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Baraka, Imamu Amiri 1934–

Baraka, formerly known as LeRoi Jones, is an American poet, playwright, short story writer, essayist, jazz critic, and editor. Baraka's subject is the oppression of blacks in white society and his work is an intense emotional response to this condition. He received acclaim for his first...

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Baraka, Imamu Amiri 1934–

Baraka, formerly known as LeRoi Jones, is an American poet, playwright, short story writer, essayist, jazz critic, and editor. Baraka's subject is the oppression of blacks in white society and his work is an intense emotional response to this condition. He received acclaim for his first professional production, Dutchman. His subsequent work for the theater has provoked both praise and controversy. His poetry and prose are characterized by difficult syntax, often obscuring the logic, but never the purpose, of his thought. Having rejected white values and white society, Baraka strives to create art with a firm didactic purpose: to forge an Afro-American art that reflects the values and sensibilities of the black community. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

Denise Levertov

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[In Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note], where the poems are arranged chronologically, one can see even as the chaff flies that the grain is good. [Jones's] special gift is an emotive music that might have made him predominantly a "lyric poet," but his deeply felt preoccupation with more than personal issues enlarges the scope of his poems beyond what the term is often taken to mean…. I feel that sometimes his work is muddled, and that after the event he convinces himself that it had to be that way; in other words, his conception of when a poem is ready to printed differs from mine. But … he is developing swiftly and has a rich potential. Certain poems—especially "The Clearing," "The Turncoat," "Notes for a Speech"—show what he can do. They are beautiful poems, and others that are less complete have passages of equal beauty.

Since beauty is one of the least precise words in the language I had better define what I mean by it in this instance: the beauty in Jones's poems is sensuous and incantatory, in contrast to the beauty [found in poetry like Gil Sorrentino's] which is a sensation of exactitude, a hitting of nails on the head with a ringing sound. In his contribution to the notes on poetics at the back of … The New American Poetry, Jones speaks of Garcia Lorca as one of the poets he has read intensely; and what is incantatory (magical) in his work, while it is natural to him, may well have been first brought to the surface by the discovery of an affinity in the magic of Lorca. (p. 252)

Denise Levertov, "Poets of the Given Ground," in The Nation (copyright 1961 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 193, No. 12, October 14, 1961, pp. 251-53.∗

C.W.E. Bigsby

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The fear which pervades LeRoi Jones's work is that of a loss of identity—a fear which becomes socially relevant when extended to the scale of racial assimilation. In this context violence functions … as a means of discovering and forging identity…. [Jones's] is a sensitivity, created by the extremes of racial guilt and discrimination, which can see no middle ground between man as victim and man as rebel…. While the violence which emerges as the strongest mark of Jones's work does at times show something of the ambivalence which Brecht had felt, there is an element of unabashed relish in its presentation, particularly in The Slave and The Toilet, which constantly threatens to undermine its validity both as drama and polemic. (p. 140)

LeRoi Jones's fierce commitment is such that he has felt himself bound, at times, to attack those who have apparently transcended the immediate concerns of racial injustice…. 'A writer' he insists, 'is committed to what is real, and not to the sanctity of his Feelings.' While this is a distinction which Kafka or Lawrence, for example, could not have felt to be a real one it is indicative of Jones's refusal to accept a humanistic interpretation of the racial situation. What is real is the economic and political history of the Negro; what is fanciful is the belief that racial friction is a moral failure which can be corrected by individual soulsearching…. [While] he has actively supported Civil Rights Jones's plays boast a simple objective, for, unlike Baldwin, his vision is not of a unified society but rather of a world in which the present order is inverted. In this context his attraction to violence becomes little more than an aspect of revenge while his plays are dedicated less to urging a humanistic commitment than a revolutionary separatism. (pp. 141-42)

Jones's insistence on the irrevocability of history, expressed in the bitter poem which had followed Kennedy's death ["Exaugeral Address" is in Dutchman] clearly demonstrated in racial terms…. [His] play challenges the whole proposition of integration. The question which he is asking is, 'integration into what?' Western rationalism, 'the great intellectual legacy of the white man', has in his eyes led merely to the rationalisation of repression and violence. (p. 146)

[The Slave] is described by Jones as a fable. As such it represents his attempt to circumvent what Pirandello, Artaud and Beckett had seen as the fundamental flaw of the theatre—the arbitrary and imprecise nature of language…. [Yet Jones] does not dispense with language or transform it into a ritualised sub-structure of intonation and timbre but relies, like Gelber and Albee, on what he calls a 'metalanguage'—the tangental communication of the parable. The parable which he presents here is an apocalyptic vision seen in purely racial terms. The Slave is in essence an extension of the conflict of Dutchman to what Jones clearly sees as its logical conclusion. 'Discovering racially the funds of the universe. Discovering the last image of the thing. As the sky when the moon is broken.' (pp. 147-48)

Despite a further indulgence in his particular forte for a gratuitous violence inflicted on his white characters The Slave does progress considerably beyond the oversimplifications of Dutchman. For when Walker Vessels, who in the main body of the play is the leader of a Negro revolt, delivers a prologue dressed as a field-slave, he condemns that which 'passes as whatever thing we feel is too righteous to question, too deeply felt to deny' as 'a deadly filth' …—a considerable advance over the dogmatic assumptions of Dutchman. For in that play … he was content to destroy one cliché but to replace it with another. If he attacked the deep-rooted association between black and evil he did so only to recall that the curse of corruption and death derived from a white Eve. Here, however, he is not merely concerned with the injustice of the racial situation but, ostensibly at least, also with that intellectual slavery which is an aspect of blind dogmatism…. For all his calls for objectivity, however, the sheer force of his commitment and even his hatred once again takes possession of his drama and the play fails to realise the potential suggested in the prologue. (pp. 148-49)

Walker himself is the realisation of that potential which had been embodied in the person of Clay, in Dutchman. He is no longer a poet, as Clay had been, for in the place of poetry he had discovered the 'sanity' of violence. He shuns both the egocentricity of the artist and the self-justification of the social critic…. While Jones's contempt for docile assimilation is complete he does show here an ambivalence in his attitude which he would claim stems directly from the nature of the Negro's dilemma. Walker cannot remain neutral yet he admits to dissatisfaction with a solution which is in essence merely an inversion of the problem. (p. 150)

Jones's plays … are, at base, revenge fantasies—public rites of purgation in which the audience is invited to participate. (p. 151)

The alienation of Jones's rebel is in essence spurious. Far from dissociating himself from the corruptions of the dominant society his aim is to join it on his own terms. The change which he would force on that society is not a moral but purely a structural one. Slavery remains intact except that its victim is of a different pigmentation. Where once it had been the black woman who had been violated by the white man and who, in time, had her children taken from her now, in The Slave, the situation is reversed. (p. 152)

In the terms of both of his major plays his approbation is reserved for those who remain actively aware of historical truths and the need for racial pride; alert alike to the facts of oppression and the need to maintain a separate culture and identity. Language becomes a sign of membership in this group—a gesture of rejection as powerful but ultimately as self-defeating as the jargon of a fading Beat movement. Nor are these personal biases always entirely integrated into the body of his play. His casual dismissal of all those outside of the inner circle of committed savants is less a significant aspect of either Clay's or Lula's character for example than of Jones's own prejudices…. It is clear that the language and indeed the plays themselves are seen as a weapon. They represent a declaration of disaffiliation…. Yet with their rigid categorisation, their justification of the stereotype they represent a blunt weapon and an unconvincing declaration. (p. 153)

[The] subject of Dutchman and The Slave is less the actual plight of the Negro, about which we learn practically nothing, than the difficulties and dilemmas of the Negro writer. The poet, the social critic and the Negro activist are at war with one another. For while on the one hand he demands a literature of commitment, vigorously declaring itself, on the other hand he says that a poem 'can be made out of any feeling' and that a poet—someone, that is, with a 'tempered sensibility'—should be able to write about anything at all and make it into 'something really beautiful'. This same duality is observable in his own work and while the plays, as we have seen, tend to be savagely tied to the Negro/white conflict, his poems frequently attain to an objectivity and universality denied his drama.

In common with most didactic writers Jones is something of an artistic pragmatist. The value of an idea or individual life is governed, he writes, by the extent to which it can be said to be 'specific and useful'. From this it follows that value and effectiveness tend to be associated in his mind and emotional response becomes confused with intellectual assent. Thus while his disturbing revenge fantasies provoke a predictably ecstatic response from Negro audiences it is far from clear if this is indicative of their clear perception of his meaning or rather of their conscious participation in a public purgative rite.

Despite the obsessions which continue to undermine the value of his work LeRoi Jones is one of the few Negro playwrights who has shown an interest in and an understanding of the nature and problems of drama itself…. While LeRoi Jones is in no sense an innovator, however, he does demonstrate a mastery of dramatic technique which reveals a genuine potentiality. The technique which he uses is essentially that employed by Albee and before him by Durrenmatt and Brecht. The 'metalanguage' which is his attempt to transcend the barrier between individual perception and artistic intention is his endeavour to express something 'not included here'…. Resting in myth and structured on the parable, as is Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Durrenmatt's The Visit … and Albee's The Zoo Story, his plays, and especially Dutchman, attempt to communicate through metaphor and hyperbole. Yet it is precisely his failure to communicate which ironically constitutes the greatest weakness of his work…. Jones's is a talent lacking in discipline and controlled by a desperate commitment yet he is clearly aware of the real potentialities of the theatre. For if Dutchman lacks both the depth and control of Albee's The Zoo Story it does reveal an understanding not only of dramatic technique but also of the need for the modern theatre to examine the roots of its own power. (pp. 154-55)

C.W.E. Bigsby, "LeRoi Jones," in his Confrontation and Commitment: A Study of Contemporary American Drama, 1959–66 (reprinted by permission of the author; © 1967 and 1968 by C.W.E. Bigsby), University of Missouri Press, 1968, pp. 138-55.

Theodore R. Hudson

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Jones has named specific influences on his development as a writer. They include T. S. Eliot (especially on Jones' earlier, "academic" poetry), Ezra Pound (especially for imagery), William Carlos Williams (especially for a sense of speech in poetry), and Federico Garcia Lorca (for, among other things, helping him break from the Eliot influence). [Nathanael West, Mark Twain, and Eugene O'Neill may also be considered influences.] (p. 57)

It is safe to say that all the writers who gravitated to the Village during the late fifties and early sixties affected each other's work, directly and indirectly, and in varying degrees…. [Some] of his early contemporaries named by Jones as having influenced him at that time are Gary Snyder, Frank O'Hara, Robert Creeley, and Allen Ginsberg….

[Regardless] of sources and influences, Jones always has been stylistically a distinct writer. It is an understatement to say that the writing of LeRoi Jones is manneristic. There is in it a remarkable absence of mundane, pedestrian expression. Hackneyed language or a cliché is rare in his works, and when it does exist chances are that it originated with Jones and became trite because of his own repetition of it. Indeed, it seems as if he almost perversely determines to create new forms, new ways of structuring content, new phrases for new thoughts…. But the very inventiveness of his writing … makes for difficult reading. Some of his more individualistic and strangely presented works do seem to be either chaos or mere dross. Sometimes one may wonder if Jones is playing games with his readers—or with himself. (p. 58)

[One] must consider his theory of art as it applies to matters of form, technique and style, for Jones simply must be read on his own artistic terms: "Form is simply how a thing exists," he says. "Content is why a thing exists." To him, the two are inseparable….

One must keep in mind, too, Jones' tenet that the essence of art is process rather than artifact. One should examine Jones' writing with the attitude that his style is a record of a creative process, possibly a spontaneous creative process. To look only for rational, conscious, and ordered style in Jones' work is to subvert explication and to beg for a misreading or a nonreading. In connection with … the spontaneous element in Jones' writing one must also keep in mind his insistence upon initial reliance upon what is felt rather than upon what is thought…. And one must always keep in mind that Jones posits that "feeling predicts intelligence."

LeRoi Jones has written that "words themselves become, even informally, laws." The language that Jones employs to make his own laws, or definitions, comes by choice from his personal, sometimes private, and ethnic frames of reference. Shortly after his first published works, he consciously began to avoid "white" language in favor of "black" idioms, grammar, and syntax. (p. 59)

When one seeks to explicate Jones' language, one should … seek to understand his frame of reference. For example, the derogatory term "faggot" must be understood in Jones' ethnic context. If he uses it to describe an American of African descent, he is usually talking about a male who reacts to challenges (often ethnic-oriented challenges) to his manhood by pretending to ignore, by compromising, by capitulating. In this sense NAACP official Roy Wilkins in Jones' eyes is an "Uncle Tom," a compromiser of his innate blackness, and is therefore a "faggot." On the other hand, if Jones uses "faggot" to describe a white American male, he is talking, literally or symbolically, about a physical homosexual, a degenerated man who has perverted his natural physical urges. The white "faggot" is lower than the black "faggot" on Jones' acceptability scale. (pp. 59-60)

Especially in nonfiction prose, Jones is discursive, expansive, given to restatement. He tends to write complex and compound-complex sentences, with frequent appositional, parenthetical, and other subordinate grammatical elements. This is particularly noticeable in his earlier writing…. At other times this expansive style is characterized by staccato effects, sentence fragments, sudden grammatical shifts, exclamatory interpolations, and asides. (pp. 61-2)

[He] can be expansively lucid … [or] curtly cryptic. When he apparently wants to be, he is direct and explicit; when he apparently wants to be, he is indirect in the sense that his "meaning" is tied up in associational complexes of sound, image, and diction. His more bafflingly dadaistic and surrealistic style is especially apparent in his prose fiction…. [Sometimes an] entire piece evokes an impressionistic aura or mood that defies paraphrase into "meaning." (pp. 62-3)

[Punctuation] in his earlier nonfiction prose is generally standard, or conventional, but in his later nonfiction prose the punctuation is frequently unconventional. His prose fiction and poetry are a different case though, due in part to unconventional syntax but more often due to what must be artistic compulsion. It is not unusual for him to insert a comma between a subject and its verb, even when no elements intervene, as in "White, is abstract." He inserts a comma for separation, for pause, for impact…. Jones is fond of parentheses, and … uses the open parenthesis. He frequently will capitalize all letters in a word or group of words, and he frequently uses all lower case letters, even in titles of works. He has a tendency to use the diagonal, or slash, between words or parts of words, usually where meaning is purposely ambivalent, as in "STATE/MEANT." Sometimes he will write a contraction and omit the apostrophe, as "aint," or he will abbreviate a word, as "cd" for "could" and "blk" for "black." (pp. 63-4)

Jones is an incurable manipulator of words, almost always in an attempt for straight humor or for satire. He makes puns [and portmanteau words]…. Only Jones would write, "The undertaker was a stereotype nigger faggunder, taker." Jones also plays with the sounds of words…. [He puts words] into contexts that will twist meanings: he speaks of "Mozart's Ornithology" to connote jazzman Charlie "Bird" Parker's works being bastardized by white musicians. (pp. 64-5)

A major technique employed by Jones is humor…. [His] is incisive satire, satire informed by a certain "hip," or superior, sensibility, by an urbane sensibility developed in street lore, by a contempt born of too much perception…. His humor tends to be broad and farcical in his later works, those works intended to be "less uselessly 'literary'"—works intended to be more practical and more easily grasped by the masses of black people. (pp. 65-6)

Unusual symbolism and imagery, among other things, make difficult the explication of certain of Jones' works. Of course,… explication as getting literal "meaning" is fruitless since no "meaning" is intended. Because so much of his symbolism and imagery is abstruse, it is easy to overlook the fact that Jones does employ conventional symbolism and imagery. (p. 66)

Once the reader has a superficial grasp of the facts of Jones' life, some of his symbolism becomes apparent and requires no special study. Social workers and postal workers, for example, are obviously his mother and father, projected as decorous, middle-class oriented, and rather alienated from their inherent blackness. (p. 67)

Jones is not given to the use of abstract terms as symbol-images. There are, however, two which bear mentioning, God (sometimes with a lower case "g") and energy. The first, God, is used for normal denotations as well as for symbolic connotations. God, to LeRoi Jones, is a matter of definitions; he sees God meaning different things to different people…. To Jones the Christian God as conceived by Western whites is a God to suit their purposes…. It is not surprising … to find Jones later proclaiming that "The Black Man is making new Gods," black gods issuing from black spiritual consciousness…. In Black Music he says, "… God is, indeed, energy,"… and he thinks of "God as evolution. The flow of is."… (p. 69)

Energy as Jones uses the term is the divine force for creativity…. Blacks, he feels, are the possessors of natural energies, of divine powers of creativity.

A city boy and man, LeRoi Jones does not use much imagery connected with physical nature. He does, however, use sun, wind, flame, water, and forest. At times he will use sun traditionally, to mean enlightenment, happiness, wisdom, or "energy."… At times he will use sun to signify divine blackness, speaking at such times of blacks as "sun people" and warning others, in a reversal of meaning, to

                Beware the evil sun …
                turn you black
                ("Hymn for Lanie Poo")

Wind as a symbol connotes spiritual essence: "And let us think of soul, as anima: spirit (spiritus, breath) as that which carries breath on the living wind."… Flame, rather conventionally, means the unerring intellect or realistic perception. He assesses himself, in his preface to Black Magic, as "the soothsayer, one flayed by evil as a fountainhead of reality finally glimpses of true airflame." Water, river, ocean, wet and their cognates can often be interpreted as fecundity or creative refreshment of an abstract sort. It is that quality necessary for all life, a quality roughly opposite to T. S. Eliot's desert, cactus, and dry. The quality is a catalytic agent: "You are myself's river." Forest, in much the same manner that Dante used it, is a lost or dangerous or uncharted state. In this sense, Jones will occasionally use forest to represent white Western civilization…. Or he might use it to represent the uncertain future or the unknown present…. (pp. 70-1)

Symbols derived from urban settings include steel, pavement or concrete, hallways, window. Steel, conventionally, is used to project cold, hard materialism that is devoid of feeling. Pavement and concrete conjure concepts of the impersonality, indifference, and hardness of urban life. Hallways are passageways from phase to phase in life. Window is a frequently employed, important Jonesian symbol-image. It stands for a perspective on life, a frame of reference from which one sees and evaluates experience. Conversely, one's concept of another person's perception is signified by looking into that person's window….

Jones rarely uses color symbolism, except for green and grey. Green, he supposes in "Vice," is "a color of despair and wretchedness." Predictably, grey symbolizes the white life style and, concurrently, the common connotations of ugliness, spoilage, death. (p. 71)

Sometimes he will use a lady (or "bitch" or "dead lady") to represent Western or white American culture.

Another group of Jonesian symbol-images is based upon the body and its functions. Meat or flesh is sometimes used by him to symbolize intuitive urges, noncerebral and transcendentalistic urges….

A subgroup of body-function symbol-images has to do with sex. Masturbation, as Jones uses it, represents an individualism based upon self-love or it represents love which cannot find external connectives and therefore is turned within…. Homosexuality and heterosexual perversion may be considered as broadly symbolic of misuse of creative energies, as a deliberate turning from what is natural and good, as a degeneracy, as an avoidance of reality. (p. 72)

[Heterosexual intercourse] indicates the closest possible human interaction. This relationship may be on the physical level, but most of the time it is representative of a spiritual or emotional intimacy in which there is, ideally, a mutually beneficial, intimate giving and getting. (pp. 72-3)

In Jones' works, sterility is often symbolized by urination (he uses the term "pee" and its forms). The opposite symbol would be productive orgasm. Urination implies a useless, wasteful, and unproductive expenditure of creativity. With this in mind, a reading of Jones' The Toilet grows richer in symbolism, for he frequently has his characters urinating, flushing urinals, and the like, indicative of the unproductivity and misdirection of their actions in effecting respect and love….

The last symbol-image to be considered here is dance, which he uses to depict the total experiencing of life, for immersion into life. This being so, when Lula entices Clay to dance with her [in Dutchman], she is enticing him to engage wholly in her way of life, and on her terms. (p. 73)

[There] are Jonesian passages that defy rational paraphrase or explication. When he writes of "24 elephants" stomping out of the subway "with consecrated hardons" he is enigmatic. But perhaps that is what he intends, an enigma. (p. 74)

[The] study of LeRoi Jones' life reveals a gifted young person who while living a racially integrated life during the late 1950's and early 1960's became a major literary figure in the intellectual and artistic avant-garde; who then turned from this social, intellectual, and artistic ambience to become the leading theoretical and practicing black cultural nationalist, a community leader, and a political organizer and catalyst…. Jones' characteristic ways of perceiving and thinking show the following: he conceives of culture as the total of life's activities and of art as process; he anticipates the atrophy of Western culture and a concomitant rise of a black culture; he gives some evidence of being anti-white America, anti-Semitic, and anti-Negro middle-class, or positively stated, he is strongly pro-black (not pro-Negro). He believes in the superiority of separatism and active resistance over assimilation and passive resistance as methods of dealing with America's race problems. He advocates cultural, social, spiritual, economic, and political black populist nationalism…. [His] characteristic modes of expression reveal a versatile writer keenly aware of the power of words as laws—that is, as a means of molding public attitudes and ultimately as a means of attaining and maintaining power; highly inventive in the use of language; dadaistic in matters of mechanics and form; humorous both in a general way and satirically; original, occasionally to the point of being cryptic, in style; and highly original and personal in the use of figurative language, particularly in the use of symbol-images.

These three—his experiences, his characteristic ways of thinking, and his characteristic ways of writing—interact in such a way that it is difficult to say what is cause and what is effect in any given situation. The Jones-to-Baraka movement was an evolutionary process, Barakan characteristics always having been present to some degree and in some form.

The examination of Jones' literary works … shows: His nonfiction prose, more than any other genre, is revelatory of his ideologies, philosophies, and theories. It is also indicative of his stylistic versatility. His fiction is the most consistent of all genres in terms of style, being essentially of two types, "association complexes" and "fast narratives." He has written practically no fiction since System and Tales. His poetry has changed in content, form, and style from private and lyrical poetry of the avant-garde type to public and exhortative poetry of the black aesthetic persuasion. As his poetry has changed, it has depended less upon compression and symbol-images, more upon prose-like declarations. His drama has changed drastically in structure and technique but not basically in theme since his early success, Dutchman. His later drama tends to be impulsive, pageant-like, and ritualistic, and it has become openly a medium for teaching, evangelizing, and motivating. (pp. 177-78)

Classifying or typing Jones as a writer is not easy, for he is versatile in both genre and style. Within his writing one can find elements of different literary periods, schools, and movements. For example, he is "baroque" in his asymmetrically structured fiction, in his juxtaposition of the unexpected with the expected in poetry, in writing whatever his mind unfolds at the time he is writing. He is "realistic" in his use of actual speech idioms and in, for example, his emotional and physical setting for The Toilet. He is "neoclassical" in his use of subway riders as a sort of chorus in Dutchman. He is "folk" in his depiction of life in the subculture known as the inner-city and in his use of ethnic language and lore. He is "naturalistic" in his tracing of the social causes of man's experiences, as in his tracing in Blues People of the causes of changes in jazz. But more than anything else, categorized according to literary labels he is "romantic."

In a general way, Jones is a romantic in the sense that many literary historians and scholars consider the post-Romantic Period symbolists, imagists, realists, naturalists, dadaists, impressionists, and other modern writers as latter day romantics or as part of a romantic continuum. He is a romantic in more specific ways as well. Like Emerson and certain other romantic writers, in a transcendentalistic way Jones places great faith in intuition, in feelings. As he applies this faith in an ethnocentric way, he would have blacks place faith in what he assumes to be their singular mystical impulses. He is antirational in the way that romantics of Western European literature were opposed to the "cold" rationality of neoclassicism. Moreover, in connection with this reliance upon innate urgings and promptings, Jones inescapably asserts, as Blake and other romantic mystics contended, that man is divine, although, as Baraka, Jones would argue that the white man has perverted his, the white man's, divinity. Also, Jones is … romantic in that he is disdainful of the organized and orthodox religion of the majority and in that he has been himself a religious speculator and seeker. Next, Jones is romantic in his concern for the well-being, freedom, and dignity of the economically and politically weak, the dispossessed, the oppressed, and the downtrodden, as were the past century's romantic political and social libertarians and romantic champions of "humble" people. Further, Rousseau-like in his concern for the full development of man's potential, Jones sees his contemporary social, cultural, and political institutions as destructive of (black) man, so he would have man destroy, change, or control these institutions so that they, in his opinion, serve man rather than have man serve them. Further, Jones, like the Shelleys of the Romantic Period, is a visionary who sees creative artists as providers of philosophical and ideological bases for change. Next, in regard to technique, Jones, like many romantics of the past, will have little to do with conventional and prescribed forms and techniques, insists upon using the "language of the people," and constantly strives for new ways of writing, searching for what he calls a "post-American form." And it is obvious that Jones, as have countless romantics, uses his creative imagination to inform and shape his literary work. (pp. 178-80)

[According to commonly recognized Western criteria for all literature] he would rate very high on originality of expression, and he would be credited for creative use of his materials, individualistic thinking, and aptness of expression (figurative language). By conventional standards, he would be found lacking in control of his materials (form), undisciplined as a craftsman, and lacking in the expression of, for want of a better term, what would be called philosophical (in the sense of being commonly agreed upon) truth. As to those inescapable canons, universality and timelessness, he would be scored minus in one sense and plus in another sense. He would be downgraded on these two in that the very ethnocentrism and topicality of his content and method are antithetical to concepts of unlimited time and space. But he would be upgraded on these two in that the essential problem with which he concerns himself—man's inhumanity to man and what this does to all concerned—has existed everywhere, always. (p. 180)

[On] the basis of established and generally accepted Euro-American criteria for great literature, it cannot be said that LeRoi Jones has produced great literature.

Let us now consider Jones as a black aesthetician. It must be stressed that it is not our purpose here to argue if there is or is not a black aesthetic, nor, assuming that there is a black aesthetic, to argue whether or not a Western aesthetic and a black aesthetic are in the final analysis significantly different or mutually exclusive, nor to argue if a black aesthetic is or is not properly a part of a larger Western aesthetic, nor to argue whether the corpus known as black literature in the final analysis is or is not analogous to literary schools, categories, or movements of different times and places.

But let us assume that Jones, as he says, is not trying to write according to generally recognized principles of a Western aesthetic. Let us assume that there is a black aesthetic and that Jones, as he says, is writing according to principles of this black aesthetic as they apply to literature. At this point we are somewhat blocked, for there now exist no codified and commonly recognized criteria for such literature. This being so, what we can do is look at the elements and characteristics of this literature as pronounced by those who speak or write about the black aesthetic and as exemplified by those who profess to be or seek to be creative black aestheticians. These interrelated elements and characteristics include prominently: utilitarianism; strong ethnocentric content; black nationalistic content; identification with the black masses; collective or communal black, as opposed to an individualistic or private, attitude; cynicism about or rejection of Euro-American culture values; disregard for the type of universality which black aestheticians claim the American literary establishment wrongly equates with Westernism (Euro-Americanism) rather than with worldism; usefulness for social, political, and economic change; ethnic pride and celebration of a hitherto sometimes avoided or disdained black culture (life style and value system); urban and rural black folk elements; "black language"; energetic diction; experimentation in search of new, or black, forms and techniques. Jones' writing exhibits all these elements and characteristics, and in high degree.

Jones, especially as Imamu Amiri Baraka, is not in the business of composing poems, constructing plays, or creating fiction for the sake of poetry or drama or fiction. He is in the business of effecting change that will be to the advantage of black people. He is a political organizer and catalyst and a cultural theorist and leader. To the extent that it will aid him in these areas, his writing is, to him, art. An essay, a poem, a story, or a play that will get across a point, convert an unbeliever, destroy an enemy, promote the Jihad, organize a fragmented group, or raise a black's appreciation of himself is an artistic essay, poem, story, or play. In other words, Jones is attempting to practice an important tenet of black aestheticism, that literature be of practical value to black people. (pp. 180-81)

There is no doubt that his intention is to write for black people. But can the masses understand him? Do the masses of black people read his works? Is he communicating with black people on the streets? Is he writing clear "posters"? The answer is, too frequently, no. Baraka has not succeeded in eliminating his early Jonesian inclination to esoteric, academic, metaphysical, and abstruse writing. The majority of his readers still are the white intellectuals, the black college students, and the relatively small "in-group" of black cultural nationalists and other Afro-Americans not identified as being a part of the bulk of the black masses. The average inner-city "dude," the average black man-on-the-street knows little if anything at all about either LeRoi Jones or Imamu Amiri Baraka and his literary works. (pp. 181-82)

By and large, according to the existing principles of black literary aesthetics, LeRoi Jones is considered to be the supreme writer. Moreover, he is recognized to be the leading theorist and spokesman for the current black cultural movement….

There are those who will say that Jones was the first and most important mover and exponent of his age's black aestheticism and its concomitant black cultural nationalism…. (p. 182)

By using his gift with language and his particular sensibilities to explore situations afresh, to challenge existing beliefs, to rage against what he perceives as evil, to provide fresh insights, to propose new directions, in short, to illuminate life and to seek to better the quality of life, our author—Mr. LeRoi Jones, or Imamu Amiri Baraka—is accomplishing a prime function, is fulfilling a prime responsibility of the literary artist. (p. 183)

Theodore R. Hudson, in his From LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1973 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Duke University Press, 1973, 222 p.

James Robert Payne

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 294

The inclusion of the 1967 work Slave Ship alongside the recent The Motion of History (1976) and S-I (1976) in [The Motion of History and Other Plays] reveals Baraka's movement from the view of what he terms "the petty bourgeois of the oppressed nationality," represented by Slave Ship, to a Marxist orientation, represented by The Motion of History and S-I.

After ten years Slave Ship remains a powerful document of mid-1960s Afro-American consciousness. White slavers cannot destroy the African spirit, and indeed unwittingly introduce black culture, especially music, into America via their slave ships….

In short scenes interpreting American historical events ranging from the present to the seventeenth century, The Motion of History portrays black and white proletariats learning to unite against their oppressors. Baraka dispenses with black nationalist preoccupations and focuses on the dramatization of the historical roots of unjust American class and black-white relations. Particularly effective are satirical portraits of solipsistic young bohemians, side-tracked by drugs, Eastern religion and other fashionable diversions, and of poor Southern white types, betrayed and played off against the blacks by establishment whites. Although the idea that black and white workers should unite against their common oppressors is of course not new, Baraka's empathetic presentation of the budding insight and growth of common understanding of individual white and black workers is strong and moving.

S-I presents near-future American political history when the outbreak of war serves as an excuse for fascist repression…. In a recent interview Baraka criticized some of his early work "for celebrating the subjective and the idealistic."… S-I reveals a rather extreme and simplistic idealization of Marxist-Leninism.

James Robert Payne, "World Literature in Review: 'The Motion of History and Other Plays'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1979 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 53, No. 2, Spring, 1979, p. 293.

Darryl Pinckney

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Amiri Baraka, formerly LeRoi Jones, has lost none of his fury since the Black Power movement of the 1960's. He has, however, sacrificed artistic vitality on the altar of his political faith. Selected by Baraka, the work gathered in ["Selected Plays and Prose of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones" and "Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones"] is offered as a summation of his creative life…. The change revealed in Baraka's style over the years is dramatic—from Beat non-conformist to militant black nationalist to, lately, self-styled leader of a revolutionary vanguard, one who is fond of quoting Stalin, Mao and The Peking Review.

Baraka's writing is defined by vehement repudiations, littered with discarded identities. Much is swept under the carpet, and the frayed edges are then nailed down with a sledge hammer. (p. 9)

Baraka has always shown a willingness to embrace radical beliefs, and consequently his writing is alive with the political and social issues of race in American life. But his early work is far better than his recent efforts: he now seems content to express his Marxism in the most reductive, shrill propaganda. Increasing ideological self-consciousness and self-congratulation have caused him to write with the heedless fanaticism of a religious convert. Baraka has abandoned his gripping depiction of large, historical questions in favor of the didacticism of proletarian utilitarianism, just as Brecht hoped to create a theater that would inspire militancy in the audience.

There is much exasperation and bitterness in Baraka's artistic vision—and also a complicated ambivalence toward the masses he wishes to liberate…. Baraka's inability to reconcile his nihilistic postures—his yearnings for blasphemy—with the frustrations of political reality lessens his authority as a spokesman and as a writer.

Many of the essays in this collection are governed by a punitive, vindictive inclination, which is part of Baraka's rhetorical style as one who has mounted the ramparts. "Newark, Before Black Men Conquered," from "Raise Race Rays Raze" (1969) is ruthlessly honest about the corruption of political life in that city. It also reveals Baraka's angry ambition. He is less self-promoting and a much more interesting, skeptical observer in the essay "Cuba Libre," from "Home," which is about his visit there in July 1960. It is a valuable piece of reportage. Baraka describes his impression of Castro, the changes in the country's institutions, the mood of the people and the exuberant anniversary celebration at the shrine of the Revolution, Sierra Maestra. The essay also marks the beginning of Baraka's political odyssey, his search for the revolution in America.

Now that Baraka identifies himself as a Marxist, he has shrewdly omitted from this collection essays from his nationalist period…. Though the essays printed here differ in subject matter—Baraka now cares more for the dictatorship of the proletariat than he does for the glorification of Black Manhood—they exhibit the same lust for doctrine, the joy of jargon. "Capitalism is an economic system, a mode of production, characterized by private ownership of the means of production, the lands, the factories, mineral wealth, transportation, communication, waterways. This means of production is owned privately by a single class in capitalist society called the capitalist class or the bourgeoisie." The novice recites his catechism, and the solemnity is almost comical. The utter lack of sophistication in Baraka's analysis makes these essays—"The Revolutionary Tradition in Afro-American Literature," "National Liberation Movements" and "Black Liberation/Socialist Revolution"—feeble contributions to the Marxist critique. In one of his late poems, Baraka attacks Angela Davis for being a "movie star" and "fronting" for the lies of the Communist Party. A pity, for he could learn something from her application of the materialist methodology to black history, regardless of what he thinks of her party affiliation.

One often wonders to whom these essays are addressed. They exhibit an alarming pedagogical condescension…. Baraka is better on the subject of black music and society. One wishes for more of that and less of his political flailings. (pp. 9, 29)

[Only] four of Baraka's plays have been reprinted, and this is unfortunate because he is a highly gifted dramatist. Much of the black protest literature of the 60's now seems diminished in power, even sentimental. But "Dutchman" (1964) immediately seizes the imagination. It is radically economical in structure, striking in the vivacity of its language and rapid shifts of mood. Part of Baraka's brilliance as a dramatist is to transform familiar situations into twisted, inflamed projections of the future, prophecies of what is to come in America's racial struggle. This is true of "The Slave" (1964), in which a domestic crisis is juxtaposed against a race war….

The poetry shows the progression of Baraka's thought, but in a much more intimate and vivid way than the prose or the plays do. Even in the poetry from the nationalist phase, the elements of folk culture are more successfully employed, and perhaps this is the communication with the masses to which Baraka aspires. The poetry also illustrates the change in Baraka's use of his art. His most recent poems, "Poetry for the Advanced," published here for the first time, are written from a drastic loss of openness. Baraka's ear for the vernacular, his wit and the ease of his imagery have been replaced by denunciations, by the repetitive messages of propaganda….

The change in Baraka's work is bewildering: it is almost a parody of revolutionary art. Frankly, it is tiresome. And this is very sad, because Baraka, a prolific and provocative writer, is one of the few blacks to come from a genuinely avant-garde tradition. In his early plays, there is a picture of the black man as complicated, a relief from the pieties of the realistic tradition in black theater. In his early poetry, there was an engaging voice, one outside convention, and an awareness of forms. These things have been lost in the haste and rigidity of Baraka's political journey. (p. 29)

Darryl Pinckney, "The Changes of Amiri Baraka," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 16, 1979, pp. 9, 29.

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