Amiri Baraka | Critical Review by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

This literature criticism consists of approximately 8 pages of analysis & critique of Amiri Baraka.
This section contains 2,298 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Critical Review by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

SOURCE: "Several Lives, Several Voices," in New York Times Book Review, March 11, 1984, pp. 11-12.

In the following review, Gates outlines The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones.

When I first met his father, Coyette Leroy Jones, I was shocked by his striking resemblance to his son. Amiri Baraka locates his first identity through this resemblance to his father: "That I was short and skinny with big eyes and looked just like my father. These were the most indelible. My earliest identity." If that's true then for much of a half-century, it is fair to say, he has been running away from that very identity.

LeRoi Jones predicted as much, even as early as 1964 when he wrote in "The Liar": "When they say, 'It is Roi / who is dead?' I wonder / who they will mean?" Anyone else who had hoped that his autobiography would at last answer this rhetorical question will be disappointed. What emerges here is not a unified, coherent pattern of a life, but reconstructions of a series of lives or selves, the lives of LeRoi Amiri Baraka Jones.

LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka is, without question, one of the most prolific Afro-American authors. In addition to his autobiography, he has published books of poetry, a novel and a collection of short stories, five books of essays, two books analyzing black music, 24 plays and four anthologies—all in the last 23 years. He has been a most mutable political figure as well, trading worn-out ideologies for new ones when circumstances decree, and, as he puts it, transforming his metaphorical colors from brown to yellow, white and black.

Perhaps not since [Gertrude] Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas have we had an autobiography so ironically titled. Mr. Baraka anticipated this "multiple self" in "The Liar" (1964):

     Publicly redefining
     each change in my soul, as if I had predicted them,
     and profited, biblically, even tho
     their chanting weight,
     erased familiarity
     from my face.

He might have added "publicly renaming myself and my ideologies," as well, as his extended metamorphosis took him from a "brown" Newark to a "yellow" Howard (where he flunked out) to a "white" Air Force to his "white" life as a Greenwich Village poet and editor, married to a white woman and father of two girls, to the crazy Wild West days of the raucous Black Arts Repertory Theater in Harlem, then over to Newark to marriage with Sylvia Wilson (Amina Baraka), the mother of five more children, and to his much vaunted black cultural nationalism, and, most recently, to polka-dotted Marxism, which he is still struggling to master.

At each crucial ideological transformation, he assigned himself another name. Christened Everett Leroy Jones, brown Leroy from Newark became the black Village bohemian LeRoi, who is turn became the blacker Ameer Barakat (the Blessed Prince), who in turn became Imamu (poet/priest) Amiri Baraka, the blackest Leroy of all. With each new name came a change in his style of writing. We can "frame" these changes of diction with two extreme examples, taken from the extremes of his career. In his first book of poems (written in Greenwich Village), we read:

      but this also
      is part of my charm.
      A maudlin nostalgia
      that comes on
      like terrible thoughts about death.
      How dumb to be sentimental about anything
      To call it love
      & cry pathetically
      into the long black handkerchief
      of the years.

Compare these typically "modernist" lines of alienation with his more recent play, What Was the Relationship of the Lone Ranger to the Means of Production? (1978):

MASKED MAN: You have a stake in this system.

REG: What system?

MASKED MAN: The free enterprise system! You're free. You can do anything, go anywhere, because you live in a free society … you can't have this much freedom in a totalitarian country like—

DONNA: Crown Heights, South Bronx, Newark, Lower East Side, for instance.

From alienated modernist to agitprop is a long way to tumble in 17 years. From imitating Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Williams and Charles Olson, when he was the Jackie Robinson of Greenwich Village, Mr. Baraka descended into the Heart of Blackness (keeping Pound's fascism and Eliot's Anglo-Catholicism turned inside out), only to graduate to agitprop. It is this radical shift in diction that forces me to question his latest mask as a Marxist, even if I believe the move to have been inevitable.

In which voice does he narrate his story? Each of Mr. Baraka's lives has its own flavor of language, its own distinct style. He draws upon style as a correlative of his changing spots; reading his book is like listening to albums by Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, James Brown, then late John Coltrane, a remarkable stylistic achievement. It is the serial lives depicted here, however, and the acts of betrayal that connect them, that make this autobiography problematical indeed.

"The world has changed so much since my youth," Mr. Baraka tells us early on, "And I want, more than anything, to chart this change within myself." He recreates his childhood with a lyricism largely absent from his writing since The Dead Lecturer (1964). We hear of his childhood friends, "long-headed colored Norman" and "Eddie, of the tilted old smelly house." Joe Louis and F.D.R., we learn, were young Leroy's "maximum heroes," just as we learn what it meant to experience the rituals of watching games played by teams of Negro National League in "those bright lost summers," engulfed in a "a garment of feeling," a "collective black aura that can only be duplicated with black conversation or music." Only occasionally does he interrupt this lyrical re-creation of youth to preach to us about "the open barn door of monopoly capitalism" or to tell us what "Mao points out," too soon after he has re-created a 1930's or 1940's colored world more movingly than has any novelist.

Life at Howard was "a blinding yellow," where class-as-color (or as grade of hair) reigned supreme—"the rumble of crazy Negro yellow crazy." Yet Howard was also where Sterling Brown and Nathan Scott taught him music and literature. Mr. Brown's classes were "the high point of my 'formal' education," while Mr. Scott's "preaching about Dante" was "like some minister pushing us toward Christ." Howard, finally, was failing grades, expulsion, and a tearful retreat home to Newark, then to the Air Force.

LeRoi Jones read and wrote his way through the Air Force, imbibing "the New Criticism and the word freaks and the Southern Agrarians," along with Accent, the Hudson, Partisan and Kenyon Reviews, and just about all of the canonical Western writers. It was here, he tells us in moving prose, that he learned to dream the life of the mind, "a life of ideas, and, above all, Art." It was his eclectic pursuit of words that led to his undesirable discharge for being a "Communist"—all because he had received rejection letters from a magazine published by the Congress for Cultural Freedom!

Life in the Village was a series of affairs with white women and intimate friendships with just about anybody in the Beat world of the Village, where LeRoi Jones and his first wife published poetry journals and turned their home into a veritable salon. LeRoi was the "noble savage in the buttermilk," the ink spot on a vast white table cloth, "the one colored guy." But not even Mr. Baraka's urge to purge the "white" forms of his early poetry and his life can mask the sheer energy and joy that these rich decadent years in the Village gave him. His account reads like a blissful trip through an intellectual Disney World, where at last he mastered the forms of literature and became a principal within the American avant-garde. These pages are full of brilliant analyses of poetic forms, from Whitman and Williams and Pound and Apollinaire and the Surrealists to "the Jewish Apocalyptic," Black Mountain, and the New York schools. This long chapter is marred only by the cold ambiguity with which he recalls his first marriage and its dissolution. "My parents took it in stride," he tells us of the marriage. "There was not even any eye rolling or excessive questioning. (Such is the disposition and tenor of the oppressed, they are so in love with democracy!)" When it was over it was over: "In a minute or so, I was gone. Seeking revolution!"

A trip to Cuba in 1960, writings about black music (reviews, liner notes, and Blues People in 1963), the success of Dutchman (1964), a growing identification with Malcolm X, and, finally, Malcolm's murder in February 1965, took him uptown, to Harlem as the head of The Black Arts Repertory Theater and School, in full retreat from his white life and wife. "Arriving full up in the place of blackness, to save myself and to save the black world," he writes ironically, now that he has repudiated this phase of his political life. His escapades in Harlem read like Tom Wolfe's "Mau-Mauing the Flack Catchers," and I am still not yet certain which version I prefer. Mr. Baraka describes his life at this point as that of "a fanatical patriot." "The middle-class native intellectual," he continues, "having out integrated the most integrated, now plunges headlong back into what he perceives as blackest, native-est."

Uptown, he was running from his white friends and white influences, but most of all from his guilt, not for leaving his family but for marrying a white woman in the first place: "I was guilty for having lived downtown for so long with a white wife." Life in the Black Arts, he tells us, was "very messy" and "confused."

"Home," the long penultimate chapter, means Newark and the blackness of blackness, where between late 1965 and the early 1970's, as Imamu Amiri Baraka, he tried to purge himself of "my individualism and randomness, my Western, white addictions, my Negro intellectualism," to find "that dark brown feeling that is always connected with black and blues." Judging as a Marxist, Mr. Baraka can write that "I, so long whited out, now frantically claiming a 'blackness' that in many ways was bogus, a kind of black bohemianism…. Hey, all that … was yellow, very very yellow." Perhaps all this was more "yellow" than he intends.

Mr. Baraka offers a remarkably detailed account of his cultural nationalist years in Newark, where he masterfully ran the first successful mayoral campaign of Kenneth A. Gibson (now called "our fat stupid mayor"). He began the Committee for Unified New Ark, was brutally, beaten by the police in the 1967 riots and directed the formation of the highly influential Congress of Afrikan Peoples. This section of the book will be scrutinized as avidly by his black compatriots as his Village years will be read by his white friends. So, too, will his critique of the black nationalist movement and its fantasy of "a never-never land of Africa," a movement, he tells us, that failed because it lacked "the scientific exegesis of the state," because it was "feudalistic," "male chauvinistic," and "metaphysical." He might have added anti-Semitic and racist as well.

Mr. Baraka pronounces nationalism's death as happening in May, 1974, at a conference at Howard, where the black Marxist left defeated Stokely Carmichael and company, providing Mr. Baraka with "a point of departure, a jumping-off place, and I was ready to jump." And jump he has: "When the people of the world united to bring this giant oppressor to its knees we would be part of that contingent … chosen by the accident of history to cut this thing's head off and send it rolling through the streets of North America." The text ends with his "final" transformation into a Marxist-Leninist.

"All these words," Mr. Baraka tells us, "are only to be learned from," just two paragraphs after he writes that "in 1970, my wife Amina and I … paid down on a big square fortress of a stucco house which I painted red and trimmed in black, and when the seasons allow the trees to come out, the tableau is like a not quite subtle black nationalist flag."

Mr. Baraka still has a lot of accounting to do, despite the length, density and lyricism of his narrative. He is cursed, if I may, in a peculiar, unenviable way: Whereas most of us can experience identity crises in splendid, if painful, isolation, he consistently builds a program or a movement around his. Few of us, thank goodness, are able to institutionalize our hang-ups, our "changes." One must wonder at the costs of those who, at any given phase, have been his true believers. He is largely silent about his responsibilities to the people who trusted him. Perhaps the almost defensive, if not apologetic, tone generated by his proliferation of facts and events is directed at those readers who shared these worlds with him, those who will still feel betrayed.

And what does this autobiography teach us about LeRoi Amiri Baraka Jones? He hopes that it teaches us "that struggle and defeat finally are useful if our heads are harder, our grasp of reality firmer. I think they are." I remain unconvinced. If the "black bohemianism" of his (white) life in the Village and his progressively "blacker" lives in Harlem and Newark have been replaced by a stable and loving family life and a tenured professorship, Mr. Baraka has yet to convince me that his "Marxism" is any more sophisticated than any of his other political theories. He will never convince "the close reader" until he discards the cant and rhetoric of undigested Marxist discourse. In the end, we cannot take Mr. Baraka at his word, because his language betrays him. He has failed, thus far, to make Marx his, to escape the confusion of jargon for "scientific analysis." Until he does so, he will remain as he was at the beginning of his journey, "A renegade / behind the mask. And even / the mask, a renegade / disguise Black skin …" ("A Poem for Willie Best," 1964).

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This section contains 2,298 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
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