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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Poetry of Liberation Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) (b. 1934)

[6262] Anonymous, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Allen Ginsberg and John Fles (1959), courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

Amiri Baraka was born Everett Leroy Jones in Newark, New Jersey. A creative child, he enjoyed cartooning and creative writing, particularly science fiction. Also gifted academically, Jones graduated from high school two years early and attended Howard University, where he was disappointed by what he saw as the school’s attempt to train black students to be white. It was during his undergraduate years that Jones changed the spelling of his name to the more Africanized LeRoi. His later stint in the U.S. Air Force as a weatherman and gunner also proved demoralizing, as he realized the extent of white prejudice and, perhaps more disconcertingly, the prevalence of the belief that mistreatment of blacks was justified. These experiences surface in his later writing. While a graduate student at Columbia, Jones knew some of the Beat writers, with whom he shared an impulse toward living on the fringes of American society. In the late 1950s, Jones was visible on the literary scene; he and his first wife, Hettie Jones, published Yugen, a poetry magazine. In 1961, he helped start the American Theater for Poets. Until this point, Jones was known mostly for his poetry, through which he sought a solution to racism in American society.

However, after the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, Jones’s views changed dramatically. From that point on, Jones considered racial harmony in America impossible and urged blacks to find other alternatives. The 1960s proved a turning point in his art. Jones became increasingly interested in drama, and his most successful play, Dutchman, premiered on March 24, 1964, at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York, with Jennifer West and Robert Hooks starring in the lead roles.

As racial tensions heightened in the mid-1960s, Jones became a committed activist, leaving his family to move to Harlem, where he quickly became known as a black nationalist. His commitment to the arts strengthened, and in 1965 he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater, which produced militant drama meant for black audiences. For Jones, art was a vehicle for political change, in particular for the liberation of blacks. In 1967 Jones was arrested during the summer riots, but the charges against him were eventually dropped. In 1968 he founded the Black Community Development and Defense Organization. The members wore traditional African dress, conversed in both Swahili and English, and dedicated themselves to Islam. To mark this new political and spiritual transformation, Jones changed his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka. His controversial and radical politics have earned him an important place in the black community, and he has been influential in developing relationships between black Americans and black Africans. Identified with the Black Arts movement, Baraka’s work is characterized by an angry voice that frequently calls for violence as a means to achieve liberation for blacks.

Teaching Tips

  • Choose one of the longer speeches in Scene II of Dutchman. Practice performing the excerpt. What choices have you made about delivery? What have you chosen to emphasize? Why? What gestures, pauses, or inflections make sense to you? Why?
  • Baraka’s work has been controversial because it often calls for violence. Whether or not readers accept the anger and vengeance expressed in these works, it seems important to talk about audience. Have students imagine that they have been asked to do the publicity for a production of Dutchman. Whom do they imagine attending the play? What text would be on the flyers and in the program notes? Whom is Baraka trying to reach? Why does he feel violence and anger are successful tools? How have different groups of people responded to his work? Does his militancy affect his credibility as a thinker and artist?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Why does Baraka choose the subway as a setting for Dutchman? What is significant about his choice?
  2. Comprehension: Were you surprised by the ending of Dutchman? Why do you think Baraka chose to end the play this way? What do you take away from the play? How might it be read as a politically charged drama?
  3. Comprehension: In “A Poem for Willie Best,” who is Willie Best? Why did Baraka dedicate a poem to him? Baraka uses numerous parentheses in this poem. What is the effect of this stylistic choice? Why are some of the parentheses left open?
  4. Context: Both Amiri Baraka and Langston Hughes wrote with political agendas, though Baraka’s philosophy tended to be more militant and separatist than Hughes’s. Both poets also wrote about both the average black man and the black artist. Compare Hughes’s “Note on Commercial Theatre,” “The Weary Blues,” and “Song for a Dark Girl” to Baraka’s “A Poem for Willie Best,” a poem about a black character actor. What techniques do these poets share? How are their works different?
  5. Exploration: Using drama as a way to incite public action is not a new concept. Indeed, in 1907, John M. Synge’s production of Playboy of the Western World at the Abbey Theater incited riots in Ireland because audiences felt it was offensive. Why is it that drama seems able to stir people to action? Along with Baraka and Synge, you might also consider W. B. Yeats (Catherine Ni Houlihan) and Arthur Miller (The Crucible).
  6. Exploration: Although the Black Arts movement has waned, there are still artists and audiences who believe in black separatism. How has Baraka influenced contemporary culture? Do you see evidence of his teachings and practices today? You might consider rap music, hip-hop, and film in your answer.

Selected Archive Items

[4314] Leroy McLucas, Imamu Amiri Baraka, Formerly LeRoi Jones, Head-and-Shoulders Portrait, Facing Right(1965), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-115116]. 
In 1965, after the assassination of Malcolm X, Amiri Baraka divorced his white wife, changed his name, and moved to Harlem, where he became a prominent figure in the Black Arts movement. Since then, Baraka has revised his black nationalist views in favor of Marxism and dropped “Imamu” (a Muslim word which means “spiritual leader”) from his name.

[6262] Anonymous, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Allen Ginsberg and John Fles (1959), 
courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries. 
Jones (Baraka) and Ginsberg seated in living room with drums. Jones was originally associated with the Beat movement, but with the growth of the Black Power movement, he changed his focus to political civil rights.

[7138] Anonymous, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) Leads the Black Arts Parade Down 125th Toward the Black Arts Theater Repertory/School on 130th Street, New York City (1965), 
courtesy of The Liberator. 
Influenced by civil rights activism and black nationalism, Baraka (Jones) and other African American artists opened the Black Arts Theater in Harlem in 1965.

[7430] Anonymous, Beat Poet Allen Ginsberg’s Former Companion, Peter Orlovsky, Left, and Black Activist Poet Amiri Baraka Speak with Each Other (1997), 
courtesy of the Associated Press. 
While a graduate student at Columbia, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) knew some of the Beat writers, with whom he shared an interest in living on the fringes of American society. However, after the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, Baraka considered racial harmony in America impossible. Much of Baraka’s work reflects this more militant perspective. His “Civil Rights Poem” was written during a homophobic period, though earlier he had been friends with a number of the gay members of the Beat Generation, and here he is featured with Ginsberg’s ex-lover.

[7432] Anonymous, Imamu Amiri Baraka, the Former Poet-Playwright LeRoi Jones (1974), 
courtesy of the Associated Press AP. 
This photo of Imamu Amiri Baraka was taken when he announced in Trenton on Wednesday, January 9, 1974, that the New Jersey Black Political Assembly would meet in New Brunswick, New Jersey, January 26, to select delegates to the National Black Political Convention.

[7495] Herman Hiller, Malcolm X at Queens Court (1964), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-119478].
Portrait of Malcolm X. Malcolm X’s assassination prompted Amiri Baraka to emphasize race in his art.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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