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A controversial writer who rose to prominence in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Amiri Baraka is considered a seminal figure in the development of contemporary black literature. According to some scholars, he succeeds w. E. B. Du Bois and Richard Wright as one of the most prolific and persistent critics of twentieth-century America. His works, which cover a variety of literary genres, concern the oppression of blacks in white society. He received worldwide acclaim for his first professional play production, Dutchman (1964), and his subsequent work for the theater has provoked both praise and controversy. Having rejected white values and white society, Baraka strives to create art with a firm didactic purpose: to forge an African American literature that reflects the values of the black community.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Born Everett LeRoy Jones in New Jersey in 1934, Baraka spent his early childhood creating comic strips and writing science fiction stories. He was a descendant of preachers, and he dreamed of becoming a minister because, as he recalled, at that time ministers were the most respected leaders in the black community. At school Baraka excelled in his studies, graduating from high school at the age of fifteen. About his school experience, he recalled: ”When I was in high school, I used to drink a lot of wine, throw bottles around, walk down the street in women’s clothes just because I couldn’t find anything to do to satisfy myself.” Perhaps hoping to satisfy himself in college, he enrolled at Howard University in 1952. Shortly before his first year at the university, he began spelling his name LeRoi; scholar William J. Harris suggests that Baraka may have been trying to create a new identity for himself by altering his name. At Howard he studied with famous black scholars E. Franklin Frazier, Nathan A. Scott Jr., and Sterling A. Brown. Despite these exceptional teachers, Baraka found Howard stifling and flunked out of school in 1954. Shortly thereafter, he joined the United States Air Force. Of his experience in the service, he told interviewer Judy Stone that
the Howard thing let me understand the Negro sickness. They teach you how to pretend to be white. But the Air Force made me understand the white sickness. It shocked me into realizing what was happening to me and others.
In 1957, after being dishonorably discharged, he moved to New York’s Greenwich Village. There he became a part of the Beat movement and associated with members Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, and Charles Olson. During the next few years he established a reputation as a music critic, writing jazz criticism for magazines Downbeat, Metronome, and the Jazz Review. Along with Hettie Roberta Cohen—a white Jewish woman whom he later married in 1958—he also founded Yugen, a magazine forum for the poetry of Beat writers. By the late 1950s, his own poetry began attracting critical attention; his first volume of poetry, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note … (1961), met with general approval for its unconventional style and language. Critics would later observe that this is the only work of Baraka’s that is ”free from ethnic torment.”
In 1960, after reading Baraka’s poem ”January 1, 1959: Fidel Castro,” the New York chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee offered Baraka an invitation to visit Cuba. In The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (1984), he referred to this visit as ”a turning point in my life,” noting, ”Cuba split me open.” While there he met Third World political artists and intellectuals who forced him to reconsider his art and his apolitical stance. They attacked him for being an American and labeled him a ”cowardly bourgeois individualist.” He tried to defend himself in ”Cuba Libre” (1961), an essay reprinted in Home: Social Essays (1966), by writing: ”Look, why jump on me?… I’m in complete agreement with you. I’m a poet . . . what can I do? I write, that’s all, I’m not even interested in politics.” Mexican poet Jaime Shelley answered him: ”You want to cultivate your soul? In that ugliness you live in, you want to cultivate your soul? Well, we’ve got millions of starving people to feed, and that moves me enough to make poems out of.” Finally, Baraka came to realize the futility of his unpolitical art and began forsaking his life as a literary bohemian to embrace black nationalism. During this transitional period he produced some of his best-known works, including an analysis of contemporary black music, Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1963), and a second volume of poetry, The Dead Lecturer: Poems (1964).
Success as a Dramatist
Although Baraka wrote a number of plays during this period, Dutchman is widely considered his masterpiece. The play received an Obie Award for best Off-Broadway play and rocketed Baraka into the public eye. Dutchman centers on a volatile encounter involving Lula, an attractive, flirtatious white woman, and Clay, a young, quiet, well-dressed black intellectual. While on a New York subway, Lula mocks and taunts Clay mercilessly, using harsh language and racial epithets, for trying to act white. Clay, in a fit of rage, explodes: ”I sit here in this buttoned-up suit to keep myself from cutting all your throats. If I’m a middle-class fake white man—let me be. The only thing that would cure my neurosis would be your murder.” Feeling justified, Lula stabs Clay to death, and as the play ends, she calmly turns to another black man who has just entered the subway.
Baraka followed up Dutchman with two plays in 1964, The Toilet and The Slave. ”The Slave,” Baraka remarked,
was really the last play where I tried to balance and talk to blacks and whites. … [I] began to focus on my own identity about that time and came to the conclusion that it was the black community I must direct myself to—we’ve tried talking to the white society and it’s useless.
In 1965 Baraka divorced his white wife, deserted the white literary colony of Greenwich Village, and moved to Harlem. Completely dissociating himself from the white race, Baraka dedicated himself to creating works that were inspired by and spoke to the black community. With increasingly violent overtones, his writings called for blacks to unite and establish their own nation. Experimenting with ritual forms in his drama, he wrote Slave Ship: A Historical Pageant (1967), a re-creation of the passage of slaves into America. Other works written during his black nationalist period are The System of Dante’s Hell (1965), his only novel, and Tales (1967), a collection of short stories. Around this time Baraka also became more vocal about his hatred of whites; when a white woman approached him one day and asked what whites could do to help blacks, he retorted, ”You can help by dying. You are a cancer.” Although some people, especially his white friends, were shocked and upset over his violent outbursts, he continued to denounce all things ”white.” Hoping to withdraw even further, he approved of his name change in 1968 to Imamu Amiri Baraka, meaning ”blessed spiritual leader.” According to critic Floyd Gaffney, Baraka’s marriage to black woman Sylvia Robinson in 1966 also signaled his ”complete commitment to the black cause.” Baraka’s complex, symbolic plays Great Goodness of Life (A Coon Show) (1967), Madheart: A Morality Play (1967), and Police (1968), Gaffney continued, are further examples of Baraka’s new ”sociopolitical consciousness.”
From Black Nationalism to Marxism
By 1974 Baraka dropped the spiritual title ”Imamu,” and in a dramatic reversal of his earlier nationalist stance, declared himself an adherent of Marxist-Leninist thought. Categorically rejecting black nationalism, he now advocated socialism, stating: ”It is a narrow nationalism that says the white man is the enemy. … The black liberation movement in essence is a struggle for socialism.” Explaining his decision to change philosophies, he told an interviewer in 1980: ”I came to my Marxist view as a result of having struggled as a Nationalist and found certain dead ends theoretically and ideologically, as far as Nationalism was concerned, and had to reach out for a communist ideology.” During his socialist period he wrote Hard Facts: Excerpts (1975), a volume of poetry, and produced the plays S-l (1978), The Motion of History (1978), and The Sidnee Poet Heroical: In 29 Scenes (1979). In the fall of 1979, he joined the Africana Studies Department at State University of New York at Stony Brook as a teacher of creative writing. In the same year, as cited by William J. Harris, ”[Baraka] was arrested after two policemen allegedly attempted to intercede in a dispute between him and his wife over the price of children’s shoes.” While serving his sentence at a Harlem halfway house, he wrote The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (1984). Other works he wrote in the 1980s include ”Why’s/Wise” (1985), an epic poem; The Music: Reflection on Jazz and Blues (1987) with his wife Amina Baraka; and ”Reflections” (1988) , a poem published in the periodical Black Scholar.
Notable publications during the 1990s include Transbluesency, The Selected Poems of Amiri Bakara/LeRoi Jones (1995), and Funk Lore: New Poems (1996).
In his introduction to The Motion of History and Other Plays (1978) Baraka defended his work by stating that his shift in political philosophy represented the direction toward which he had been moving since the very beginning of his career. He emphasized not change but growth. Nonetheless, his literary reputation has been declining over the last two decades. However, even if Baraka were to write no more plays, he would still hold a permanent place in the history of American theater. His work with the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School helped to revolutionize black theater in America by providing a model for workshop/participation and street theater that has served aspiring drama groups throughout the United States. His understanding of the relationship between the theories of the function of culture and art has made an obvious impact on African American playwright Ed Bullins and others. Even more significant is the fact that with his plays in the mid-1960s he drew into vivid perspective the conditions and difficulties of blacks who sought to forge their own identities.
Works in Literary Context
Black Arts Movement
Baraka was a leading writer in the Black Arts movement (BAM), sometimes called the Black Aesthetics movement, which was the first major African American artistic movement since the Harlem Renaissance. Beginning in the early 1960s, BAM lasted through the mid-1970s. It flourished alongside the civil rights marches and the call for the independence of the African American community. African American writers set out to define what it meant to be a black writer in a white culture. While writers of the Harlem Renaissance seemed to investigate their identity within, writers of the Black Arts movement desired to define themselves and their era before being defined by others.
For the most part, participants in the Black Arts movement were, like Baraka, supportive of separatist politics and a black nationalist ideology. Larry Neal wrote in an essay ”The Black Arts Movement” (1968) that the movement was the ”aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept.” Rebelling against the mainstream society by being essentially anti-white, anti-American, and anti-middle class, these artists moved from the Renaissance view of art for art’s sake into a philosophy of art for politics’ sake.
The Black Arts movement attempted to produce works of art that would be meaningful to the African American masses. To this end, Baraka founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School to make theater more accessible by ”taking it to the streets.” The objective was to promote interaction between the artists and the audience. Popular African American music of the day, including John Coltrane’s jazz and James Brown’s soul, as well as street talk, were some of the other inspirational forces for the movement. In fact, much of the language used in these works, as in Baraka’s plays, was aggressive, profane, and shocking—this was often a conscious attempt to show the vitality and power of African American activists. These writers tended to be revolutionaries, supporting both radical and peaceful protests for change as promoted by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. In addition, they believed that artists were required to do more than create: artists also had to be political activists in order to achieve nationalist goals. In addition to Baraka, some of the award-winning playwrights of the BAM were Ed Bullins, Richard Wesley, Sonia Sanchez, and Adrienne Kennedy.
Works in Critical Context
Critical opinion has been sharply divided between those who feel, with Dissent contributor Stanley Kaufman, that Baraka’s race and political moment account for his fame, and those who feel that Baraka stands among the most important writers of the age. In American Book Review, Arnold Rampersad counts Baraka with Phyllis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison ”as one of the eight figures . . . who have significantly affected the course of African-American literary culture.”
In his 1985 retrospective study of Baraka and his work, William J. Harris observed that assessment of Bar-aka has fallen into two general camps:
The white response … has been either silence or anger—and, in a few cases, sadness. … One general complaint is that Baraka has forsaken art for politics. . . . Another common accusation holds that Baraka used to be a good poet before he became a virulent racist. The reaction to Baraka in most of the black world has been very different from that in the white. In the black world Baraka is a famous artist. He is regarded as a father by the younger generation of poets; he is quoted in the streets—a fame almost never claimed by an American poet.
Whatever the reaction to Baraka, no one is left unaffected by his works. People bristle at his depictions of ”white America,” critics assert, because he mirrors the ugly and hideous facets of American society.
Called by one critic the ”Malcolm X of Literature,” Baraka’s most important contributions may be his influence on other black writers and his ”championing” of black people.
Dutchman has long been regarded as Baraka’s finest play. Norman Mailer, for example, acknowledged it as ”the best play in America.” In the view of James A. Miller, the play ”merges private themes, mythical allusion, surrealistic techniques, and social statement into a play of astonishing power and resonance.” However, the play did not receive a unanimously positive reception. While some critics praised it for its ”power,” ”freshness,” and ”deadly wit,” others were outraged by its language, its perpetuation of interracial hostility, and its portrayal of whites. Baraka countered:
Lula . . . is not meant to represent white people—as some critics have thought—but America itself . . . the spirit of America. . . . The play is about the difficulty of becoming and remaining a man in America. . . . Manhood—black or white—is not wanted here.
While some critics may have had their reservations, Dutchman appears to be surviving the test of time. Years after the play’s debut, Darryl Pinckley wrote in the New York Times Book Review:
[Baraka] is a highly gifted dramatist. Much of the black protest literature of the 60s now seems diminished in power, even sentimental. But Dutchman immediately seizes the imagination. It is radically economical in structure, striking in the vivacity of its language and rapid shifts of mood.
- Bernotas, Bob. Amiri Baraka. New York: Chelsea House, 1991.
- Benston, Kimberly A., ed. Baraka: The Renegade and the Mask. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1976.
- ———-, ed. Imamu Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones): a Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1978.
- Elam, Harry Justin. Taking It to the Streets: The Social Protest Theater of Luis Valdez and Amiri Baraka. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.
- Galens, David M. ”Dutchman.” In Drama for Students. Vol. 3. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1998.
- ———-, ed. ”The Baptism.” In Drama for Students. Vol. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 2003.
- Gwynne, James B., ed. Amiri Baraka: The Kaleidoscopic Torch. New York: Steppingstones Press, 1985.
- Harris, William J. The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1985.
- Hudson, Theodore R. From LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka: the Literary Works. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1973.
- Lacey, Henry C. To Raise, Destroy, and Create: The Poetry, Drama, and Fiction of Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones). Troy, N.Y.: Whitson Publishing Company, 1981.
- Milne, Ira Mark. ”In Memory of Radio.” In Poetry for Students. Vol. 9. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Group, 2000.
- Sollors, Werner. Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a ”Populist Modernism”. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.
- Thomason, Elizabeth, ed. ”Slave Ship.” In Drama for Students. Vol. 11. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 2001.
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