In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section 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
  • On Baraka’s Recordings of Poetry, Writings on Music, and Liner Notes

American Literature Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones)
Jean-Philippe Marcoux
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0187


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 had already been wrestling with his identity and his responsibility as a black artist, left Hettie Jones and moved uptown to Harlem to found, along with Askia Touré and others, 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 reflect the full extent of the African American experience. 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 University 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 his wife Amina at the Spirit House, later 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), Black Music (1967) and The Music (1987), plays like Dutchman (1964), the more politically inflected 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 and Sollors 1978. More politicized readings of Baraka’s oeuvre can be found in Brown 1981 and Hudson 1973. 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. Madhubuti, et al. 2018 eulogizes Baraka and celebrate his legacy. New, innovative and personal perspectives on Baraka’s work and legacy are collected in Marcoux 2021.

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

    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. Highly influential overview of the many ways to engage Baraka.

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

    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, at times, 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.

    Fine readings of Home and Dutchman. Sympathetic to the black nationalist platform. Weaves together in Parts 1 and 2 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.

    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 and movements like Hegel, European Romanticism, American Transcendentalism, and Whitman as he develops an ever-expanding black consciousness. For instance, his essay “Expressive Language,” Jackson contends, 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.

    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. Most pertinent are the 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.

    Divided into a series of short but pertinent studies of individual works, the volume often interweaves breadth and in-depth 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 overview of Baraka’s oeuvre.

  • Madhubuti, Haki, Michael Simanga, Sonia Sanchez, and Woodie King Jr., eds. Brilliant Flame: Amiri Baraka, Poetry, Plays and Politics for the People. Chicago: Third World Press, 2018.

    Born out Madhubuti’s commitment after Baraka’s funeral to honor the poet and activist. Chapters 2, 6, and 8 are comprised of short essays revisiting, assessing, eulogizing, and celebrating Baraka’s legacy in the arts, politics, and black communities by some of his closest friends, collaborators, and contemporaries in BAM. Chapter 3 reprints the eulogy Ras Baraka read at the funeral. Other chapters contain poems honoring Baraka. A volume every Baraka scholar needs to read to understand Baraka’s lasting impact.

  • Marcoux, Jean-Philippe, ed. Some Other Blues: New Perspectives on Amiri Baraka. Ohio State University Press, 2021.

    Brings together two generations of leading Baraka scholars. Part 1 is comprised of essays engaging critically with Baraka’s lesser-known works through innovative approaches. Part 2 focuses on the intricate relationship between literature and music in Baraka’s oeuvre. Part 3 combines personal essays on the legacy of Baraka from friends and fellow poets, such as Simanga and ya Salaam, with critical essays on his impact and continued significance. McMillon contributes a comprehensive essay on Amina Baraka based on interviews conducted with her.

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

    Sollors assesses the 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, chronologically, with every genre Baraka tackled, the work offers insightful close readings and thoroughly researched perspectives on Baraka’s reinvestment of shifting ideologies and politics in his art. The chapter on Baraka’s bohemianism continues to influence scholars’ works. A key text 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.

    Ambivalent look at Baraka that appears to stem 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.

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