The Fire Last Time

The Autobiography of Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka

Freundlich Books, 329 pp., $16.95

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…

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