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.