A Long and Influential Career

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Amiri Baraka (born Everett LeRoi Jones) is a leading African American poet who has also written essays, short stories, a novel, a major study of American jazz, plays, a musical drama, and an autobiography. He has founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater-School, edited seminal anthologies and journals of avant-garde and African American writing, received major scholarly fellowships and awards, taught at several major American universities, and been an influential political and cultural leader in the African American community. Baraka’s life, achievements, and writing have reflected—and have often helped determine—the evolution of African American thought in the last half of the twentieth century and beyond. The philosophical and political developments in Baraka’s thinking have resulted in four distinct poetical periods: a 1950’s and 1960’s involvement with the Greenwich Village Beat scene, an early 1960’s quest for personal identity and community, a phase connected with Black Nationalism and the Black Arts movement, and a Marxist-Leninist period.

Everett LeRoi Jones was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1934. His father was a postal worker; his mother was a college dropout who became a social worker. Graduated with honors from Barringer High School in 1951, Jones first attended Rutgers University on scholarship and transferred to Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1952, only to be expelled in 1954 for failing grades. He immediately joined the U.S. Air Force, attaining the rank of sergeant, but he was discharged “undesirably” in 1957 for having sent some of his poems to purportedly communist publications. Upon his release, Jones moved to Greenwich Village; became friends with such avant-garde poets as Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, and Charles Olson; and married Hettie Cohen, with whom he edited a literary journal.

Political Awakening

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In 1960, Jones—along with several other important “Negro writers”—was invited to visit Cuba, where he met Fidel Castro. He witnessed Cuba’s socialist infancy firsthand and realized how political poetry could be. The success of his play Dutchman (pr., pb. 1964) and the murder of Malcolm X in 1965 convinced Jones that Greenwich Village’s white Beat poetry scene and his white Jewish wife contradicted his interests in African American communities and issues. Consequently, he moved initially to Harlem and then back to Newark. During this period, Jones—along with Larry Neal, Hoyt Fuller, Don L. Lee, and others—initiated the Black Arts movement, a cultural embodiment of Black Nationalism. He also married Sylvia Robinson (Amina Baraka) and in 1967 changed his name to Imamu Ameer Baraka, meaning “spiritual leader and prince who is blessed.” He later simplified the name to Amiri Baraka.

Throughout the 1960’s and into the 1970’s, Baraka’s major interests were the Black Power movement, Black Muslim philosophy and politics, Maulana Ron Karenga’s Kawaida cultural revolutionary doctrine, and pan-Africanism. In 1974, however, Baraka became convinced that these “cultural nationalist positions” were too narrow in their concerns and that class, not race, determines the social, political, and economic realities of people’s lives. For this reason, he shifted his focus in writing and politics to Marxist-Leninist thought.

Post-World War II avant-garde Greenwich Village poetry represented a break from what Baraka considered the impersonal, academic poetry of T. S. Eliot and the poetry published in The New Yorker. When Baraka read Allen Ginsberg’s 1956 poem “Howl,” it was a turning point in his poetic life. Baraka says “Howl” moved him because “it talked about a world I could identify with and relate to. . . . I now knew poetry could be about some things that I was familiar with. That it did not have to be about suburban birdbaths and Greek mythology.” In “How You Sound??” Baraka wrote: “MY POETRY is whatever I think I am. . . . I CAN BE ANYTHING I CAN. I make a poetry with what I feel is useful & can be saved out of all the garbage of our lives.” He came to believe not only that any observation, experience, or object is appropriate for poetry but also that “There must not be any preconceived notion or design for what the poem ought to be. . . . I’m not interested in writing sonnets, sestinas or anything . . . only poems.”

The Politics of Personal Experience and Popular Culture

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

What interests Baraka is his own experience, popular American culture, and the struggle between the seemingly contradictory black and white worlds in which he dwells. A number of Baraka’s early poems published in Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961) express a yearning for a more orderly and meaningful world that he associates with radio. He calls this yearning “A maudlin nostalgia/ that comes on/ like terrible thoughts about death.” In “In Memory of Radio,” Baraka compares the wisdom of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and the Shadow to his own lack of insight into the evil that “lurks in the hearts of men.” Meanwhile, “Look for You Yesterday, Here You Come Today” contrasts the certainty of radio’s imagined worlds to the real world, in which, Baraka realizes, “nobody really gives a damn” and “All the lovely things I’ve known have disappeared.” Almost despairingly, he wonders, “Where is my space helmet, I sent for it/ 3 lives ago . . . when there were box tops. . . . THERE MUST BE A LONE RANGER!!!” Neither the Lone Ranger nor his other radio companions come to the rescue. The poet is left alone and forlorn, “My silver bullets all gone/ My black mask trampled in the dust.”

In making popular culture the focus of his poetry, Baraka reflects the poetic shift from mythological and literary icons (which he considers bourgeois, academic, and dead) to the vitality of the everyday. Baraka and his circle looked to Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, and the Surrealist painters to help them create a new American poetic tradition. The personal “I,” so important to the whole body of Baraka’s poetic works, also began to develop during this period, which is characterized by direct and even confessional poems such as “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note.” In that poem, Baraka writes, “Lately, I’ve become accustomed to the way/ The ground opens up and envelopes me/ Each time I go out to walk the dog.” This personal voice expresses the confusion the poet feels living in both the black and white worlds. “Hymn for Lanie Poo” juxtaposes images from 1950’s New York with images from Africa and laments the capitulation of the poet’s...

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Baraka’s Black Nationalist Period

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Not until he involved himself with the Black Power movement, the Nation of Islam, the West Coast Kawaida revolution, and the Black Arts movement did Baraka come to see himself and his art clearly. In Cuba, Baraka had come to see that politics and poetry could work together; in his Black Nationalist period, he successfully joined the two. In his essay “The Legacy of Malcolm X, and the Coming of the Black Nation,” Baraka declares, “The Black artist . . . is desperately needed to change the images his people identify with, by asserting Black feeling, Black mind, Black judgment”; in “State/meant,” he says: “The Black Artist must draw out of his soul the correct image of the world.”

In the poem “Black Art,” Baraka insists that art should be intimately connected with the real world, not an exercise in abstraction. Art must reflect and change that world: “We want ’poems that kill.’/ Assassin poems, Poems that shoot/ guns.” In the final stanza, he writes: “We want a black poem./ And a/ Black World.” His poems call for separatist Black Nationalism. In “Return of the Native,” he imagines a completely African American world, “where we may see ourselves/ all the time.” His tribute to Malcolm X, “A Poem for Black Hearts,” celebrates the contributions of the “black god of our time” and looks to his memory to transform those who follow. “Poem for HalfWhite College Students” is a warning to black students whose words, gestures, and values are compromised by the white academic world. “Ka’Ba” honors the beauty of blackness: “We are beautiful people/ with african imaginations/ full of masks and dances and swelling chants.” Baraka calls for the African tradition evoked by Black Nationalism to supply meaning, self-affirmation, and order in an alien land.


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Baraka has observed that “all nationalism finally, taken to any extreme, has got to be oppressive to the people who are not in that nationality.” Recognizing the constrictive effect of Black Nationalism led Baraka to adopt a Marxist-Leninist perspective. Baraka has attributed the change in his thinking to his realization that “skin color was not determinant of political content.” Furthermore, he has stated, “I see art as a weapon, and a weapon of revolution. It’s just now that I define revolution in Marxist terms.” In his poem “When We’ll Worship Jesus,” for example, Baraka criticizes Christian America for its failure to help people in any substantive way: “he cant change the world/ we can change the world.” He insists, “throw/ jesus out yr mind. Build the new world out of reality, and new vision.”

In “A New Reality Is Better than a New Movie!” Baraka envisions the old, unequal, capitalist world being consumed in an inferno. What is captured on film pales in comparison to the revolutionary reality to come: “The real terror of nature is humanity enraged, the true/ technicolor spectacle that/ hollywood/ cant record.” Such outrage will lead, Baraka predicts, to a demand for “the new socialist reality . . . the ultimate tidal/ wave” that will change the world. In poems such as “The Dictatorship of the Proletariat” and “Das Kapital,” Baraka presents a poetic articulation of socialist ideology.

In his 1982 poem “In the Tradition,” Baraka moves beyond strict Marxist concerns to address African American culture, providing a tribute to the contributors to that tradition: “We are the composers, racists & gunbearers/ We are the artists.” He wants American history and culture to “get out of europe/ come out of europe if you can.” Were scholars to look for truly American culture, he maintains, “nigger music’s almost all/ you got, and you find it/ much too hot.” Baraka’s long poem “Why’s/Wise” (later published as part of Wise, Why’s, Y’s, 1995) also focuses on the life and history of African Americans, though Baraka is still committed...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Berry, Jay R., Jr. “Poetic Style in Amiri Baraka’s Black Art.” College Language Association Journal 32 (December, 1988): 225-234. Insists that though his attention in Black Art is primarily political, Baraka shows great concern for poetic style and structure also.

Harris, William J. The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1985. Comprehensive examination of Baraka’s thought and work from his bohemian stage through black nationalism to Marxism, with particular emphasis on the influence of jazz upon him.

Melhern, D. H. “Revolution: The Constancy of Change: An Interview with Amiri Baraka.” Black American Literature Forum 16, no. 3 (Fall, 1982): 87-105. Baraka discusses the development of his politics, philosophy, and art.

Miller, James A. “ ‘I Investigate the Sun’: Amiri Baraka in the 1980’s.” Callaloo 9 (Winter, 1986): 184-192. Miller maintains that, despite some critics’ claims to the contrary, Baraka’s poetry has not deteriorated since his “conversion” to Marxist-Leninism.

Phillips, Marilynn J. “LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka: A Study in Creolization.” MAWA Review 2 (June, 1986): 8-10. Claims that creolization, the incorporation and mingling of the vocabulary and grammar of two or more language groups, marks Baraka’s poetry. Baraka uses “all language varieties available to him” to express his ideas.

Sollors, Werner. Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a “Populist Modernism.” New York: Columbia University Press, 1978. Argues that two ideas unify Baraka’s works and ideas through all of their various stages: popularism and modernism.