In This Article Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones)

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference works
  • Contextual and Topic-Specific Works
  • On Baraka’s Political Phases
  • On Baraka, the Black Arts Movement, and the Black Aesthetic
  • On Baraka’s Poetics and Writing Politics

American Literature Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones)
by
Jean-Philippe Marcoux
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0187

Introduction

Amiri Baraka (born Everett LeRoi Jones) (b. 1934–d. 2014) is one of the most important African American artists and intellectuals. He was a poet, critic, essayist, musicologist, playwright, novelist, and brilliant polemicist who sought to expose through his work the historical ravages of racism and oppression. He began his literary career as part of the Beat scene on the Lower East Side of New York, where he met the poet Allen Ginsberg and developed friendships with Black Mountain School artists like the influential Charles Olson and New York school poet Frank O’Hara. After the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, Baraka, who was already wrestling with his identity and his responsibility as a black artist, left his white wife and moved uptown to Harlem to found the Black Arts Repertory Theatre and School (BARTS), the first initiative of the Black Arts Movement (BAM). The movement was the artistic wing of Black Power and attempted to define the function of black history and culture in developing a consciousness capable of resisting the lure of acculturation and assimilation. This newly raised consciousness, Baraka believed, would lead to the theorization of a black aesthetic, a functional writing politics devised to speak to, for, and about African Americans. In 1967 he changed his name from LeRoi Jones to the Bantu Muslim name Imamu Ameer Baraka (later Amiri Baraka); this change was inspired by his time at San Francisco State and his relationship with Maulana (Ron) Karenga and the cultural nationalist association US Organization. After the collapse of BARTS, Baraka returned to his hometown of Newark, where he continued his cultural work with the Spirit House, this time rejecting cultural nationalism in favor of Third World Marxism, while still maintaining the grassroots dimension of BAM. Whether it is in the early poems of Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1960), the musicology of Blues People (1963), plays like Dutchman (1964), the more aggressive poetry of Black Magic (1969) and It’s Nation Time (1970), or the historiographical projects of “In the Tradition” (1982) and Wise Why’s Y’s (1995), Baraka remained committed both to poeticizing his people and to proposing innovative ways of voicing his displeasure with power structures. His poetic avant-gardism, his astute political prose, and his performance poetics make him the most important figure of the black cultural vanguard to have emerged from the turbulent 1960s.

General Overviews

A comprehensive appreciation of Baraka’s work by other black writers is found in Benston 1978. More politicized readings of Baraka’s oeuvre can be found in Brown 1981, Hudson 1973, and Sollors 1978. Jackson 1973 focuses on Baraka’s aesthetic and philosophical groundings, while Lee 2004 focuses mostly on the evolution of Baraka’s aesthetics and political shifts. Lacey 2001 offers a long, but largely unsubstantiated, look at Baraka’s body of work.

  • Benston, Kimberly, ed. Amiri Baraka: A Collection of Critical Essays. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1978.

    E-mail Citation »

    This collection of reprinted critical commentaries is important in that it not only includes major voices in the field of African American criticism, but also provides assessments from Baraka’s contemporaries and predecessors. Divided into sections based on genres, it speaks to the many vectors of Baraka’s oeuvre, from evaluations of his musicological prose to his plays. A pertinent overview of the many ways to engage Baraka.

  • Brown, Lloyd W. Amiri Baraka. Boston: Twayne, 1981.

    E-mail Citation »

    Often highly critical of Baraka’s changing politics, this volume provides interesting readings of his short stories and novel. Brown’s criticism of Baraka is nowhere near as incisive as when he engages the poetry, especially that of the Black Arts era, which he deems inconsistent and fraught with polemical shortcomings. Overall, the work seems more inclined to show Baraka’s “unevenness” (p. 166) than to provide critical insights into poetics and politics.

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

    E-mail Citation »

    Fine readings of Home and Dutchman. Sympathetic to the black nationalist platform. Weaves together in Parts I and II a meaningful tapestry of Baraka’s complexity as a versatile writer, looking at the various genres and their significance. One drawback of the study is the relative absence of pointed critiques about the movement’s political positions and how Baraka negotiated those.

  • Jackson, Esther M. “LeRoi Jones (Imamu Amiri Baraka): Form and the Progression of Consciousness.” CLA Journal 17 (1973):33–56.

    E-mail Citation »

    Important essay that looks at early poems from The Dead Lecturer, the novel System, and Dutchman. Studies how Baraka revises the literary heritage of Eurocentric cultural figures like Hegel, European Romanticism, American transcendentalism, and Whitman as he develops an ever-expanding black consciousness. For instance, his essay “Expressive Language” is influenced by white thinkers and gestures toward the direction black art will take in the second half of the sixties.

  • Lacey, Henry C. To Raise, Destroy, and Create: The Poetry, Drama, and Fiction of Imamu Amiri Baraka. New York: Whitston, 2001.

    E-mail Citation »

    Like Hudson’s monograph, Lacey’s study mostly focuses on the work Baraka produced between 1960 and 1970. He also probes the depths and significance of Baraka’s transitions and ideological shifts. Divided into four chapters organized chronologically, the work focuses on Baraka’s literary career. It contains in-depth readings of Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note and of the drama (in chapter 3).

  • Lee, Maurice A. The Aesthetics of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka: The Rebel Poet. Valencia, Spain: Universitat de Valencia, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    Divided into a series of short but pertinent studies of individual works, the volume often trades breadth for long-winded analyses, with satisfying results. Chapters 1 and 2 offer interesting overviews of Baraka’s aesthetic and political complexity. The last chapter is a study of the controversial poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” followed by an interview with Baraka about the poem. A very fine introduction to Baraka, especially for students.

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

    E-mail Citation »

    Combination of aesthetic and militant preoccupations that probes Baraka’s relentless pursuit of art capable of affirming both populism and modernism on African American terms. Composed of ten chapters that engage every genre Baraka tackled, the work offers some provocative perspectives on Baraka’s reinvestment of black nationalist philosophies in his art. A key document for any serious student and scholar of Baraka.

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

    E-mail Citation »

    Long, often confusing look at Baraka that appears to be stemming more from personal bias than critical interest, as the preface reveals. Watts’s readings of works are at times groundbreaking, but at other times lacking in substance. The section on the Pan-African and Third World Marxist phase of Baraka’s career illustrates this methodological imbalance. Impressive in scope, but debatable in terms of critical significance.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.

Article

Up

Down