“I took up with the Beats because that’s what I saw taking off and flying and somewhat resembling myself. The open and implied rebellion—of form and content. Aesthetic as well as political. . . . I could see the young white boys and girls in their pronouncement of disillusion and removal’ from society as being related to the black experience. That made us colleagues of the spirit.”
– from The Autobiography of Leroi Jones / Amiri Baraka (1984)
In 1957, Jones moved to Greenwich Village, which was considered an artist’s haven and a bohemian capital. He enjoyed his experience there and interacted with contemporary artists of all kinds. At Greenwich, he would work with many avant-garde artists including Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, the Beat Generation, Black Mountain College and he became a member of the New York School of Poets (Amiri Baraka; Poet, Playwright, Activist 11). A year upon arrival, he married Hettie Cohen, a white Jewish Woman, and together they launched the magazine Yugen (Brown 9). This initial literary venture would last for eight issues, and was devoted to arts and letters. During this period in his life, his literature would advocate mysticism, sexual freedom, recreational drug use, and being free-spirited; most work, published during this ‘Beat Period’ would be deeply resented and highly praised by different critics (Brown 9).
By 1960, the Civil Rights Movement was well underway, and the United States was in the middle of a Cold War with the Soviet Union. Jones was a dissenter on many mainstream social issues, but he was also involved in national political activism. By the beginning of the decade, Jones underwent a transitional period, where he would emerge an adamant Black Nationalist.
(Began in the early 1960s and culminated in the assassination of Malcolm X.)
On behalf of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC), Jones personally visited Fidel Castro in the hopes of achieving some diplomatic solution to the political stalemate; his essay Cuba Libre, would discuss his positive impressions on Cuba, and he coauthored Declaration of Conscience (1961) in support of Fidel Castro during the tumult of the Cold War(Gaffney). As a black man in America, Jones had no trouble empathizing with the equality offered by communist ideologies; at home however, he felt alienated and ostracized for his opinions. These resentments would spark the beginning of Jones’ conversion to Black Nationalism, which would consume the next 15 years of his life.
Up to this point, Baraka’s work was intended for an all-inclusive audience, and he worked toward equality. He also previously viewed the Civil Rights Movement as pacifist, but he remained loyal to other black leaders of his time, by not publicly opposing them.
Cuba had a major influence on Jones, and he began to denounce the free-spirited outlook of his bohemian counterparts. Over the next two years, the Bay of Pigs incident and the Cuban Missile Crisis would increase his radicalism. He moved to the Lower East Side and joined the Umbra Poets Workshop. He realized that he could be politically influential, and he utilized his literary prowess and popularity to adamantly support Malcolm X (Brown 9). His poetry collection, “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note” was published in 1961, and would bring him national acclaim. The same year, he also published his highly influential Jazz Music critique, Blues People: Negro Music in White America (Baraka and Vangelisti 13). His political correctness began to publicly deteriorate as the Civil Rights movement became more turbulent, and naturally, so did his writing. His controversial reputation seemed to strengthen his career, and his play Dutchman (1964) won an Obie Award for the best off-Broadway Play; by the end of that year, his writings would cement his position as a literary celebrity, a position he would retain until this day (Brown 10).
After some experience in literary circles and time with artists, LeRoi Jones realized that literature could be either used for political activism or literary aesthetic. He began to view black liberation movements as an obligation, and he would abandon aesthetic priorities to become a pragmatic political spokesman during the next era in his life. The transformation of Leroy Jones into Amiri Baraka was a process that took 33 years.