The essays and lectures collected in Daggers and Javelins: Essays, 1974-1979 represent Amiri Baraka’s vigorous attempt to identify an African American revolutionary tradition that could parallel anticolonial struggles in Third World countries of Africa, Asia, and South America. Baraka applies a Marxist analysis to African American literature in these essays.
Having become disappointed with the progress of the Black Power movement and its emphasis on grassroots electoral politics, Baraka came to Marxism with the zeal of a new convert. “The essays of the earliest part of this period,” he writes, “are overwhelmingly political in the most overt sense.” While some of the essays in Daggers and Javelins address jazz, film, and writers of the Harlem Renaissance, all of them do so with the purpose of assessing what Baraka calls their potential to contribute to a revolutionary struggle.
In “The Revolutionary Tradition in Afro-American Literature,” Baraka distinguishes between the authentic folk and vernacular expression of African American masses and the poetry and prose produced by middle-class writers in imitation of prevailing literary standards. Considering the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and others as the beginnings of a genuine African American literature, he criticizes works that promote individualism or are merely “a distraction, an ornament.” Similarly, “Afro-American Literature and Class Struggle” and other essays consider how the economic structure of society affects the production and the appreciation of art. “Notes on the History of African/Afro-American Culture” interprets the theoretical writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and draws parallels between colonized African societies and the suppression of African American artistic expression by the American cultural mainstream.
Broadening his scope in essays on African and Caribbean authors, Baraka suggests that figures such as the Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the poet Aimé Césaire from Martinique can provide models for how African American artists can escape being co-opted into an elite that supports the status quo and, instead, produce art that offers a “cathartic revelation of reality” useful in promoting social change.