In his preface, Baraka states his intention to add understanding “where it has been difficult to see any sense.” He promises to take the reader from childhood (“a mist in which a you is moving to become another you”) to adulthood. Although the book was written, at least partially, as a response to critics and was intended for adult readers, it is a literary and cultural autobiography of interest to older teenage readers because of its subject matter and its lively prose style.
The strength of The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka is that it details textbook issues—the story of an outstanding African American in a landmark period of change. Baraka illuminates these times from the inside through a kinetic, jazz-oriented prose. The sheer volume of uncensored facts, scenes, memories, and conversations makes the story “messy” and, thus, lifelike.
Though the autobiography is in continual touch with cultural, political, and poetic issues, the story never strays from one man’s voice, first as a child and an adolescent in the intimacy of family, neighborhood, and school and later as an adult in the rough-and-tumble turbulence of fighting the established order. Using his own hip, poetic language, Baraka does not pretend to be objective. Rather, his approach focuses on retelling significant moments of self-discovery and on critically commenting on his actions.
Young adults will appreciate Baraka’s focus on the process of growth and discovery. For Baraka, as for most adolescents, growth occurred in spurts—with the influence of wars, politics, music, friends, and books. The autobiography’s tone and style shift as Baraka enters each new stage of his life. Though each section merges coherently with the next, shifts in subject matter and tone allow the autobiography to be looked at as four separate books. The first section shows, in concrete detail, the child and the adolescent. The next section painfully illustrates Baraka’s “lost years” at Howard University and in the military, when he established a preliminary adult persona. Later, as he gains stature, the book naturally segments into explanations of literary and political movements.
What makes an autobiography of a public persona important for young adults is the intimate portrait of an individual influencing a changing culture. Baraka portrays his life not as carefully crafted decisions but as moments within the crazed cultural forces of the larger world. Music, the energy that propels his actions, was a new “way of perceiving reality—connected to the one I’d had—blue/black and brown but also pushing past that to something else. Strangeness. Weirdness. The unknown!” Jazz and blues thus hold together a life that often threatens to fragment into chaos.
Some readers, focusing on Baraka’s literary prowess, may crave a closer look at the writer at work. Others may seek a deeper analysis of literary movements—the Beat generation writers, the...
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