Amiri Baraka, a leader and inspiration within the Black Arts movement, opened the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School (BARTS) in 1964, which, in combination with the Black Arts movement, promoted an interest in music, poetry, art, and drama in Harlem, New York. During the 1960’s, Baraka began to distance himself from mainstream white American culture while aligning himself with the politics of Black Nationalism. Baraka wrote “A Poem for Black Hearts” to eulogize Malcolm X, a separatist leader of the Civil Rights movement, who was assassinated in 1965. While iconizing the political figure of Malcolm X as a symbol of African American masculinity, dignity, and self-consciousness, the poem’s speaker urges “black men” to “avenge” Malcolm’s death.
The poem, written in free verse, consists of twenty-seven lines that build an image of Malcolm X, which immortalizes him as a “black god of our time” while encouraging African American men to continue the struggle for civil rights. Malcolm’s body and essence are fragmented by the speaker; each part of Malcolm’s body is given significance so that the created image of the fallen leader becomes an image for all “black men.” While the poem is “For Black Hearts,” it is also “For Malcolm’s eyes,” which, according to the speaker, have the ability to break “the face of some dumb white man” by challenging his authority, his bigotry. The poem is “For/ Malcolm’s hands,” which “blessed” everyone in the African American community (the speaker included), “black and strong in his [Malcolm’s] image.” The speaker asserts that the poem is “for Malcolm’s words,” which are descriptively and figuratively renamed “fire darts” to show that his flaming words included the rhetoric of war and were carefully aimed at the enemy.
The speaker feels that Malcolm was assassinated “for saying, feeling, and being/ change,” believing that Malcolm was murdered for speaking out against racism and encouraging political action by “any means necessary.” In addition, the poem is “For Malcolm’s/ heart,” his love for his fellow “black men” and his “pleas” for African American dignity, life, and education. Finally, the poem is “For all of him [Malcolm] dead” and all of him remembered, which “clings to” African American political and cultural rhetoric.
The speaker incites his intended readers, “black men,” to “quit stuttering and shuffling,” “whining and stooping” and to “look up.” Instead of hanging their heads in defeat, “black men” should raise their heads in dignity and look to Malcolm as an example of African American pride, masculinity, and political activism. In the closing lines, the speaker, while aligning himself with and including himself in the African American community, challenges “black men” to “let nothing in [them] rest” until Malcolm’s death has been avenged. He furthers his vow of vengeance by pledging that “if we fail” to avenge Malcolm’s death, “let us never breathe a pure breath.” It is clear, at this moment in the text, that the speaker wants “black men” to internalize Malcolm’s eyes, words, heart, and dignity as well as his desire to change the world so that the voices of “black men” can continue to speak and act within the space Malcolm helped create.
Baraka utilizes enjambed lines to carry syntax over from one line to the next, as well as unconventional punctuation and repetition to stress particular words and phrases. In addition, he creates a mood of urgency in his layout. This urgency in combination with the fast and forward moving rhythm works to persuade and rally his intended readers, “black men,” to continue Malcolm’s battle: to challenge the dominant orders that...
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disenfranchise and exclude African Americans.
Throughout “A Poem for Black Hearts,” enjambment and unconventional punctuation control reading speed. Commas instigate light stops in the progression of the poem’s narrative. Intentionally, Baraka places commas after he introduces an aspect of Malcolm. This use of the comma creates both a slight pause and a stress, which becomes apparent in the first two lines of the poem. The comma between “eyes” and “when” functions to stress the word “eyes,” appearing before the comma, while preparing the reader for the symbolic significance of “Malcolm’s eyes,” in particular, the shattering gaze, which follows after the comma.
The poem is “For Malcolm’s eyes,” which were significant, powerful “when they broke/ the face of some dumb white man.” In addition to the arrangement of the clauses, the fact that the first line ends with the word “broke,” which is not followed by punctuation, pushes the reader into the first two words of the second line, “the face.” This is an example of how Baraka initially sets the pace of his poem with enjambment. Rather than employing a comma at the end of the first line to designate a pause at the end of the first line, the reader is forced to quickly begin the second line while carrying the syntax (all the words and clauses of the first line), into the second line.
In the second sentence of the poem, which includes lines 2-19, enjambment is of particular interest because it speeds the reader through the poem to the climax. Enjambment complicates the lines and poetic layout because it does not support a conventional meter or rhyme scheme. Following this long series of clauses, Baraka begins the resolution, which relies on repetition, particularly of the phrases “look up” and “black man” in lines 20-22, to chastise his readers for defeatism before calling on them to “avenge” Malcolm’s death. Thus, the relationship between the words and clauses in previous lines flows into the following lines and gives the poem continuity.
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