Amiri Baraka
Amiri Baraka; drawing by David Levine

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.

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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.”

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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.”

Black Power was heavy machinery, as Baraka drove it, a bulldozer mowing down everything in its path. “Banks must be robbed, / The guards bound and gagged.” The steel ball of demolition had a wide arc. “I want / to see God. If you know / him. Biblically, have / fucked him. And left him wanting.” In “Black Dada Nihilismus” he asks an ancient force to “Rape the white girls. Rape / their fathers.”

The tempo of revolution is that of publicity and scandal, Kosintsev said—in 1922. Baraka’s call for black unity, black pride, produced the side effect of self love. His ambition, in these collections, is to be emblematic, the epitome of the current mood. His duty is to enumerate the cruelties and failures of American society. Baraka wastes no more time brooding over his own imperfections. He is ready to tell everyone else where to get off.

The drug of anger led to some hypedup lines much removed from the “multiplicity of definitions,” the “powerful motley of experience.” the “pushed” English that at one time he felt poetry should honor. Form and technique were curses, deflections, considerations to be kicked out of the historical moment like a body from a speeding car. The moral superiority resulted in bizarre reductions: “Thought is more important than art.” In Home Baraka slapped black writers around quite a bit, particularly Baldwin and Ellison. The “mediocre” tradition, hatched by Charles Chestnutt, was a consequence of black writers being assimilationist, middle-class, self-serving, pathological, haunted by a need to prove they were not inferior, to show how intelligent, serious, and cultured they were. The odd thing is that Baraka did not seem to realize how quickly the poetry of outrage was obsorbed as yet another convention with its own tired premises and rhetorical devices. Showing how bad you are involves the same dangers as showing how refined you are. The matter Baraka never fully addressed was that every black writer wakes up to face the defiled freedom of the blank page.

Baraka has little to say about the works themselves in his autobiography except to note when a play was produced, to place certain ambiguous passages of his surrealistic novel, The System of Dante’s Hell (1963), in context, or to revisit the background of the autobiographical stories in Tales (1968). This is particularly disappointing with the plays. Baraka has produced some of the most arresting black drama since the Federal Theater of the Thirties. The Toilet (1964) was not reprinted, in Selected Plays and Prose of Amiri Baraka/Leroi Jones (1979)—perhaps because its homoerotic elements do not conform to Baraka’s current revolutionary morality, which has features similar to that of right-wing fundamentalism. Set in an ugly school toilet, it is about a black gang whose wishes for affection are repressed by the tyranny of manhood. Its action climaxes in an assault on a white boy, a homosexual depicted sympathetically, the individual outside the mainstream.

Henry C. Lacey, in his close reading of Baraka’s work, To Raise, Destroy and Create, (1981), has pointed out that The Toilet is Baraka’s “earliest presentation of the skinny, intelligent, bug-eyed, middle-class boy” who is uneasy about being smarter than the others, who gives up much to belong. The self-portrait is also present in the stories based on his experiences at Howard University (which Baraka once dismissed in an interview as a place where “they teach you to be white”), and he returns in the autobiography to what he calls “the runt” but, since he has grown up to be politically “advanced,” the self-deprecation seems disingenuous.

Baraka’s plays touch on the deep sadomasochism in American race relations and, consequently, sexual metaphors, sexual situations, obscenities, and violent acts are plentiful. They are, as many critics have noted, exorcistic and blasphemous. Dutchman (1964) presents a young black intellectual who wants to remain safe with his words but is stabbed to death by an older, contemptuous white woman whom he tries to pick up on a subway. If two people talking around each other puts one in mind of Albee’s The Zoo Story, then The Slave (1964), which juxtaposes the deterioration of an interracial marriage with race war, sounds, in parts, like George and Martha going at it. The economical structures, the symbolism, the reversals of meaning, the fragmented language, the parable mood owe much to absurdist theater and expressionist technique.

As Baraka’s commitment to black revolution grew his work in the theater took on the quality of morality plays. He strip-mines stereotypes (Rochester as closet revolutionary in J-E-L-L-O, 1965), satirizes institutions (the church in The Baptism, 1964, and Slave Ship, 1965; the law in Great Goodness of Life, 1966), gives black consciousness mythic properties (A Black Mass, 1965, Experimental Death Unit #1, 1965, Madheart, 1966). Sometimes the urge to subvert images, the assertion of black culture, results in stilted language, as if formal, collective theater entailed dispensing with street idioms. The invective of Baraka’s essay “The Revolutionary Theatre” (included in Home) is close in tone to Artaud’s idea of theater as a “revenging scourge.” Baraka insists that “Americans will hate the Revolutionary Theatre because it will be out to destroy them and whatever they believe is real. American cops will try to close the theaters where such nakedness of the spirit is paraded.” Baraka has never suffered from a dearth of incendiary fantasies.

Part of Baraka’s gift as a playwright was to find a dramatic equivalent or embodiment for social collisions. The plays are projections, dramas of confrontation and retribution. Even the dialogue seems to have been taken from experience and reordered in a nightmare. But, as with his poetry, ideological self-congratulation took Baraka from the naturalism of The Toilet to the comfy didacticism, the home-grown proletarian utilitarianism of What Was the Relationship of the Lone Ranger to the Means of Production? (1978). The only interesting thing about the latter play is its title. Heroic workers in an automobile factory triumph over their oppressors. Baraka, in a Brechtian manner, hoped to create a theater that would inspire militancy in its audience, but it could be argued that language not truly of the people is not revolutionary.

Even earlier, as der schwartze Bohemien, he was writing against tokenism, against nonviolence because it was a continuation of the status quo. King was an “agent of the middle-class power structure.” Baraka’s political activism began on behalf of an advocate of armed self-defense in 1961. He was involved with downtown organizations such as The Organization of Young Men and On Guard for Freedom Committee. Harold Cruse remembers, in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967), that in 1961 Baraka was defending white participation and asking why Harlem Negroes should hate whites. The answer: slavery as original sin. Pro-black, Cruse points out, meant being anti-white. Cruse maintains that Baraka went to Harlem politically “empty-handed.” Protest demonstrations and appeals to federally funded antipoverty programs were naive. The hangup of “black Bakuninism” ensured the mishandling of “yet another promising black organization.”

Baraka has written elsewhere on the general history of Harlem but there is little sense of stored communal memory in the autobiography. It is hard to recall the days when the most urgent item on the agenda was the reclamation of black manhood, as if the past were a chronicle of shameful Toms alleviated here and there by incantatory names such as Nat Turner or Denmark Vesey. “Some of us had guns.” The ghetto’s history was ready to be written by those bloods capable of the brave deed. It was a “great adventure,” those “nights of uncertainty,” in which they, “informality’s children,” tried to snatch love out of “some dying white shit.” “We felt like pioneers of the new order.” People were “dancing in the streets” in Harlem, Detroit, Watts.

Baraka writes in detail about the internal struggles of the Black Arts Repertory Theater. In addition to trying to sustain a cultural program on a shoestring budget, they disrupted rallies staged by black Democrats and Republicans—“cults” he calls them—and refused to receive Sargent Shriver. Most of the organization’s problems seemed to stem from the fact that too many lunatics signed up for the voyage and then mutinied. Black pride gave to several lost souls an occupation, just as neoconservatism does today. The warring factions proved too much for Baraka, the helmsman, and he moved abruptly to Newark, his “apprenticeship” to his “real spirit” complete.

Adjusting to this homecoming was a slow process. By 1967 he had founded another theater, Spirit House, and contended every day with the “white power structure.” “One thing about the FBI, they’re always trying to make you famous.” He met members of the Black Panther Party on an extended trip to the West Coast, and if he was not quiet taken with their leaders he was immediately drawn to the black nationalism of Ron Karenga. Karenga emphasized African roots, Muslim practices, the “unchanging black values.” Morsels of Fanon, Cabral, and Nkrumah were filtered into the stew. Much of Baraka’s work in this period is a restatement of a Pan-African catechism. Karenga’s doctrine was, for Baraka, the “perfect vehicle for working out the guilt of the overintegrated.” Thomas Blair, in Retreat to the Ghetto (1977), criticizes Baraka for elevating “reactionary African forms” to a “mystique.” Baraka has shed at least one aspect of black nationalism and in the autobiography he takes himself to task for “male chauvinism.” Plays from this period in which black women are dealt with harshly have not been reprinted; and one assumes he has changed his mind about the pamphlet The New Nationalism (1972), in which he maintains that “We cannot understand what devils and the devilishly influenced mean when they say equality for women. We could never be equals…. Nature has not provided thus.”

Baraka devotes several pages to the “rebellion” in Newark in 1967 and the troubles throughout the nation during that hot summer. “In rebellions life goes 156 rpm and the song is a police siren accompanying people’s breathless shouts and laughter…. The window breakers would come first. Whash! Glass all over everywhere. Then the getters would get through and get to gettin’.” He was beaten, arrested, beaten again, thrown in solitary on charges of possession of weapons, and finally acquitted after a disgraceful trial. It is here that one remembers the trials and assassinations and that the state was armed and triggerhappy. Afterward Baraka believed that he had “changed into a blacker being.” He became involved in local and national groups, particularly the Committee for a Unified Newark, which was instrumental in defeating the Imperiale machine and electing Kenneth Gibson. Baraka has written on Newark’s corrupt politics in Raise Race Rays Raze (1969)—and it is worth reading if one can get through the metaphysical free association with an Islamic accent.

Baraka hasn’t a good word to say about any black politician—be it Jesse Jackson, Gibson, or Shirley Chisholm. (Perhaps Baraka has changed his mind since he completed the autobiography. A new poem, “1984,” read recently at City College, is a tribute to Jackson’s candidacy.) It was their brand of “neocolonialism” that ended his nationalist phase. He also fell out with Karenga. That helped. And so, in the autobiography, Karenga is exposed as a paranoid, Kawaida, his doctrine, as backward. Karenga ended up doing time in the early 1970s—and Baraka was saved by the thoughts of Mao. He reveals this conversion in the political essays collected in the recent Daggers and Javelins, written between 1974 and 1979.* In a late poem: “Karenga mouthing social democrat cultural opportunism / in ‘the same slick mohair / buba suits.” Poor Angela Davis is a “movie star” “fronting” for the lies of CPUSA. It appears that the only revolutionaries whose motives Baraka trusts are dead ones.

Baraka used to write about Malcolm X in an elegiac vein: “For Malcolm’s eyes, when they broke / the face of some dumb white man, For / Malcolm’s hands raised to bless us.” Then “Malcolm” became the occasion for agit-prop, as in the play “The Death of Malcolm X,” a multimedia event about mayhem. Lately, Baraka uses the direct-dialing system and talks to Malcolm as the last remaining disciple. “But Malcolm, brother, comrade / some of us / turned / communist too / there’s yr fire / lighting flashes / out our eyeballs / And we’re still / in the street / with you / Yeh, big Red,” he assures him in Poetry for the Advanced (1979).

Baraka’s latest polemics are hardly the cutting edge. He has the limits and the force of the personality. It is hard to tell to whom Baraka’s recent instruction manuals on capitalism are addressed—perhaps to the knowing youths who trashed Tavern on the Green after the Diana Ross concert was rained out. Violence has become so universal a solution that the call to revolution is scarcely audible. No matter. Baraka is “home,” in the professional revolutionary business, he who once belittled the martyrdom of the white Freedom Riders, who once told a Columbia University audience that any black reading Marx had fallen for another European trick. He is home, and it must be said for him that home, this USA, will never be quite the same. He is a pure American product.

This Issue

June 14, 1984

  1. *

    Quill, 334 pp., $9.95 (paper).