Amiri Baraka

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Discussion Topics

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How would you describe the interaction between Lula and Clay in Dutchman? What does it suggest about the relationship between the black and white races?

Amiri Baraka considers violence as the ultimate means to bring about a black rebirth. How does violence function in Dutchman?

How is racism addressed and dealt with in Dutchman and “An Agony. As Now”?

What are the changes that the poet has experienced in “An Agony. As Now “? What is the significance of these changes?

What are the two selves presented in “An Agony. As Now”? Can they coexist? Why or why not?

Identify some of the avant-garde techniques that Baraka employs in “An Agony. As Now” and “Monk’s World.”

What is “jazzification”? Draw examples from “Monk’s World” to illustrate such elements in the poem.

What do you think Monk is “signifying” with the “black keys” in “Monk’s World”?

Other Literary Forms

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Amiri Baraka has been a cultural activist and professional writer for more than four decades and in that time has produced a wide range of works, including plays, essays, stories, and poems. Best known for dramas produced in the 1960’s (The Baptism, pr. 1964; The Toilet, pr., pb. 1964), he has also written a novel (The System of Dante’s Hell, 1965), collections of poetry (Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, 1961), The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka (1984), and several books on black music (Blues People: Negro Music in White America, 1963; The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues, 1987).

Achievements

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Amiri Baraka has won a number of awards and fellowships, particularly for his poetry and drama (such as the Playwright’s Award at North Carolina’s Black Drama Festival in 1997). His play Dutchman (pr., pb. 1964) won an Obie Award for Best American Off-Broadway Play, and the following year Jones was granted a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship. In 1984 he received an American Book Award, and in 1989 he won a PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. He has also founded or supported numerous journals (such as Yugen magazine), theater groups (like the Black Arts Repertory Theatre), and other cultural organizations, especially in the African American community, and he has edited several important books on black culture (such as Home: Social Essays, 1966). In 1989, Baraka was given the Langston Hughes Medal for outstanding contribution to literature. His work has been translated and published in a number of other languages and countries.

Other Literary Forms

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Amiri Baraka is an exceptionally versatile literary figure, equally well known for his poetry, drama, and essays. In addition, he has written short stories, collected in Tales (1967), and an experimental novel, The System of Dante’s Hell (1965), which includes numerous poetic and dramatic passages. Baraka’s early volumes of poetry Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961) and The Dead Lecturer (1964) derive from his period of involvement with the New York City avant-garde. Other volumes, such as Black Magic: Sabotage, Target Study, Black Art—Collected Poetry, 1961-1967 (1969) and It’s Nation Time (1970), reflect his intense involvement with Black Nationalist politics. Later volumes, such as Hard Facts (1975) and Reggae or Not! (1981), reflect his developing movement to a leftist political position and have generally failed to appeal to either his avant-garde or his Black Nationalist audience. Baraka’s critical and political prose has been collected in Home: Social Essays (1966), Raise Race Rays Raze: Essays Since 1965 (1971), Selected Plays and Prose (1979), and Daggers and Javelins: Essays (1984). The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka was published in 1984.

Achievements

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One of the most politically controversial playwrights of the 1960’s, Amiri Baraka is best known for his brilliant early play Dutchman and for his contribution to the development of a community-based black nationalist theater. Throughout his career,...

(This entire section contains 360 words.)

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he has sought dramatic forms for expressing the consciousness of those alienated from the psychological, economic, and racial mainstream of American society. Even though no consensus exists concerning the success of his experiments, particularly those with ritualistic forms for political drama, his challenge to the aesthetic preconceptions of the American mainstream and the inspiration he has provided younger black playwrights such as Ed Bullins and Ron Milner guarantee his place in the history of American drama.

Already well known as an avant-garde poet, Baraka, then LeRoi Jones, first rose to prominence in the theatrical world with the 1964 productions of The Baptism, Dutchman, The Slave, and The Toilet, which established him as a major Off-Broadway presence. Shortly after winning the Obie Award for Dutchman, however, Baraka broke his ties with the white avant-garde to concentrate on the creation of a militant African American theater. As his mainstream reputation declined, he gained recognition as a leading voice of the Black Arts movement, ultimately assuming a position of public political visibility matched by only a handful of American literary figures.

Baraka’s many awards and honors include the Longview Best Essay of the Year award (1961) for his essay “Cuba Libre”; the John Whitney Foundation fellowship for poetry and fiction (1962); the Obie Award for Best American Off-Broadway Play of 1964 for Dutchman; a Guggenheim Fellowship (1965-1966); second prize in the First World Festival of Negro Arts (1966) for his play The Slave; a National Endowment for the Arts grant (1966); an honorary doctorate from Malcolm X College in Chicago (1972); a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship in drama (1981); a National Endowment for the Arts poetry award (1981); a New Jersey Council for the Arts award (1982); the American Book Award (Before Columbus Foundation), for Confirmation: An Anthology of African-American Women; a PEN-Faulkner Award (1989); the Langston Hughes Medal (1989) for outstanding contributions to literature; Italy’s Ferroni Award and Foreign Poet Award (1993); and the Playwright’s Award from the Black Drama Festival of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 1997.

Other literary forms

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Amiri Baraka (buh-RAH-kuh) is a protean literary figure, equally well known for his poetry, drama, and essays. In addition, he has written short stories and experimental fiction. Baraka’s early plays, notably Dutchman (pr., pb. 1964), The Slave (pr., pb. 1964), and The Toilet (pr., pb. 1964), were produced under his given name, LeRoi Jones, and derive from his period of involvement with the New York City avant-garde. Baraka’s critical and political prose has appeared in many collections, and throughout his career, he has been active as an anthologist of African American literature.

Achievements

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Amiri Baraka has been the recipient of many awards and honors. He won the Longview Best Essay of the Year (1961) for his essay “Cuba Libre,” the Obie Award for Best American Play of 1964 for Dutchman, the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation for Confirmation: An Anthology of African-American Women (1984), a PEN-Faulkner Award (1989), the Langston Hughes Award (1989), the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Before Columbus Foundation (1989), Italy’s Ferroni Award and Foreign Poet Award (1993), and the Playwright’s Award from the Black Drama Festival of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 1997. He received fellowships and grants from the John Whitney Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the New Jersey State Council for the Arts. He was awarded a doctorate of humane letters from Malcolm X College in Chicago (1972). He also served as poet laureate of New Jersey from July, 2002, until the post was abolished in July, 2003.

Bibliography

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Baraka, Amiri. Conversations with Amiri Baraka. Edited by Charlie Reilly. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994. Offers insights into the black experience through Baraka’s experiences during the turbulent later half of the twentieth century, from his ghetto life in the 1940’s through the Black Nationalist movement of the 1970’s to his intellectual life in the 1990’s. Baraka critiques and elucidates his works and underscores his belief in the connection between art and social criticism.

Benston, Kimberly W., ed. Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones): A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1978. Benston, who also wrote Baraka: The Renegade and the Mask (1976), brings together essays that shed light on various aspects of his poetry and drama. Includes a bibliography.

Brown, Lloyd W. Amiri Baraka. Boston: Twayne, 1980. Chapter 4 focuses on the short stories and includes the sections “The Writer as Divided Self” and “Toward Black Nationalism.” Brown’s is clearly the best analysis of individual Baraka short stories, and, like Werner Sollors, he identifies both the formal and thematic elements that tie these different stories together.

Effiong, Philip Uko. In Search of a Model for African-American Drama: A Study of Selected Plays by Lorraine Hansberry, Amiri Baraka, and Ntozake Shange. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2000. A comparative study of how these three dramatists seek and devise new models to address the specific conditions of blacks in America.

Fox, Robert Eliot. Conscientious Sorcerers: The Black Post-modernist Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Baraka, Ishmael Reed, and Samuel R. Delaney. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987. Chapter 2 is a discussion of Baraka’s novel and the stories collected in Tales, in a comparative study of “three of the most important and gifted American authors to have emerged in the tumultuous period of the 1960’s.”

Gwynne, James B., ed. Amiri Baraka: The Kaleidoscopic Torch. Harlem, N.Y.: Steppingstones Press, 1985. This collection of poems and essays for and about Amiri Baraka includes Richard Oyama’s analysis of “The Screamers,” titled “A Secret Communal Expression,” as well as essays by Clyde Taylor and E. San Juan, Jr.

Lacey, Henry C. To Raise, Destroy, and Create: The Poetry, Drama, and Fiction of Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones). Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1981. In the last chapter, “Recapitulation,” Lacey traces the autobiographical origins of many of Baraka’s short stories. While he recognizes Baraka’s faults—“extreme privacy of reference, frequent experimental failure, and racist dogma, to name only a few”—he also identifies Baraka’s main merits: “daring and frequently successful verbal approximations of jazz music, vibrant recreation of black speech, and a consummate portrayal of the black middle-class psyche.”

Reilly, Charlie, ed. Conversations with Amiri Baraka. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994. In the text’s introduction, the editor prepares the reader for the telling of the story—“much of it told for the first time”—of “the acclaimed author who walked back into the ghetto to support his people and who never looked back.” Includes chronology and index.

Sollors, Werner. Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a “Populist Modernism.” New York: Columbia University Press, 1978. In Chapter 7 of this early study, Sollors examines the themes and forms of Baraka’s lone novel and his short stories. The stories in Tales “may be considered the logbook of a fiction writer who under the social pressures of the 1960’s, catapulted himself out of writing fictions while writing a swan-song to telling tales.”

Watts, Jerry Gafio. Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual. New York: New York University Press, 2001. A critical appraisal. Watts argues that Baraka’s artistry declined as he became more politically activist, though he considers Baraka an important poet and lens through which African American political history can be viewed.

Woodard, K. Komozi. A Nation Within a Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black Power Politics. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. Revises the common view of Baraka as an extremist, arguing that he became a seasoned political veteran who brought together divergent black factions.

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