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
Let the world be a Black Poem
And Let All Black People Speak This Poem
-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
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.
Democracy Now Interview (2011); Black Liberation Movement,
Reading “Somebody Blew Up America”
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¤tPosit>.
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¤tPosit>.
Pearce, Jeremy. “When Poetry Seems to Matter.” The New York Times 9 February 2003: 3.