Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Two aspects of African American culture influence the style and technique of “The Screamers”: oral tradition and music, especially jazz. The story is a tale told by an autobiographical narrator. The other characters, including Lynn Hope, exist for the reader only as described by the narrator. Baraka’s use of present tense at the beginning of the tale shifts quickly to past tense, resulting in a more reflective, nostalgic tone.

In his autobiography, Baraka notes that the writers of the Black Arts movement were drenched in black music, even wanting their poetry to be black music. It is clear in “The Screamers” that African American music has revolutionary possibilities. One of those possibilities is transforming literary form by incorporating the rhythms, the musical form of jazz. Baraka does so in this tale, and the result is both poetic and musical.

Baraka’s prose in “The Screamers” is rhythmic, with fragmented sentences and long series of phrases that are like jazz riffs, sometimes punctuated by single words or short phrases. He opens the story in this fashion: “Lynn Hope adjusts his turban under the swishing red green yellow shadow lights. Dots. Suede heaven raining, windows yawning cool summer air, and his musicians watch him grinning, quietly, or high with wine blotches on four-dollar shirts.” This is a tale meant to be delivered in the oral tradition, by a storyteller-poet, an African griot.

The story is filled with images that the narrator observes: Lynn Hope’s turban, “bright yellow stuck with a green stone,” the musician’s “red string conked hair,” a girl with “carefully vaselined bow legs” and a filthy angora sweater. The narrator also catalogs dances (the Grind, the Rub, the Slow Drag) and dance places (Lloyd’s, The Nitecap, The Hi-Spot, and Graham’s), trying to include those aspects of African American culture from which he, a middle-class black, has been separated.

During the period when Baraka was writing Tales, he was also trying to develop an African American aesthetic, an alternative to Western literary tradition, which he had begun to find stifling and alienating. His cataloging of African American experience, imitating of the rhythms of jazz, bringing together the scream of the saxophone and the screams of the dancers in an assertive communal experience, exemplify his own artistic movement into blackness.