Works & Canonical Consideration

Amiri Baraka is the author of over forty books ranging from literature to critical analysis and history.  His spontaneous publication of essays and poems must be taken into historical context, and they often allude to specific events unfolding in the world.  Baraka has been loyally dedicated to social justice during his life, and his form of explicit resistance has inspired many.  The book titled Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1979) was co-edited with his wife, and it encompasses the wide range of work preceding its publication.  A compilation of his own selected essays from throughout his life, titled The Essence of Reparations, was published in 2003; it is the first time his essays have been sold in book form.

Since Baraka often published single poems and essays, and since he sought social betterment through his work, it is convenient for contemporary followers to have compilations that he assembled.  As an unapologetic author, he surely selects work that clearly conveys his message.  I will use the two preceding works as primary sources for the author.  There are countless secondary sources that I came across, and although I did not reference them, they helped me grasp the dynamism of Baraka’s character.  Partly due to his controversial career, Baraka has a lot of information dedicated to his achievement (and offense).  A good starting point for me was the poet’s official website, www.amiribaraka.com

     ———————–Please read Black Art (1969) before proceeding——————-

Legacy & Canonization

I think what Black Arts did was inspire a whole lot of Black people to write. Moreover, there would be no multiculturalism movement without Black Arts. Latinos, Asian Americans, and others all say they began writing as a result of the example of the 1960s. Blacks gave the example that you don’t have to assimilate. You could do your own thing, get into your own background, your own history, your own tradition and your own culture. I think the challenge is for cultural sovereignty and Black Arts struck a blow for that.

Ishmael Reed (1995 Interview)

Baraka’s Black Aesthetic

To best understand Amiri Baraka’s place in the African American Literary Canon, I found it helpful to view the advancement of time (and the subsequent progression in literature) as an accretion.  Earlier in the course, we discussed Alan Leroy Locke’s “New Negro”, who would be able to thrive in society, by breaking away from historical restraints to his character.  Locke advocated for an inclusive society that would mutually benefit all Americans by welcoming an existential ‘equal’ African-American citizen.  We find that this “New Negro” is interpreted differently in literature and society throughout the remainder of the century.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for example, utilized Locke’s argument about inclusion through his tactics of non-violent resistance.  Almost three decades after Locke’s publication, it seemed that Dr. King was on the verge of triumphing in Locke’s same battle (and W.E.B. Dubois, etc.) for equality.  By the 1960’s however, a growing number of African-Americans concurrently began abandoning inclusion, and a growing number viewed physical force and militancy as the only viable resistance to White oppression.  Amiri Baraka and Malcolm X publicly denounced nonviolence, and they were largely popular advocates for ‘Black Power’ during the Civil Rights Movement.

It is important to note that Baraka’s major conversion to Black Nationalism in the 1960s occurred in the midst of international tumult and turbulence.  Leroy Jones, as he was called at the time, must have been like the many Americans who were frightened because of the provocations of the Cold War; the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and John F. Kennedy surely exacerbated these feelings.  I personally believe that Baraka was fearful of his life during these times.  His New York Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BARTS) project would quickly fail after its founding, but it became the symbolic birthplace of the Black Arts Movement (BAM).

It was here that Baraka would put forth his ‘Black Aesthetic’, which would become so influential and controversial for years to come.  Like Locke, Baraka noticed that a new individual lurked in society, and that he had the means to guide him toward empowerment.  Even though he did not give an explicit title to this individual, he was clearly seeking to empower his Black compatriots.  Like Locke, Baraka believed that Black artists could empower themselves through literature.

We want a black poem.  And a

Black World.

Let the world be a Black Poem

And Let All Black People Speak This Poem

Silently

or LOUD

-Black Art (1969)

Baraka believed that Black authors should create truly independent work that was faithful to the spirit of the African-American struggle.  The new Black Aesthetic argued for an independent black art, which would empower artistic creativity and racial solidarity.  Baraka believed that by centering art on black culture and society, artists did not have to worry about pleasing white society’s standards, but rather themselves. In essence, the aesthetic broke free from any constraints placed upon black artists as a result of civil inequalities.  Clear differences existed between the positions of Locke and Baraka.  For example, whereas Locke sought to reach white audiences, Baraka advocated offending White readers and ostracizing them from Black culture (in regards to this specific time period).  Baraka believed that White Americans had deeply offended Blacks historically, and he therefore called on Blacks to abandon their censorship and appeasement.

Clean out the world for virtue and love,

Let there be no love poems written

until love can exist freely and

cleanly.

Baraka’s aesthetic put forth the concept of “using words as weapons”, in what he saw as an epic struggle for a new authentic Black identity.  He declares that he “We [African-Americans] want ‘poems that kill’… assassin poems.  Poems that shoot guns.” He was unique in putting forth an aesthetic that was fused with political activism. While some previous artists abandoned either political aims for aesthetic appeal, Baraka insisted on upholding both as a standard.  The aesthetic was also unique in that it encouraged the fusion of musical qualities within the literary works of artists.  Jazz and Blues music were very big influences on Baraka’s previous life, and he saw them as authentic African-American modes of expression.  For this reason, Baraka’s words are often syncopated with musical rhythms, and they are intended to maintain a beat.  Baraka also encouraged the use of words to their maximum potential, by stressing syllables and sounds.  His 1969 aesthetic manifesto was titled Black Art, and it puts forth his convictions.

Baraka believed that Black people “Are poems / & Poets & all the loveliness here / in the world”, and he sought to maximize this potential.

—————————————

Although he might have not known it at the time, Baraka’s aesthetic would influence generations to come… especially ours.  Although Baraka is an intensely dynamic character with many accomplishments worthy of canonization, I argue that his greatest literary achievement occurred during the Black Arts Movement; his ‘Black aesthetic’ is his single most influential idea.

Indeed, Hip Hop music and rap have adopted Baraka’s aesthetic and transformed it into an international phenomenon.  The fact that such mediums of entertainment exist is further proof of Baraka’s inclusion as a Canonical subject.  Since rap music has now reached an international stage (with enormous popularity), one may argue that the accretion has reached a massive scale.

Larry Neal’s BAM Essay

Democracy Now Interview (2011); Black Liberation Movement,

Reading “Somebody Blew Up America”

Works Cited:

Amiri Baraka; Poet, Playwright, Activist. n.d. 4 April 2012 <www.amiribaraka.com>.

Baraka, Amiri and Paul Vangelisti. Transbluesency: The Selected Poems of Amiri  Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1961-1995). New York: Marsilio, 1995.

Brown, Lloyd W. “Chapter 1: LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka.” 1980. Gale Virtual Library. 2 4 2012 <http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/ps/retrieve.do?sgHitCountType=None&sort=RELEVANCE&inPS=true&prodId=LitRC&userGroupName=txshracd2598&tabID=T002&searchId=R1&resultListType=RESULT_LIST&contentSegment=&searchType=AdvancedSearchForm&currentPosit&gt;.

Gaffney, Floyd. “Amiri Baraka.” Vers. 38. 1985. Afro-American Writers After 1955: Dramatists and Prose Writers. 4 April 12 <http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/ps/retrieve.do?sgHitCountType=None&sort=RELEVANCE&inPS=true&prodId=LitRC&userGroupName=txshracd2598&tabID=T002&searchId=R1&resultListType=RESULT_LIST&contentSegment=&searchType=AdvancedSearchForm&currentPosit&gt;.

Pearce, Jeremy. “When Poetry Seems to Matter.” The New York Times 9 February 2003: 3.

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2 thoughts on “Works & Canonical Consideration

  1. Amiri Baraka is an author that undoubtedly deserves a place in the American canon of literature; but what exactly is that place? Baraka as an author produced many works of tremendous literary merit including Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961). As a music critic he published Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1963) which is considered to have been remendously influential upon Jazz music in America. As a playwright Baraka premiered The Dutchman in 1964. As a revolutionary Baraka argued for a new Black Aesthetic. Baraka’s career was varied and his successes span across a plethora of categories. Arguing for his inclusion as just a writer, music critic, playwright, or a revolutionary fails to capture the multifaceted individual that is Amiri Baraka. For this reason I feel that the current model of the canonization may have trouble accurately classifying Amiri Baraka’s works. Baraka is an individual who defies being sorted into any one category.

    -Stephen Huschka

  2. Throughout this semester, we have looked at numerous black authors, both men and women, ranging from Toni Morrison to Paul Laurence Dunbar, varying in time period, subject matter, and aesthetic form but all generally writing in response the issue of racial inequality in America. In addition, many white writers that we have read have constructed narratives that express an opinion or argument concerning the same issue, especially Mark Twain. However, few of these literary figures possess the same quality of modern relevance as Amiri Baraka, who is still living and working towards the goal of a more enlightened nation, nor do they claim the same indisputable influence on the front lines of modern day African American activism. Your project and analysis provides a very strong contextual background of Baraka and the events that surrounded his career of controversial publication that highlights this dynamic quality in an effective manner.

    One of the strongest points of the analysis of your subject is when you point out Locke’s argument of the “New Negro” and the way in which it relates to the literary ideals established in Baraka’s work during his Black Nationalist period. Also, you note the ways in which Locke and Baraka differ through their views regarding how the “New Negro” should treat white culture. Once again through reference to a specific passage within the selected poem along with your documentation of historical context of the racial struggle in America, your analysis accounts for the different complexities that characterize the subject of civil rights literature and ideas. This became a great starting point for me to understand Amiri Baraka’s aesthetic and general themes within the context of other writers discussed in class during the semester. Furthermore, the way in which you relate it to the text, especially through your reference to the poignant closing lines of the poem, cements the connection you are trying to make, which gives your reading assignment relevancy to the issues of subject matter and canonical significance that we have discussed time and time again during class. This leads me to the reading assignment, “Black Art,” which I enjoyed a great deal and, as a result, actually reread multiple times. I was particularly struck by the poem’s use of aggressive, uninterrupted assault-style lines that connect racial pride and activism with components of literature and artistic expression. This aspect you summarize adeptly, describing it as “using words as weapons.” By making a well-supported connection between Baraka’s work and the Black Power Movement that arose in the wake of the assassinations of key civil rights leaders, like MLK, Malcolm X, and JFK, you construct a strong argument for his place in the upper echelon black activist leaders and writers of the last half century. Also, at the end, the video you provided of Baraka reading “Someone Blew Up America” while accompanied by a jazz saxophonist was not only beneficial simply for its entertainment value but for its demonstration of the melting pot of music, history, idealism, activism, and most importantly, passion that define Amiri Baraka as a man and writer.

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