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About Amiri Baraka

Maurice Kenny

His political stance would be a war cry and many warriors would rise to swell his ranks. He opened tightly guarded doors for not only Blacks but poor whites as well, and of course, Native Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans. We’d all still be waiting the on the invitation from the New Yorker without him. He taught us all how to claim it and take it back.

From "Remembrance," from Amiri Baraka: The Kaleidoscope Torch. Copyright 1985 Steppingstone Press.

Joel Oppenheimer

Amiri Baraka is one of the very few American poets who has consistently put his words, his head, his heart, and his body on the line in the struggle for liberation. In the twenty-five years that it has been my privilege to know him, I have seen him take the raw angers of his youth and transform them into magical positive forces which have helped change our world.

Not many have done this; not many are capable of it. The enormous strength inside this man has allowed him to do it, and in exercising that strength he has become stronger . . . . He has taught me, more than any other person, how one ought to live. For this, and for the poems, and for the friendship, I can only thank him.

From "Amiri Baraka," from Amiri Baraka: The Kaleidoscopic Torch.

Arnold Rampersad

Baraka . . . . stands with Wheatley, Douglass, Dunbar, Hughes, Hurston, Wright, and Ellison as one of the eight figures (in my opinion) who have significantly affected the course of African-American literary culture. His change of heart and head is testimony to his honesty, energy, and relentless search for meaning.

From "Amiri Baraka and Langston Hughes," from Amiri Baraka: The Kaleidoscopic Torch.

Joe Weixlmann

No creative genius was needed to write the scenario, no prophet required to predict the pattern. When, in the mid-sixties, LeRoi Jones’ once cryptic, once-allusive poems started to become more expansive in form and more transparent in meaning; when his tightly wrought one-act plays started giving way to ritual and pageant; when his essayistic analyses of society began to thrust like daggers and plunge like javelins—when, in short, Amiri Baraka began to emerge from behind the identity of LeRoi Jones—the media had it story. Change it, exchange it, rearrange it (what did it matter?)—the media had its story.

The life and literature of Amiri Baraka have been fair game for nearly two decades. Alternately lionized by black nationalists as Imamu (‘spiritual leader,’ ‘Lord’), explained away by the black bourgeoisie and white liberals (Poor Roi’s confuses!),or granted membership in the nether-pantheon of black demons by more reactionary whites, Baraka has received objective glances mostly in passing. In the past five years, the situation has become even more extreme, with support dwindling and reaction fully fueled. The bin in which Baraka found himself in the late Sixties and early to mid-Seventies today approaches a bone-raw stranglehold.

[. . . .]

I can understand that some persons reading much of Baraka’s recent poetry might find it tedious, but I cannot believe that anyone hearing Baraka read it would be similarly included. The verbal cleverness and imagistic tightness which characterize the early Jones poetry work well on the printed page, whereas Baraka’s recent work lives fully only in performance; yet rarely do Baraka’s critics take that fact into account. And if we grant Baraka his current (and long-held) belief that literature should have appeal for the masses, we should expect that work to eschew the sort of verbal, formal, and metaphorical complexity that marks his early writing. An academic critic may or may not be stimulated by such work, but to remark, as [Darryl] Pinckney does in his 1979 review of Baraka’s Selected Poems, that such writing makes for "tiresome" reading is to skirt the important issues which Baraka’s recent poetry raises, not to engage them.

Furthermore, to write an author off as an "agitprop" has a distinctly McCarthyite ring to it. It’s not Red-baiting, Pinckney, [Henry Louis] Gates, and [Henry] Lacey would, I assume, say. But it isn’t, it’s not too far removed from that. At the very least, dismissing someone with a label does not make for very satisfactory scholarship. Initially, Baraka’s reputation as a writer and thinker derived from a recognition of his talents with which he is so obviously endowed. The assaults on that reputation have, too frequently, derived from concerns which should be extrinsic to informed criticism.

It has not been my intention here to argue that Baraka’s recent work is his strongest, or even that it is of equal worth to his early creations. Nor do I wish to argue against either of these propositions. . . . I have, rather, attempted to underscore some of what I understand to be the critical biases which inform the more considered attacks on his writing. Baraka, it seems to me, has become a convenient target of those within the academic (and political) establishment who, often reflexively, and without malice, write off any author whose criteria for literary achievement run contrary to their own. As a result, Baraka’s writing has tended not to receive the sort of balanced evaluation that it deserves. Studying the reception of his work provides signal insights into the complex of persons and publishing outlets that, together, affect literary production in America.

From "Critics’ Jaws, Genres’ Bellies, and Amiri Baraka," in Amiri Baraka: The Kaleidoscopic Torch. Copyright 1985 by James B. Gwynne.

Michael S. Harper

In the mid-sixties, a growing disenchantment with American society as a whole coalesced in Mr. Baraka as a rejection of white America and any hopes he had harbored of building a truly multiracial nation. Mr. Baraka then focused his artistic efforts in and on the black community and became an active and adept politician as well. He has described his evolving position: "To understand that you are black in a society where black is an extreme liability is one thing, but to understand that it is the society that is lacking and impossibly deformed, and not yourself, isolates you even more." The poetry of Amiri Baraka can be by turns tender, angry, and funny, written in many different styles, tones, and techniques. It is a window into the rage of some mid-century blacks, particularly those of urban ghettoes, who have watched several social "movements" come and go without much substantive change.

From the "Introduction," to Every Shut Eye Ain’t Asleep. Copyright 1994 by Michael S. Harper.

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