MANIPULATION OF FIRE AND MAGIC

 

 My copy of The Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader has been sitting on the shelf for some time now daring my lily white Ass to review. I cowered away in fear. It was too intense to be covered. And I'll throw out a nod to poet <Gwendolyn Brooks for providing the title to this review. 

 

In many reviews on books and music, I have skirted around the issue of racism. I would mention it but not really deal with it. That is because it always seemed to be too big of an issue for a mere epinion. It is a topic that requires a lot more time and thought than the half hour to hour it takes me to write a review.

 

Amiri Baraka is back in the news because of a poem written in response to September 11. There is a passage which strongly suggests anti-semitism. I have not read that entire poem yet and it is not included in this book so I will bypass that situation until I get the facts.

 

This anthology begins with the LeRoi Jones days(1957-1962). After a discharge from the army, Jones fell in with the Beatnik scene in Greenwich Village. Much of his early poetry exhibits a strong Beat influence. The anthology includes a brief 19 page section devoted to this period. There are a couple stand out poems such as Look for You Yesterday, Here You Come Today and In Memory of Radio.

 

The second section is defined as the Transitional period (1963-1965). This is a time when LeRoi Jones started to become disenchanted with the beat scene. A visit to Cuba stirred emotions that caused him to begin questioning his bohemian lifestyle. He also felt that too many of the white Beatnik poets were too removed from the actualities of real life. An interesting sidenote is that Jack Kerouac himself experienced a similar disillusionment with the direction of the scene in the mid to late 60s.

 

The tone in his poems becomes increasingly angry and bitter. A poem like Black Dada Nihilismus is an expression of sheer hatred. While much of his emotion and bitterness is justified, this poetry isn't as strong as the earlier verse. Have you ever had an argument with a person so consumed with anger that they can't articulate their thoughts in a cohesive manner? Most of the poems in this section read that way.

 

That leads to the third phase of the book. This is the Black Nationalist Period (1965-1974). This is when he began to move toward a more afro-centric style in his writing. He began to write with greater clarity although much of the bitterness remains. Here he begins to present his argument with great intellectual force. One irony that always struck me is that Jones' move in this direction closely coincides with Malcolm X's return from Mecca. At a time that Malcolm was renouncing hatred and anger, Jones became consumed by it. He would take the Bantu name Amiri Baraka in 1967. But his poems, stories and essays from this period do deal with many problems that continue to plague America. He is able to mock &quot;half white college students&quot; for abandoning their roots. He points out the hypocrisy of the white liberals who want the blacks to be half men and women.

 

He also begins to write more and more on black music like jazz and blues. He offers a lot of valid criticism toward the response from many white critics who misunderstand the music. He provides much insight into the music of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson among others. For me, this is the best part of the third section. It is informative on the racial problems faced by many black artists and musicians.

 

The final section of the book is the Third World Marxist period (1974-). This anthology was published in 1991 so that is the stopping point of this section. Baraka, as all important artists do, continued to evolve artistically and philosophically. He began to move away from the racial hatred. He started to view the notion of "all whites" being bad as erroneous. It was, after all, only a handful of "super billionaires" running the show. He also notes that "skin color is not a determinant of political content". Here he admits that he was mistaken in many of those earlier views. He still writes with a lot of fire in the belly. He became more of a voice for the downtrodden. This section includes a tribute to James Baldwin and well as an essay on Carribean poet Aime Cesaire. The poetry here begins to take on Marxist theory in point of view. He also slams Jesse Jackson for his performance in the 1988 Democratic primaries.

 

This 500 page anthology covers a 35 year period in which Baraka went through numerous changes in style and philosophy. There is much debate as to his place in literary history. While I disagree with a lot of his ideas and beliefs, I have to regard him as an important figure in 20th Century American literature. He is provocative and challenges the reader to think. His work is often discomforting but that is also a mark of a great artist.

 

It would be an understatement to write that Baraka is a key figure in African American literature. His body of work will ultimately stand with Frederick Douglas, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison among the many great African American writers. But it should also be noted that he is an important figure in American literature period. He has broadened the scope of debate and dialogue through the sheer force of his writing. He is still writing and stirring up controversy. Like him or not, agree with him or not; it is hard to argue with his place in history.

 

 

 

 

 

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allets's picture

or

the generations of writers he has mentored and engraved with necessity of the political poem and essay. I memorixed great big chunks of "Preface...Suicede Note" I was young and impressionable. He read in Detroit on furlough from jail with ankle accessories. Imamu ~s~

Imamu: Means “spiritual leader” in Swahili, ultimately from Arabic إمام (Imam)



Onyamaichi

 

georgeschaefer's picture

saw him read in Camden, NJ. 

saw him read in Camden, NJ.  I've also read with a number of his protogés over the years.