A Poet’s Politics

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Amiri Baraka achieved early recognition as a talented poet among the Beat generation writers and found early fame as a playwright with the award-winning Dutchman (pr., pb. 1964), but his essays are also of major significance. These essays are not limited to literary concerns but comment incisively on music, cultural history, politics, and economics. They are clearly the work of a poet in both their language and their conceptual approach. Baraka’s political views, although controversial, are for the most part visionary. His is a poet’s politics.

Baraka was born Everett LeRoi Jones on October 7, 1934, in Newark, New Jersey. After attending public schools and graduating with honors, he attended Rutgers University and Howard University. He served in the U.S. Air Force. After his discharge, he moved to New York City’s Greenwich Village in 1958 to pursue a career as a writer. In New York, Baraka and Hettie Cohen began to publish a literary magazine titled Yugen, which soon became influential as a showcase for poets associated with the Beat generation and in avant-garde art and music circles. Baraka’s associates included poet and Museum of Modern Art curator Frank O’Hara, painter and jazz musician Larry Rivers, and Beat writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Diane di Prima.

In the early 1960’s, Baraka’s essays on literature and political issues began appearing in the avant-garde journal Kulchur (published by art patron Lita Hornick). When collected in book form, these controversial essays reached a large and diverse audience that reacted with varying degrees of enthusiasm and alarm. The essays present Baraka’s thoughts with a challenging directness, and his style of expression is eloquently colloquial and dramatic. The essays were timely when they originally appeared and remain important for the penetrating light they shed on the period and on the literary development of the author.

Work in the Twenty-First Century

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In 2000, Baraka published The Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka. This collection of the author’s fiction collects the contents of two previous volumes, The System of Dante’s Hell (1965) and Tales (1967), as well as four short stories and the previously unpublished novel Six Persons. His fiction, like his essays, provides an unapologetic look at African American consciousness. The collection is autobiographical, in that it traces Baraka’s development from a young advocate uncertain about his role in the struggle into a conscious social critic and activist. The short fiction dates from 1958 to 1974, and all but one story in the collection portrays Baraka’s Black Nationalist ideology. The single piece that does not is Six Persons, written after he became a Black Marxist. Six Persons represents an intense look at contemporary African American culture, as well as a documentation of his ideological development.

In 2003, Baraka published The Essence of Reparations, which provides a detailed discussion of reparations for African Americans. He corrects the misconception that reparations would be a kind of paycheck, positing them instead as a means of social, political, and economic reform. Baraka outlines the oppressing and damaging history that reparations would work to reverse not only by rebuilding African American communities but also by empowering all oppressed peoples worldwide. Being true to his interpretation of Malcolm X, Baraka calls for all working-class and oppressed people to ally themselves against their common capitalist, imperialist, and white supremacist enemies.

Baraka has a remarkable Web site, where, in addition to a short biography, a book list, and visual and audio materials, he has posted full-text essays. The posted essays include the powerful “I Will Not Apologize, I Will Not Resign,” which is a response to the attacks he received on his poem “Somebody Blew Up America.” “On Teddy Harris’s Work,” “The Slavemasters’ Bloody Banner,” “A Knowers Survey,” “The Revolutionary Theatre,” and the poetic essay “Joseph to His Brothers” are also included on the official Baraka site.


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Baraka, Amiri. Preface to Home: Social Essays. Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco Press, 1998. Baraka’s preface to the 1998 edition summarizes the chronological progression of the writer’s thought over the decades and situates this 1966 collection within the context of his Black Nationalist period.

Brown, Lloyd W. Amiri Baraka. Boston: Twayne, 1980. A critical biography of the author.

Ellison, Ralph. Shadow and Act. New York: Vintage Books, 1972. Includes a review of Blues People that questions Baraka’s interpretation of African American music and culture.

Harris, William J. The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1985. Critical study of Baraka’s ideas as reflected in his poetry.

Sollors, Werner. Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a “Populist Modernism.” New York: Columbia University Press, 1978. Thorough discussion of Baraka as poet, playwright, novelist, and essayist. Includes an excellent bibliography.

Tate, Greg. “Growing Up in Public: Amiri Baraka Changes His Mind.” In Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. Opinionated overview of Baraka’s political ideas, as reflected in his poetry and prose.

Watts, Jerry Gafio. Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual. New York: New York University Press, 2001. Massive, comprehensive examination of Baraka’s aesthetic and political work and their mutual imbrication.