The Autobiography of Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka
The works of Leroi Jones reveal a mind groping toward orthodoxy. Certainly he Mau-Maued the flak catchers, which was not hard to do in the Sixties. But the swell of black consciousness did not carry him to any liberating heresies. Hating Whitey was not the new frontier it seemed to be at the time. He rowed through the tumult of black nationalism, reinvented himself as Imamu (spiritual leader) Amiri Baraka (blessed prince), and landed on the shores of Marxist-Leninism, as if unaware of the footprints already visible in the sand.
Baraka’s odyssey from Beat poet and avant-garde Village playwright, to political activist, mullah of the black masses back in his birthplace, Newark, was an inner migration, its lessons inflamed and splattered on to the cultural scene. Aggressive public acts roared incessantly from the shadows of his private life—his denunciation of white liberals at a Town Hall meeting in 1964, his renunciation of bohemianism and his move to Harlem, where he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater in 1965. The later vehement poems were themselves incidents, performances by a man who did not like to be upstaged by large events. Now the Angry Young Man, the author of several volumes of poetry, plays, essays, a novel, and a collection of stories, is entering his fiftieth year. His autobiography is “partial evidence” of the swift passage from sullen nonconformist to anointed militant.
Baraka is no lumpen turned avenging angel. He was born in 1934. His father was a postal worker, his mother a social worker. The family held to aspirations of the “lower middle class,” a “forward forward upward upward view”—church, piano lessons, the Cotillion, integrated but changing, declining neighborhoods: “It was like a sociologist’s joke.” Baraka was educated at Howard University. He did a stint in the air force. After his discharge he drifted into New York’s hip enclaves, married a nice Jewish girl. It was this background Baraka had to burn before he could turn his back on the Village and take his bags uptown. He was not, like Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, or George Jackson, an autodidact of the jailhouse library, though he remembers the air force (“Error Farce”) as a kind of incarceration during which he read avidly and began to think of himself as a writer.
He moved to Harlem at a time when much of one’s day was taken up with proving just how black one’s blackness was. A recurring theme in his work is the psychic turmoil that led to and was exacerbated by his determination to extricate himself from his past. The guilt was tinder. Many are the afflictions of the righteous.
His autobiography is a strange mixture, cast in the double-edged amiability of a slangy, funky tone. It is wreathed in nostalgia for his hot youth, for the anarchic parties of “insane hope,” the ruthless summers of dudes who were either wrapped too tight or not tight enough, the mad weather of volatile lovers who suspected that a woman was only as good as the man she lay under. There are ragged ends of remorse in Baraka’s long book but they are dispensed with like cigarette butts flicked over the Williamsburg Bridge.
It is a story of hanging out until the real thing came along, and hanging out, here, means listening to a great deal of music. Baraka’s youth was saturated in rhythm and blues, in bebop. The “emotional anthems” spark a host of associations—grandparents, running buddies, streets, the canteen where he styled in a green Tyrolean hat with a feather band. Dinah Washington coming from a jukebox once inspired him to stand up to a bully. When he remembers the time the streets were heating up, he also recalls that “Heat Wave” by Martha and the Vandellas was the hit record.
In Baraka’s downtown days he was a frequent contributor to Metronome, Downbeat, and Jazz, and he has written on the evolution of jazz as a social art in a fascinating study, Blues People (1963), and on religious and secular modes as “racial memory” in the polemical Black Music (1967). In his autobiography Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, John Coltrane, Theolonius Monk, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, and Pharoah Sanders make cameo appearances.
Jazz and blues artists populate the landscape of Baraka’s poetry as well. He sometimes puns on the musician’s language (most noticeably in an early poem, “The Bridge”). Spontaneity of line, syntactical idiosyncrasies, dissonant effects—they suggest the feel of jazz, of improvisation. When Baraka began to publish in small magazines, opening up poetry by any means necessary was a concern very much in the air. He counts the Beats, the New York School, Charles Olson, and William Carlos Williams among his influences.
It was not only the verve of the new music that Baraka absorbed for his poetry. Denise Levertov, in a review of Baraka’s first collection, Preface to A Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961), observed that Baraka had the “kind of childhood in which the old comic strips…gave to the imagination, for which no other place was provided, a space in which to grow.” The book is filled with references to “The Shadow,” “Red Lantern,” “Charlie Brown,” “Lamont Cranston,” “Dr. Fu Manchu.” His notion of heroism was forged in the movie house. Frank O’Hara once advised the mothers of America to send their kids to the movies so they could learn where candy bars and gratuitous bags of popcorn came from. Baraka’s access to popular culture, the natural, campy deployment of its artifacts in his early verse, dramatize his distance from the preceding generation of black poets.
Baraka is an exclusively urban writer. As with most black writing that emerged in the Sixties, there are no echoes of the pastoral South in Baraka’s work, no legacy of the hopeful trek up North, no newcomer’s terror of failure or disgrace, no waiting for naturalization papers in the cold city. The hash, Baraka notes, had already been settled. His vocabulary is thoroughly of the street corner—nabs, whore, fag, laundromat, horse, cat, your mama, knock me a kiss, Brooks Brothers, mean honking blues. It was a landscape of jobs and cement yards that Baraka invoked in a statement made in 1959 describing his aesthetic. William’s “irregular foot,” Olson’s “projective verse” helped him to redefine what was “useful” and could be “saved from the garbage of our lives.” The city as quarry, lode, experience.
Lately I’ve become accustomed to the way
The ground opens up and envelops me
Each time I go out to walk the dog.
Or the broad edged silly music the wind
Makes when I run for a bus…
Things have come to that.
(“Preface To A Twenty Volume Suicide Note”)
Sometimes the stanzas in Baraka’s first volume come close to the “I-do-this-I-do-that” poems of O’Hara—(“Personism,” O’Hara said in his comic manifesto, was invented after lunch with Leroi)—except that Baraka never disallowed big answers to the questions in life. His ambivalence about poetry as a passive activity doubtless had its origins in the cultural conflicts of race. Whereas O’Hara’s catalogues of the daily are acquisitive, Baraka’s are bitter:
Monday, I spent most of the day hunting.
Knocked off about six, gulped down a cou-
ple of monkey foreskins, then took in a
flick. Got to bed early.
Tuesday, same thing all day….
Sometimes I think I oughta chuck
the whole business.
(“Hymn for Lanie Poo”)
The early poems show a drifting discontent—“I can’t understand what Superman is saying!”—and he is not above letting himself have it in the tender, lyrical love poems. He seems impatient, also, with the things and people around him. Oppositions are generic throughout his poetry, regardless of what phase he happens to be in—correct (engaged) versus cool (detached), black versus white, revolutionary versus bourgeois. The world is perceived as a struggle between us and them. “Hymn for Lanie Poo,” which appeared in his first volume, takes up the opposition between the hip and the square, an issue that became an enduring preoccupation in Baraka’s work.
About my sister. (O, generation revered above all others. O, generation of fictitious Ofays
I revere you…
You are so beautiful)
my sister drives a green jaguar
my sister has her hair done twice a month…
my sister took ballet lessons…
my sister doesn’t like to teach in Newark because there are too many colored in her classes.
my sister hates loud shades
my sister’s boy friend is a faggot music teacher who digs Tschaikovsky
my sister digs Tschaikovsky also
As Baraka remembers his downtown days in the autobiography one gets the feeling of someone on simmer. The clubs and bars, the writers and painters, the black intellectuals and their white lovers, the odd jobs, the gasless flats, the smack—dissatisfaction with living as variously as possible grew along with his literary reputation. Baraka mocks what he calls his “pompous isolation.” The civil rights movement sniped at his consciousness. He needed only an occasion. It found him—Cuba. One of Baraka’s most famous essays, “Cuba Libre,” reprinted in Home (1966), is a stirring account of his trip there in 1960 for the anniversary of the revolution. “I carried so much back with me that I was never the same again,” Baraka says in the autobiography. Match to the fuse.
The books that followed, Sabotage (1963), The Dead Lecturer (1964), Target Study (1965), and Black Art (1966) came in such rapid order that Baraka seemed like a motorcyclist shooting up a ramp and soaring over barrels. They are a radical departure from his previous work. “Will the machinegunners please step forward?” Though the poems share no common form—long line, taut line, print it sideways, let it run off the page—what they say becomes more and more a single-issue campaign and the voice rises to a fierce pitch. “I am inside someone who hates me.” The cure for this self-loathing was to “spoil” himself for “casual life,” and offer himself up as a vessel of rage. The ironic tone is replaced by a caustic, punitive one. “The white man / at best / is / corny.” Or: “Strong beliefs, Hairless, / Very, very white.” Baraka sneers at “screaming materialists” “whistling popular Bach.”
The poems of this period are characterized by a disgust with Western art and its “guileful treatises.” Many of them appear to be addressed to his old friends downtown. “I don’t love you” is the title of one poem. He taunts: “Death is Not as Natural as You Fags Seem to Think.” In “The Politics of Rich Painters” he fumes against “So much taste / so little understanding, except some up and coming queer explain / cinema and politics while drowning a cigarette.” Baraka is searching for a “black poem.” “Choice, and / style, / avail / and are beautiful / categories / if you go / for that.” He calls them “dagger poems.” He envisions a poetry that is not only a reflection of change but its catalyst. Hence, the crusade of wrath, of repudiation. “I am no longer a credit to my race.”