Amiri Baraka Baraka, Imamu Amiri (Vol. 14) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Theodore R. Hudson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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James Robert Payne

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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