anger to a more complex analysis of Black in relation to white….
The characters in Baraka's early plays, particularly Clay and Walker, have all the fury of Bigger but it is their awareness, their ability to analyze and articulate their situation which is so terrible and shocking. Their fury and pain have been internalized to such an extent that even outward action, as in The Slave, brings no release and they, like Bigger, choke on their own rage. It is not without significance that The Slave and Dutchman take the physical form of dialogues or conversations between a Black man and white people, for just as Wright abstracts the message of Native Son by putting into the mouth of Bigger's white lawyer a long analysis of the social context of Bigger's crimes and the subsequent appeal to the white jury (white society), Baraka seeks to educate white society to the feelings and situations of the collective Black man.
Sherley Anne Williams, in her Give Birth to Brightness: A thematic Study in Neo-Black Literature (copyright © 1972 by Sherley Anne Williams; used with permission of The Dial Press), Dial, 1972, pp. 145-46.