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Amiri Baraka: Biography and Historical Context

William J. Harris

In 1934 Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) was born in the industrial city of Newark, New Jersey. After attending Howard University in Washington, D. C., he served in the United States Air Force. In the late fifties he settled in New York’s Greenwich Village where he was a central figure of that bohemian scene. He became nationally prominent in 1964, with the New York production of his Obie Award-winning play, Dutchman. After the death of Malcolm X he became a Black Nationalist, moving first to Harlem and then back home to Newark. In the mid-1970s, abandoning Cultural Nationalist, he became a Third World Marxist-Leninist. In 1999, after teaching for twenty years in the Department of Africana Studies at SUNY-Stony Brook, he retired. However, in retirement he is as active and productive as an artist and intellectual as he has ever been in his career. Currently he lives with his wife, the poet Amina Baraka, in Newark.

Adapted from the biography in The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader. Copyright 1991 by William J. Harris

Historical Context
The Beat Period (1957-1962)

William J. Harris

During his Beat period, when he was known as LeRoi Jones, Baraka lived in New York’s Greenwich Village and Lower East Side, where he published important little magazines such as Yugen and Floating Bear and socialized with such bohemian figures as [Allen] Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, and Gilbert Sorrentino. He was greatly influenced by the white avant-garde: Charles Olson, O’Hara, and Ginsberg, in particular, shaped his conception of a poem as being exploratory and open in form. Donald Allen records in The New American Poetry: 1945-1960 Baraka’s Beat-period views on form: "there must not be any preconceived notion or design for what a poem ought to be. ‘Who knows what a poem ought to sound like? Until it’s thar’ say Charles Olson . . . & I follow closely with that. I’m not interested in writing sonnets, sestinas or anything . . . only poems."

From the "Introduction," to The LeRoi Jones/ Amiri Baraka Reader. Copyright 1991 by William J. Harris

The Black Nationalist Period (1965-1974)

William J. Harris

In 1965, following the assassination of black Muslim leader Malcolm X, Baraka left Greenwich Village and the bohemian world and moved uptown to Harlem and a new life as a cultural nationalist. He argued in "The Legacy of Malcolm X, and the Coming of the Black Nation," (collected in Home) that "Black People are a race, a culture, a Nation." Turning his back on the white world, he established the Black Arts Repertory Theater School in Harlem, an influential model that inspired black theaters throughout the country. In 1967, he published his black nationalist collection of poetry, Black Magic, which traces his painful exit from the white world and his entry into blackness.

From the "Introduction," to The LeRoi Jones/ Amiri Baraka Reader. Copyright 1991 by William J. Harris

 William L. Van Deburg

According to the black poet, contemporary politics proved that the barrel of a gun was the best voting machine; a dead honkie the most effective protest vote.

Holding to this notion that it sometimes took an inhuman act to end inhumanity, Afro-American writers defended social violence as necessary to self-defense and nation-building. Through a show of deadly force, they eventually would be able to "build up a Black world . . . where there will be not more killing." Just as important, they said, blacks killed on order to "rebegin" psychologically—to alter the "nigger mind." In this view, terrorist bombing and political assassinations had both tactical and psychosocial consequences. Such acts chipped away at White Power, but they also helped purge black folk of their slavery-induced mind-set, wiping away the "skid marks of oppression and / degradation" in dramatic fashion. As Julius Lester wrote at the time of the Newark rioting, "Even as we kill, / let us / not forget / that it is only so we maybe / more human." After shedding white blood in revolutionary action, blacks would find their own flowing far more freely through spiritually rejuvenated bodies.

From New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965-1975. Copyright 1992 by The University of Chicago Press.

The Third World Marxist Period (1974- )

William J. Harris

In 1974, dramatically reversing himself, Baraka rejected black nationalism as racist and became a Third World Socialist. He declared, in the New York Times: "It is a narrow nationalism that says the white man is the enemy . . . Nationalism, so-called, when it says ‘all non-blacks are our enemies," is sickness or criminality, in fact, a form of fascism." Since 1974 he has produced a number of Marxist poetry collections and plays, including Hard Facts, Poetry for the Advanced, and What Was the Relationship of the Lone Ranger and the Means of Production? He has also published a book of Marxist essays, Daggers and Javelins. The goal of his socialist art is the destruction of the capitalist state and the creation of a socialist community. Baraka has stated: "I think fundamentally my intentions are similar to those I had when I was a Nationalist. That might seem contradictory, but they were similar in the sense I see art as a weapon, and a weapon of revolution. It’s just now that I define revolution in Marxist terms. Once defined revolution in Nationalist terms. But I came to my Marxist view as a result of having struggled as a Nationalist and found certain dead ends theoretically and ideologically, as far as Nationalism was concerned and had to reach out for a communist ideology." His socialist art is addressed to the black community, which has, he believes, the greatest revolutionary potential in America.

From the "Introduction," to The LeRoi Jones / Amiri Baraka Reader. Copyright 1991 by William J. Harris.

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