Amiri Baraka Baraka, Imamu Amiri (Vol. 2) - Essay

Baraka, Imamu Amiri (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Baraka, Imamu Amiri 1934–

Formerly known as LeRoi Jones. Baraka is a militant Black American poet and playwright whose works include Dutchman, The Slave, and The System of Dante's Hell. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

One of the most talented of the Negro poets is LeRoi Jones, who has both skill as a maker of images and rhythms and daring as an exponent of new sexual and racial subject matter. But this is not to say that Jones is an "engaged" poet; he is too much the cool hipster to trust slogans and programs of any sort, though his sympathy seems generally liberal. He writes about color as an Existential reality….

His technique derives from projective verse; he stresses speech rhythm; and his diction is that of the hipster. In putting his poems together, he is not afraid of discontinuities—they represent reality to him—or prosaic statement if it serves his purpose; but he has more imagery than most hip poets, and he enjoys projecting a wild, comic, sexual fantasy to contrast with the boredom of urban life, of days confined by steel and concrete.

Stephen Stepanchev, "LeRoi Jones," in his American Poetry Since 1945 (copyright © 1965 by Stephen Stepanchev; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1965, pp. 195-98.

LeRoi Jones … has a natural gift for quick, vivid imagery and spontaneous humor, and his poems are filled with sardonic or sensuous or slangily knowledgeable passages. His first book, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1960), was interesting—as much of our newer poetry is—for the structural similarity of some of its pieces to jazz improvisation….

Jones … at first seemed to be finding a tangential way of making use of Negro experience and its artistic and psychological aspects in such a way as to enable himself, at the same time, to develop within the normal context of American poetry of this period. As he came into some prominence, however, and, for the time being at least, began to ally himself with the new tendencies toward intransigent hostility to the 'white' civilization, his poetry became more militant in its projection of that hostility.

M. L. Rosenthal, in his The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II (© 1967 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 188-91.

I am troubled by Jones's work and always have been, because I read him as a poet who is both blessed and cursed. He is blessed with the demon of language, and cursed in the way he uses it. Jones embraces both aspects of his lot with savage alacrity—without always knowing which is which and sometimes, I suspect, without caring….

[It] seems to me that politics is bad for poetry. One can say that the estheticization of politics is the mark of fascism and, if labels mean anything, Jones's work is thoroughly fascistic. It speaks, and very loudly, too, in messages sprayed on the walls of Newark; it is bullhorns, tear gas, clubbing, shotguns and sirens and all the sounds of warfare in the city and the ghetto; it is race propaganda of the most unashamed and often fulsomely vulgar sort, replete with voodoo-Muslim-family slang, cottonpatch-minstrel blues, rock and hyperjazz, ghetto voices and revivalist, spiritualist, shamanist, pseudo-Gullah wildness and craziness. In fact, it is passionately engaged, enraged leadership poetry. But when it is not political, it is often embarrassingly soft, as if the hands were stiff with toil or broken by torture. You can't say it is art, and you don't believe it's meant to be.

Curiously, aside from time and place, there is little difference between Jones's "black art" ideas and those of Yeats's upstanding fisherman in gray Connemara cloth. Both are naïve dreams that end in screams and marching chants: the poet in politics. And, though the poet wants to use men, he is the one used….

[Much] of Jones's work is vitiated for me because it tends to be schizoid. The problem seems to have long been for him the crucial one, and he shows his awareness of it by protesting much too loudly throughout these poems. Almost every word is both black and white, and Jones uses much magic to make white words signify black. But most of the time you feel he's strutting in his dashiki and spouting bad poetry, even nonpoetry, which can only be justified, if it ever can be, by its being read with the right beat and pronunciation and scored for the right audience with the right amplifier plugged in….

[One] recognizes the right of people to self-determination, whether by means of black studies curricula or black magic. I am sure that Jones means a lot to young black poets as example and leader. To the white world that publishes him I fear he will mean less, unless his poetry is read as symptomatology, which can be invaluable, or for intelligence on the state of the battle. I find myself forced to read him as an intelligence self-maddened.

Jascha Kessler, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1970 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, May 2, 1970; used with permission), May 2, 1970, pp. 36, 42-3.

Baraka urges blacks to observe their own culture, their own life style—understand and glory in its distinctiveness. Therefore, common objects are amplified in meaning, poetically given a significance more commensurate with their special place in black life. In Baraka's vision shoes are mirrors that one day might have lights on them….

"In Our Terribleness" is more than just a collection of sensitive photographs and poetic commentary. Beyond what might be considered a self-indulgent glorification of cultural attributes that blacks are already familiar with and that the nonblack reader would consider insignificant, Baraka's intent is revelatory. His "long image story in motion, paper-motion" is an exhortation for the spiritual unification of blacks….

"In Our Terribleness" is perhaps Amiri Baraka's greatest book. No doubt this is a result of his directing his work towards the black reader…. "In Our Terribleness" abundantly exemplifies that much sought after universality of literature. White readers and critics may have to come to terms with the long ignored humanity of blacks, however, before they discover its universal appeal.

For the present, "In Our Terribleness," as it was intended, is a book that will communicate almost exclusively with blacks. Couched in the language of the streets and intoned with the rhythms of jazz, it is both an expression and evocation of the rudiments of blackness, which whites may find somewhat perplexing.

Ron Welburn, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 14, 1971, pp. 10, 12.

Jones sees the black artist as a moralist [and he] is specific about the duties of the Revolutionary Theatre, born in the 1960's: it should force change; it should be change. It must cleanse black audiences of their ugliness. It must force them to see their beauty: the strength in their minds and in their bodies. It must take dreams and give them a reality. The ritual and historical cycles of reality must be isolated. Clearly, the Revolutionary Theatre, which Jones describes as a theatre of victims, is a political theatre, a weapon. It will show what the world is and what it should be…. The Revolutionary Theatre is moral. Its tasks are also those of its playwrights. Jones, one of the architects of this theatre, has taken his own advice….

In his essays addressed to black writers and in his dramas written with all black people in mind, LeRoi Jones is asking that black people remain separate from the polluted white-dominated mainstream in order to create an acceptable image of self. In order to find himself, the black man must destroy the image imposed on him by white America. Jones' plays are often peopled with angry black men and torn, ravaged black women, many of whom are engaged in finding their true selves or instructing others in how to find theirs….

Of the charges that critics have made against Jones' plays, one of the most frequent is that they lack form. His plays, however, are new attempts at form or new uses of old forms, such as the morality play and the minstrel show.

His method is often shocking. His language is naturalistic, for the most part, embroidered with obscenities that are sometimes lyrical. His audiences are often punished. But it is the shock and the flogging that might together produce the change he seeks. The fundamental problem in reform is to change men's hearts. Writing in fury and despair, Jones seeks, first, to liberate the minds of black people. The action he calls for is mainly mental; the warfare is internal. Only if the mental warefare fails can the open rebellion he prophesies in The Slave become a reality. This drama, one must remember, is subtitled "A Fable."

Whether or not one agrees with his methods, the plays of LeRoi Jones are important. Whether or not one accepts the inevitability of Jones' prophecies depends on how one reacts to his message. One can only hope that the revolution he calls for will be inward.

Jeanne-Marie A. Miller, "The Plays of LeRoi Jones," in CLA Journal, Vol. XIV, No. 3, March, 1971, pp. 331-39.

After The Dutchman, Jones' plays devalue dialogue in favor of film, ritual, and incantation. The rich images and controlled rhythms of the earlier plays give way to exclamations, blows, shots, montage effects. Conceived to carry a simple message—usually of hatred against whites—to black audiences, these plays ruthlessly smother Jones' verbal gifts.

Ruby Cohn, "LeRoi Jones," in her Dialogue in American Drama, Indiana University Press, 1971, pp. 295-302.