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Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones): The Man, the Poet, and the Myth

  • Genre(s): African-American, Beats
  • Period: 1960s to the present
  • Lines: (from "Western Front")
    My intentions are colors. I'm filled with
    color, every tint you think of lends to mine
    my mind is full of color, hard muscle streaks,
    or soft glow round exactness registration. All earth
    heaven things, hell things, in colors circulate
    a wild blood train, turn litmus like a bible coat, ...
  • Quote: My writing reflects my own growth and expansion, and at the same time the society in which I have existed throughout this confrontation. Whether it is politics, music, literature, or the origins of language, there is always a historical and time/place/condition reference that will always try to explain why I was saying both how and for what (Baraka Reader, Preface).
  • Poet, essayist, jazz critic, social critic, dramatist, orator, fiction writer and activist writer all describe the enormous accomplishments of Amiri Baraka, formerly LeRoi Jones, but none of these come close to describing the art and, more importantly, the life of Baraka. Baraka's poetry represents the evolution of a mind that has gone through radical changes in ideological influences, but even in these changes there has been a consistent linear development of discovery and rebellion. It is this development that makes Baraka the person, poet, and activist that he is.   Baraka Reader[ Click to Order the LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader (soft $) ]

    Born in 1934 to African-American parents, Baraka, then LeRoy Jones, lived for most of his childhood in a lower middle-class neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey. He admits that his family was better off than most African-Americans at the time, but they were not immune to racial violence and discrimination. His grandfather, a strong influence in Baraka's life, had been burned out of business by arsonists twice in Alabama before also moving to Newark, New Jersey. In Newark, his grandfather was active in black Republican politics until being injured in a mysterious accident. His grandfather never healed physically or spiritually from that accident and Baraka links it in his autobiography to the injustice that he, himself, endured and witnessed during his later arrest in the summer of 1967 during the Newark Rebellion.

    Baraka and two others were stopped by Newark police and charged with unlawfully carrying two firearms, which Baraka later said were planted, and for resisting arrest. During the arrest, Baraka suffered injuries that required several stitches. The trial that followed stirred legal controversy not because of the all-white jury presiding over the case, but the admission into evidence of the poem "Black People" published in the Evergreen Review shortly following his arrest.

    THE COURT: Just a minute. This [the poem's] diabolical prescription
    to commit murder and to steal and plunder and other similar evidences—

    DEFENDANT JONES: I'm being sentenced for the poem. Is that what you
    are saying?

    THE COURT: —cause one to suspect that you were a participant in
    formulating a plot to ignite the spark on the night of July 13, 1967
    to burn the City of Newark and that—

    DEFENDANT JONES: You mean, you don't like the poem, in other words.

    The poem "Black People" describes the material wealth of an America that African-Americans cannot afford to buy into. In the poem, Baraka implores them to stop their capitalistic lust and to take their deserved slice of the American pie—by force: "No money down. No time to pay. Just take what you want." Baraka goes on later in the poem to justify the violence and murders that took place during the Newark Rebellion:

    We must make our own World, man, our own world, and we cannot do this unless the white man is dead. Let's get together and kill him my man,...let's make a world we want black children to grow and learn in (Baraka Reader, 224).

    In the poem, Baraka captures the frustration of African-Americans and invokes them into action and rebellion, but it must be noted that "Black People" was not published and presumably not written until after the Newark Rebellion. The Newark Court's conviction of Baraka, clinched by the inclusion of this poem into evidence, was in a sense an indictment against all African-Americans who voiced their pain and outrage through art. The court, Judge Leon W. Kapp, even added the statement that Baraka's talents as a writer were "misdirected."

    The court's proceedings and ultimate conviction (later overturned on appeal) of Amiri Baraka exemplify the struggle that African-Americans faced in America during the 1960s and continue to face to a lesser degree today. "Black People" was the successful attempt by Baraka to rationalize and bring a sense of understanding and purpose to the chaos, destruction and deaths that took place on the streets of Newark during the rebellion. The poem constructed a unified consciousness of a people divided by their own poverty and hopelessness. However, Baraka's own consciousness as an African-American had also been divided earlier in his life as both a young writer and adult.

    Baraka attended Barringer High School, a predominantly white (mostly Italian-American) college prep school, where he graduated with honors in 1951. After a brief period of alienation at Rutgers University, he transferred to Howard University, the preeminent university for African-Americans, where he attended from 1952 to 1954. Lloyd W. Brown writes in Amiri Baraka that Baraka graduated from Howard University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1954. Werner Sollors writes in Amiri Baraka/ LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a "Populist Modernism" that Baraka dropped out of Howard University. William J. Harris writes in The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic that Baraka "flunked out of Howard in the fall of 1954 because he refused to conform to the university's uninspiring routines." Harris comes closest to the truth, but all of these accounts demonstrate the contro-versy surrounding Baraka and the wide liberties and interpretations that critics take with his art and life.

    At Howard University, Baraka attended unofficial classes along with classmate A. B. Spellman (who would later become, like Baraka, a well-known jazz critic) on African-American music, specifically jazz, taught by Sterling Brown.

    At that time, Howard still did not admit nigger
    music to its campus. I think the first jazz to get
    on in an official concert was Stan Kenton.

    Of Sterling Brown, Baraka noted:

    He was opening us up to the fact that music could
    be studied and, by implication, that black people
    had a history....Brown's music classes were the high
    point of my 'formal' Howard education.

    Baraka would later prove himself as both a writer redefining and creating a history for African-Americans and a jazz critic bringing scholarship and research to the world of "nigger music."

    It was the university's self-hatred to the African-Americans past and its preoccupation with pleasing mainstream (white) society that Baraka later described as being part of the "Negro sickness."

    It shocked me into realizing how desperately sick
    the Negro could be, how he could be led into self-
    destruction [by "white" society]....So that I find
    myself, now, reacting very quickly to Negroes who
    talk about "good hair." There are some who think
    light-skinned is somehow preferable to being

    Following his departure from Howard University, Baraka joined the Air Force, where he discovered the created oppression and "sickness" that made up the political world of "white" America. As a sergeant stationed in Puerto Rico, Baraka began extensive reading and writing in what he would later consider more an obsession than an obligation. Though many critics report that he travelled to Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, the true extent of Baraka's overseas travel was "almost entirely to Germany."

    Following his dismissal from the Air Force, for reasons again clouded by various and often conflicting accounts, Baraka moved to New York's Greenwich Village where he lived from 1957 to 1965, creating a name for himself (a name he would later change) as an editor, jazz critic, avant-garde poet and dramatist. After having lived in Greenwich Village for only a few months, he married white Hettie Cohen, the women with whom he would have two daughters and would later leave behind as he reunited himself with the black community through the political movement Black Nationalism.

    This period of Baraka's life in Greenwich Village was important to him in several ways. While there, he created several friendships with artists, predominantly Beat poets, writers and jazz musicians. Among these artists were Allen Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara, Ted Wilentz, Gregory Corso, Hugh "Cubby" Selby, and Gil Sorentino. Also included were the Black Mountain poets: Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and Edward Dorn; and avant-garde jazz musicians: Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, and Thelonius Monk. These artists represented the avant-garde generation, a generation characterized by nonconformity, but to a greater degree, they represented the influences that would give Baraka the freedom to create his unique voice and thematic style of rebellion that would later show in his work.

    During this Beat period, Baraka was also influenced by three major exterior forces that would eventually transport him from his bohemian lifestyle to a more active and political lifestyle as a social critic and writer activist:

    The Cuban revolution, the emergence of Third World
    nations in Africa and elsewhere from the postwar
    remnants of European empires, and the racial violence
    of the 1960s in America itself.

    Baraka's first book of poetry Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note appeared in 1961 and demonstrated the influence of the Beat poets through his stream of conscious writing and his attack of the Western world; Preface also demonstrated the influences of the Black Mountain poets through projective free verse with special attention paid to the experience and breath of the spoken poem. However, Preface did not hold allegiance to either school, but freely incorporated styles and techniques from other sources and influential writers, including William Carlos Williams' focus on the image and the speech of the average citizen (or in Baraka's case, the African-American dialect). The two schools, Beat and Black Mountain, provided Baraka with the vehicle by which an African-American could write poetry without the loss of heritage or freedom.

    In the title poem of Preface, Baraka opens by stating he had "become accustomed" to the quotidian: walking the dog, hearing the song of the wind, counting the same stars in the night sky and even counting their absence. In the last stanza, he focuses on the image of his daughter in prayer "talking to someone" and yet to no one through "her own clasped hands" (Baraka Preface, 5.) Baraka saw in the daughter's action, the mundane and repetitiveness of human life that no longer holds meaning for him. Though he had heard her "talking to someone" outside her bedroom, when he entered "there was no one there." The world no longer holds meaning for the speaker and without a sense of purpose or meaning, there can be no faith or hope. The contrast between the innocence of childhood imagination and the indifference of adult reality fuses together a future of hopelessness for the apathy of the Western world.

    In "In Memory of Radio," Baraka again contrasts an imaginative world of childhood radio with an adult world which inverts the word "love" to become "an evol word." Within this adult world, the inhabitants are unable to understand the abstract concepts of love and make-believe. The speaker retains his imagination through poetry and (as implied) is therfore able to understand the abstract concept of love.

    Saturday mornings we listened to Red Lantern & his
    undersea folk./ At 11, Let's Pretend/& we did/& I,
    the poet, still do, Thank God!

    The poem ends through the irony of "An evil word it is/ This Love," leaving readers with the sense that the true evil "lurks in the hearts of men" who have lost touch with the world of imagination.

    In Preface, Baraka includes poems about his wife, blues and art. What is missing in Preface that Baraka later finds is his blackness, the sense of where he is coming from as an African-American poet (with a European literary background). Baraka also discovers the art of political rebellion which he first sees on a successful scale in Castro's Cuba during his visit in 1960.

    Following Malcolm X's assassination in 1965 , Baraka moved uptown to Harlem where he became a Black Nationalist commited to the black community and political reform. Having left the "white world" of Greenwich Village which included family and friends, Baraka organized and directed the Black Arts Reportory Theater in Harlem and published the autobiographical novel The System of Dante's Hell. A year later he married Sylvia Robinson who, like Baraka, would change her name in 1967 to the Bantuized Muslim "Amina Baraka." It was also in 1967, while living in Newark, New Jersey, that the explosive arrest and trial of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka took place. The following two years resulted in the overturn of that conviction and the publication of his definitively Black Nationalist book of poetry Black Magic in 1969.

    In the poem "Western Front" (from Black Magic), Baraka metaphorically kills his poetic father and trusted friend, Allen Ginsberg:

    Poems are made by fools like Allen Ginsberg, who
    loves God, and went to India only to see God, find-
    ing him walking barefoot in the street, blood sick-
    ness and hysteria (Baraka Reader, 216).

    Baraka also denounces his earlier work and disengages himself from "white" tradition. In the poem "leroy," Baraka tells the black readers to overlook any work which is "white" in influence and soul:

    When I die, the consciousness I carry I will to
    black people. May they pick me apart and take the
    useful parts, the sweet meat of my feelings. And leave
    the bitter bullshit rotten white parts
    alone (Baraka Reader, 224).

    One of the remarkable things that Baraka accomplished in Black Magic was the inversion of negative symbols and stereotypes of African-Americans so that they could no longer be used against them as a subordinate class. During the 1960s, African-Americans were fighting for their civil rights and being bombarded by stereotypes and negative symbols as well as bullets and bric-a-brac in the process. By defusing these internal weapons, Baraka helped to unify and strengthen the black community. In doing this, Baraka was also redefining the African-American past that was being denied them by the whitewash of American society:

    We are beautiful people/ with African imaginations
    full of masks and dances and swelling chants
    with African eyes, and noses, and arms....
    We need magic/ now we need the spells, to raise up
    return, destroy, and create (from "Ka'Ba," Baraka Reader, 222).

    In The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetics, William J. Harris descibes this application of inversion by Baraka as the borrowing of the jazz aesthetic where musicians like John Coltrane would take a popular song and murder it "by using discordant and aggressive sounds to attack and destroy the melody line" until what remained was a satire on Western art (Harris, 14). Harris also links the jazz aesthetic of inversion as a source of continuity throughout Baraka's three periods: Beat, Black Nationalist and Third World Marxist:

    The attraction of bohemian art was in part the char-
    acteristics it shared with black music: both protested
    the dominant culture by inverting forms....The bohem-
    ian wanted to invert what he felt was a hypocritical
    and repressive world, and the black wanted to invert
    what he thought of as a racist and oppressive world....
    Finally, he turned to third-world Marxist inversions—
    revolutions—to find a process that reflected the
    inversions of black music.

    During his Black Nationalist period, Baraka found himself suffocating in the name calling and hatred of whites , jews and homosexuals that had begun to fill his poetry and life. In his autobiography, he describes this account: "A woman asked me in all earnestness, couldn't any whites help? I said 'You can help by dying. You are a cancer.'" In 1974, Baraka rejected Black Nationalism and announced his conversion to Third World Marxism. This was not as big a step as it sounded.

    Baraka grew up in an Italian middle-class neighborhood, attended a mostly white high school, was influenced by European literature, developed as a poet in Greenwich Village among whites, jews and homosexuals, but most importantly he had two daughters in a biracial marriage. Though his hatred and rage was necessary during the 1960s to bring about black consciousness and political change, he could not deny that there was a part of him that had been influenced by nonblacks. In order to look ahead to a future of hope where his daughters, bridged between two races, could live, Baraka redefined the true enemy: power in the hands of first-world oppressors. These oppressors were still the same people (nonblacks) Baraka had spoke against in his work, but only now not all nonblacks were the enemy. Third World Marxism gave Baraka the ideology to reestablish the ties he had severed as a young adult without the guilt that he would be betraying his art or heritage in doing so.

    I see art as a weapon, and a weapon of revolution.
    It's just now that I define revolution in Marxist a result of having struggled as a
    Nationalist and found certain dead ends theoretic-
    ally and ideologically.

    Baraka published Hard Facts in 1975, his first Marxist collection of poetry. The poems in this and subsequent collections were different not merely for their redefined Marxist ideology, but for their diction and form. Some poems have lines skirting across the page with random indention and certain lines are the representation of sounds, not words.

    WJH: The latest poetry...seems like it's really less
    poetry than it is a score to read....Are you caring
    less and less about the text?

    AB: It is less important to me. To me it is a score.....
    The page doesn't interest me that much—
    not as much as the actual spoken word....
    I think that the whole wave of the future...
    is tending toward the spoken and the visual.

    Esther M. Jackson in the essay "LeRoi Jones (Imamu Amiri Baraka): Form and the Progression of Consciousness" saw this movement in Baraka's work as a move towards "disassociative forms" in which Baraka breaks from traditional synthesis, becoming "both interpreter and creator of of a new consciousness." Baraka's influence by Romantics and Transcendentalists was also clearly noted, as well as his break from them in order to create a "Black Aesthetic."

    In the poem "When We'll Worship Jesus" (from Hard Facts), Baraka attacks capitalist America's tradition of Christianity. The religion with which the "beasts" of Africa had been domesticated into slaves who would endure their suffering as a race (using the suffering of Jesus as a model) for the existential good of their souls. Baraka takes the proverbial quote by Karl Marx that " the opium of the people," and puts it in historical context for African-Americans:

    we aint gonna worship jesus cause jesus dont exist
    xcept in song and story except in ritual and dance, except in slum stained
    tears or trillion dollar opulence stretching back in history.....
    stop moanin about jesus, stop sweatin and crying and stompin
    and dyin for jesus (Baraka Reader, 253-254).

    Baraka goes beyond criticizing Christianity and its role in the oppression of African-Americans. He goes on to offer a new religion to African-Americans based on them and their past as well as their struggles and beauty:

    we worship the strength in us
    we worship our selves
    we worship the light in us
    we worship the warmth in us
    we worship the world
    we worship the love in us
    we worship our selves
    we worship nature
    we worship ourselves
    we worship the life in us, and science, and knowledge, and transformation
    of the visible world (Ibid).

    Wise Why's Y's Baraka published the epic poem-in-progress "Why's/Wise" in 1990. It is an ongoing poem in several parts following the history of African-Americans and written in the tradition of the Griots:    [ Click to Order Baraka's Wise Why's Y's: The Griot's Tale (soft $) ]

    Griots were the African Singer-Poet-Historians who
    carried word from bird, mouth to ear, and who are
    the root of our own African-American oral tradition
    (Baraka Reader, 493).

    As African-Americans rediscover their history and develop a faith in themselves, credit should go to those who fought in the struggle. Credit should go to those who are still fighting—and writing for themselves and their people. Among those, Amiri Baraka.

    * This information was originally a research project on Baraka. Rather than cut it down to a simple review, I kept a lot of autobiographical information that I felt was important to understand the growth and develop of Baraka and his work.

    Links of Interest:

    Social Change & Poetic Tradition
    A speech by Amiri Baraka, "Social Change & Poetic Tradition," delivered at the Conference on Comtemporary Poetry in April 1997.

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