African American Studies Amiri Baraka
by
GerShun Avilez
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0058

Introduction

Amiri Baraka (b. 1934–d. 2014) was born Everett LeRoy Jones in Newark, New Jersey. He enrolled at Rutgers University, Newark, in 1951, but he transferred to Howard University in 1952 and changed the spelling of his name to LeRoi. He flunked out of Howard in 1954 and enlisted in the US Air Force. After receiving an “undesirable discharge” for alleged communist activity, Jones moved to Greenwich Village, immersing himself in the bohemian scene. In 1958, he married Hettie Cohen, and they begin to co-edit an avant-garde literary journal. He published his first poetry collection, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, in 1961. He was increasingly influenced by civil rights and the Cuban revolution, and his essays—many of which were published in Home: Social Essays (1965)—reflect his growing radicalism around racial identity. He produced his influential study of black musical culture, Blues People, in 1963. He also wrote plays during this period, including the Obie award–winning Dutchman (1964). After the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, he left Greenwich Village and moved to Harlem to take up the work Malcolm had begun. Rejecting his bohemian past, he committed himself to black nationalism and founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre-School to radicalize the poor through art. Although it was short-lived, the establishment of this school inaugurated the Black Arts Movement, a renaissance in African American art that united nationalist activism with cultural production. In 1967, Jones began teaching at San Francisco State University and changed his name to Imamu (“spiritual leader”) Ameer (“prince”) Baraka and later to Amiri Baraka. He co-edited the seminal black arts anthology Black Fire in 1968. He became actively involved in politics in the early 1970s, assisting Kenneth Gibson in his Newark mayoral campaign and organizing the National Black Political Convention. Disillusioned with nationalism, he adopted international socialism in 1974. He began teaching at SUNY Stony Brook in 1979; he retired in 1999. He continued to publish poetry, fiction, and nonfiction throughout his life, but few of these works eclipse those produced earlier in his career. Throughout his professional life, Baraka courted controversy and used his art to question accepted beliefs and conventions. His work often leaned toward the incendiary with its radical demands for change and critiques of the social world and power dynamics. Some of his work has been characterized as sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, and insurrectionary because of his open recriminations of individuals, ostensible reliance on stereotypical motifs, and invocations of violence. He often experimented with form regardless of the genre in which he was working so that his artistic method paralleled his lifelong interest in testing boundaries. The changes he made to his name and its spelling are often understood to be evidence of shifts in his ideological investments, but they also represent a flouting of accepted ideas about the expression of identity and the assumed stability of personhood. Perhaps he is still best known for having left his first wife, a white Jewish woman, around the same time he rejected (white) bohemian culture and embraced more black nationalist sensibilities. For many, this desertion reflected his embrace of political calls for black solidarity, while also symbolically suggesting how Baraka was rejecting his past self (aligned with whiteness) and re-articulating a newly black social and artistic self. Baraka also found himself at the center controversies later in his life: protesting Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X and writing a contentious poem about the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Even in the midst of controversy, Baraka is an important touchstone for contemporary black radical thought and art. He died on 9 January 2014; his funeral was held in Newark.

General Overviews/Biographical Criticism

Baraka was an incredibly influential writer whose high productivity and vocal explanations of his philosophy have consistently attracted attention from a range of critics. Hudson 1973 uses Baraka to define the ideological parameters of the Black Arts era Black Aesthetic. Harris 1991 shows that part of Baraka’s significance is that he works in multiple genres and that his aesthetic project transcends particular artistic milieus or political paradigms. Benston 1976, Sollors 1978, and Brown 1980 track how Baraka’s political investments become the basis for his artistic innovations. For each of them, the embrace of politics yields experimental art. Woodard 1999 moves away from thinking about Baraka as primarily an artist and situates him as a significant activist through whom one can glean a better understanding of Black Power nationalism. Taking a different tack, Watts 2001 presents Baraka’s shifts in political ideology as insincere or less than genuine and is critical of the later work linked to his socialist phase.

  • Benston, Kimberly. Baraka: The Renegade and The Mask. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1976.

    E-mail Citation »

    Examines how Baraka’s work investigates the relationship between the individual and the collective and shows how the artist’s radicalism derives from a nationalist investment in shared culture and collective identity as opposed to a modernist focus on self-alienation.

  • Brown, Lloyd. Amiri Baraka. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

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    Provides a defense of the aesthetic value of Baraka’s art, explaining how his commitment to political ideologies feeds his interest in form and innovation as opposed to undermining his attention to aesthetics. Brown is especially concerned with the fact that Baraka works in multiple genres.

  • Harris, William, ed. The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1991.

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    A useful anthology of early and later career works that also provides a valuable critical introduction, which details effectively Baraka’s ideological shifts.

  • Hudson, Theodore. From LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka: The Literary Works. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1973.

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    An important early comprehensive study of Baraka’s corpus. Hudson situates Baraka as the leading theorist and practitioner of the Black Aesthetic across genres.

  • Sollors, Werner. Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a “Populist Modernism.” New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.

    E-mail Citation »

    Surveys Baraka’s literary works showing how he consistently rejects a bourgeois aesthetic in favor of an artistic approach that is attentive to formal innovation while also being invested in (shifting) political programs.

  • Watts, Jerry Gafio. Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

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    Using a sociological approach to the study of black intellectuals, Watts provides an exhaustive intellectual history of the artist as well as late-20th-century African American culture. He is critical of Baraka’s changing ideological allegiances and privileges his earlier work over later production.

  • Woodard, Komozi. A Nation within a Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) & Black Power Politics. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

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    A historical analysis of the 1960s and 1970s with a focus on the impact of black nationalist sentiment, which is linked to the Modern Black Convention Movement. Woodard studies Baraka and the organizations with which he was associated. He situates Baraka’s artistic activism as the premier lens for evaluating nationalism.

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