American Poets of the 20th Century The Poets Amiri Baraka (1934- )

About the Poet

A model of the self-made African-American national, poet and propagandist Imamu Amiri Baraka is a leading exponent of black nationalism and latent black talent. Baraka, who was originally named Everett LeRoi Jones, earned a reputation for militancy among radical contemporaries Stokely Carmichael, Huey P. Newton, and the Black Panthers. He has thrived as activist, poet, and playwright of explosive oratories produced on the stages of New York, Paris, Berlin, and Dakar, Senegal.

Baraka was born on October 7, 1934, in Newark, New Jersey, to upscale parents. He attended Rutgers University and Howard University on scholarship, but was ousted due to his poor performance. After graduate work at Columbia University and the New School for Social Research and a dismissal from the United States Air Force for suspicious activities, he influenced the black community's economy and politics and earned a reputation as a polemical dramatist and Beat poet.

Baraka's early success derives from a play, A Good Girl Is Hard to Find (1958), and Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note (1961), an introduction to a life's work revealing the black man's pain. While living with wife Hettie Cohn in Manhattan, he established Yugen, a neo-bohemian review, and Totem Press. He journeyed to Cuba in 1960, which radicalized his thinking about oppression in the third world. Newly energized, he wrote Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1963), and edited The Moderns: An Anthology of New Writings in America (1963). The bluntness of his radical thinking, as displayed in The Dead Lecturer: Poems (1964), influenced the establishment of the American Theater for Poets.

Baraka's early flash of brilliance did not go unnoticed. In his late twenties, he earned a John Hay Whitney Fellowship and an Obie for the violent drama Dutchman (1963), a taut, menacing vehicle for black consciousness-raising. It succeeded off-Broadway the same year he produced The Toilet, The Baptism, and The Slave. The latter is an explosive drama depicting racist confrontations of the times. A kingpin of the Black Arts Movement by 1964, Baraka was visiting scholar at the University of Buffalo. After his adoption of a Muslim name, he settled in Harlem to write J-E-L-L-O (1965), a denunciation of a public figure, and autobiographical fiction, The System of Dante's Hell (1965), which earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship. His work sharpened in Home: Social Essays (1966) and fueled the drive for the Black Arts Repertory Theater School, one of New York City's cultural landmarks. He completed Arm Yourself or Harm Yourself (1967) and collaborated with Larry Neal on Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing (1968).

Outside these literary coups, Baraka's Marxist-Leninist activism has placed him in positions of power. In March 1972, he led the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, which drew 3,500 delegates from the United States and the Caribbean and prefaced a permanent consortium, the Congressional Black Caucus. While residing in Newark, he focused on black activism and Afro-Islamic culture with the establishment of Spirit House, a gathering spot and drama center. After his arrest on a concealed weapons charge, he pursued black nationalism through an Afro-centric cult, the Temple of Kawaida.

As Baraka developed black community, his artistry altered from dense obscurities to the positive, youth-centered style of Langston Hughes. His anthology, Black Magic: Sabotage, Target Study, Black Art: Collected Poetry 1961-1971 (1969), demonstrates his emergence as an American writer respected by outspoken peers. Perpetually in print, he produced short fiction in Tales (1967) and issued additional nonfiction, In Our Terribleness: Some Elements and Meanings in Black Style (1969) in collaboration with Billy Abernathy; Raise Race Rays Raze: Essays Since 1965 (1971); and Afrikan Congress: A Documentary of the First Modern Pan-African Congress (1972).

In his mature years, Baraka published The Motion of History, Six Other Plays (1978), containing the pageant Slave Ship, which was staged off Broadway. He anthologized verse in Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1979) and previously unpublished autobiography in Selected Plays and Prose of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1979). At age 50, he issued The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (1984), followed by more prose commentary in Reflections on Jazz Blues (1987). His honors include a National Endowment for the Arts award and a Guggenheim fellowship.

Chief Works

"An Agony. As Now" (1964), derived from his early radicalism, dissociates selves in a tormented first-person speaker. Driven mad with toxic emotion, the unacknowledged self lives in the sensory experiences of a hated outer self. His distaste takes shape in the songs his double sings and the women he loves. Like the man in the iron mask, the internal self looks out through metal at an interaction with the world that he neither understands nor condones.

Beginning in line 12, pain takes on a greater distraction as the schizoid state becomes less tolerable. Repetitions of "or pain" recycle the poet-speaker's misery as he attempts to name the source and type of hurt. The suffering outdistances his notion of God as it reaches for a "yes" in line 27, the beginning of resolution. With controlled self-direction, the speaker forces himself to see and acknowledge beauty. In the final five lines, the trapped inner speaker batters the outer shell that refuses to feel normal love. The outer man, incapable of compromise, gazes at the sun and scorches the pulp-tender inner being.

A long verse ode, "A Poem for Willie Best" (1964), retrieves the humanity of modern-day Jim Crow, a black actor who functioned in film as "Sleep'n'eat." The poem opens on Best's head, a symbol of his disembodied talent, which performs while ignoring a suffering heart. Carefully aligned alliteration (all/hell, beggar bleeds) and assonance (time/alive) precede a rich image of doom in slippery-sided hell "whose bottoms are famous."

In Baraka's trademark poetic geometry, stave II pictures the dimensionless point of the head viewed from "Christ's / heaven" and emphasizes God's disinterest in the black man's anguish. Pilloried, the black Christ figure can expect no aid, for "No one / will turn to that station again." In succeeding staves, the poet-speaker ponders the use of sexual release as repayment for racial degradation but interrupts his angst in stave VII to plead, "Give me / Something more / Than what is here." The reasoning is crushingly simplistic: Relief must come from the outside world, for "my body hurts."

In line 128, the poet-speaker begins a resolution calling for balance. Punning on a homonym ("Can you hear? Here / I am again"), the insistent voice turns from easing the body to seek comfort in spirit. The speaker is tired of losing. He justifies the demand as only fair. Retreating into casual violence as a form of self-reclamation, the "renegade / behind the mask" lists the black qualities and behaviors stereotyped by the white world. Still misidentified, the suffering Willie Best, his name a mockery of what the white world expects of a talented black, awaits "at the crossroads," a symbol of martyrdom on the cross.

Five years after "An Agony. As Now" and "A Poem for Willie Best," Baraka composed "Black People: This Is Our Destiny" (1969). He launches his verbal challenge in an oratorical, out-of-syntax style drawn from the tradition of storyteller and ecstatic preacher. Visionary in its obscurities, the text spins out the reality of black fate. The pulsing rhythm forges ahead in noun clusters — "the gases, the plants, the ghost minerals/the spirits the souls the light in the stillness." The poet shocks in line 15 with a jarring declaration that there is "nothing in God." On its descent, the poem gathers speed once more before halting at the pause in line 17 and plunges into a bold statement of the future. Drawing on a belief that blacks were the first humans to evolve from primates, Baraka sees his idealism as a holy commission to "evolve again to civilize the world."

Discussion and Research Topics

1. Compare Baraka's internalization of racism in "An Agony. As Now" with Richard Wright's identification with a lynching victim in "Between the World and Me."

2. Contrast Baraka's throbbing phrases and inventive punctuation with that of the Beat poets, in particular, Allen Ginsberg.

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