Amiri Baraka | Critical Essay by Sandra G. Shannon

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of Amiri Baraka.
This section contains 3,493 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Sandra G. Shannon

Critical Essay by Sandra G. Shannon

SOURCE: "Manipulating Myth, Magic, and Legend: Amiri Baraka's Black Mass," in CLA Journal, Vol. 39, March, 1996, pp. 357-68.

In the following essay, Shannon illustrates how Baraka drew upon myths, traditional symbols, popular literature, and established institutions in Black Mass.

The assassination of Malcolm X on February 21, 1965, profoundly affected Amiri Baraka and gave fuel to his developing nationalist position. What resulted was a more focused appeal to the cultural consciousness of exclusively African-American audiences and a need for an experimental theatre. Inspired by the martyred Malcolm X, Baraka abandoned the restraints of self-defeating naturalistic themes and featured instead the uncompromising African-American hero; he satirized the racist aspects of popular white culture and, in so doing, sought to reverse the brain-washing trend among members of his African-American audiences; he parodied repressive African-American status symbols and institutions; and, above all, he exposed African-American viewers to positive images of themselves using the very same tokens of their oppression. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in his 1965 play Black Mass, written while he was based at the Black Arts Theater School in Harlem.

The play, which uses the Nation of Islam's myth of the origin of the white species as a story line, represents an eclectic array of techniques served up to African-American viewers as propaganda for cultural nationalism. The plot is as follows: Jacoub, an African-American magician, works in his laboratory at creating a mutant human being in order to "bring something into space that was never there." Although cautioned by the other magicians, Jacoub creates a repulsive creature, which, for all intents and purposes, is a mutation of a member of the white race. Determined to make something useful of his creation, Jacoub tries to teach it "civilized" behavior. Unfortunately, the creature breaks free of its restraints, bites one of the three females involved and ultimately transforms her into a feminine version of the same mutation. Ultimately the two creatures join in killing the magicians and remaining women. Afterward they "howl and hop, and then, turning to the audience, their mouths drooling and making obscene gestures, they move out into the audience."

It is important to note that Black Mass is based upon the principal myth on which the Islamic religion was founded—the myth of Yacub, "the big-headed scientist." So popular was Islam within African-American urban communities of the mid-sixties that Baraka could justly assume that the majority of African Americans in the audience would readily comprehend his many imitated references to the Yacub story. Robert Allen, author of Black Awakening in Capitalist America, notes that the Black Muslim religion had "a membership estimated in the early 1960's between sixty-five thousand and one hundred thousand. Their temples are found in practically every major city." Islam offered African Americans of the 1960s, just as it does today, an alternate philosophy to the devastating emotions caused by oppression. It promotes individual worth while focusing upon separate identity and self-sufficience. Thus, it attracted a large following.

Baraka's use of myth is not coincidental. Myths, by virtue of their universal persuasiveness, often exist alongside scientifically proven truths and are sometimes indistinguishable.

Moreover, the validity of their premise defies disproof because they often are the products of an oral rather than written tradition; thus, the inability to discount the truth of numerous myths has contributed greatly to their longevity and validity. With the Yacub myth as its framework, Black Mass had a better-than-average chance of being regarded by its viewers as the fictional reenactment of the actual history of African Americans. As such, Baraka is able to gain acceptance of his updated version of the Muslim myth for the more current concern of African-American cultural consciousness. In Black Mass, therefore, Baraka redirects the truth of the original myth toward the specific needs of the Black Arts Movement.

Within the mythical context of an African setting are the African-American magicians. For the African-American viewer who is more than likely saturated with Western interpretations of Africa, magicians in a supposed African context inevitably conjure up expectations of a masked and painted voodoo witch doctor performing convulsive, ritual dances while summoning supernatural assistance via charms and unintelligible incantations. Quite unlike the unsophisticated practices of the witch doctor, however, Jacoub conducts his experiments with all the trappings of a modern scientist, complete with laboratory and its familiar equipment.

In the opening scene, Jacoub "is bent over a mortar, and is jamming a pestle into it, watching very closely." Ironically, as a magician—especially an African-American magician—Jacoub already possesses the power to create for the good of his people; instead, he confines himself to the laboratory environment and labors in an exacting cerebral science to create an alien being. In essence, he is no better than the witchdoctor, whose practices are at least part of his culture. Even though Jacoub is endowed with the means by which to avoid the trial and error of scientific methods, he prefers to follow them rather than resort to magic. In Black Mass Baraka uses the Muslim myth of Yacub (Jacoub), the wayward scientist, to show his African-American audience that their identity cannot be secure as long as it is subjected to the contagion of "the white thing."

The informing Muslim myth of Black Mass yields two interpretations, both of which are instructional: one explicitly addresses the African-American artist or creator; the other is implicitly relevant to the immediate sensibilities of lay African-American viewers. Nevertheless, for both artists and lay viewers, the play appears to have an easily recognizable moral much like that of the medieval morality play. Its lesson, simply translated, equals, "One who misdirects his talents toward creating for the sake of creation sins and will be duly punished." Upon closer examination, however, the play echoes many real concerns outside its fictional boundaries.

The same philosophy of the play's moral represents Baraka's staunch belief in the social utilitarianism of art and the sanctity of the artist's words. In his 1963 essay, "Brief Reflection on Two Hot Shots," in which he lambastes James Baldwin and South African writer Peter Abrahams, he argues,

We need not call to each other through the flames if we have nothing to say, or are merely diminishing the history of the world with descriptions of it that will show we are intelligent. Intelligence is only valuable when it is contained naturally in the matter we present as a result of the act [of writing … of feeling]. A writer is committed to what is real and not to the sanctity of his own FEELINGS.

Via Black Mass Baraka advocates an artistic alliance among all African-American artists to use their talents in both praising and raising the level of pride in African-American communities. In accordance with the collaboration of African-American artistic talents, which the Black Arts Movement urged, the play's message is an omen for African-American artists who overlook their social responsibility by creating art for amusement or purely capitalistic gain.

For the audience of lay African-American viewers who may have had little, if any, artistic inclination, Black Mass also offers a disturbing view of the psychology of self-hatred. In this sense, the play, far from being one-dimensional, invites one to wonder just what it is which compels Jacoub, a black man, to create a creature who is a foiled attempt to copy characteristics which—even though he does not understand them—he deems worthy of imitation. Not coincidentally, the words of Jacoub's creature identify it as being an imitation of a white creation gone awry: "I white. White. White." Jacoub's preference for "the white thing" shows not only the uselessness of his magical art but also an obsessive urge to mimic something alien to his own culture. [In his 1968 work, Soul On Ice] Eldridge Cleaver offers an interesting assessment of the kind of self-hatred which consumes Jacoub:

Self-hatred takes many forms; sometimes it can be detected by no one, not by the keenest observer, not by the self-hater himself, not by his most intimate friends. Ethnic self-hate is even more difficult to detect. But in American Negroes, this ethnic self-hatred often takes the bizarre form of a racial death wish, with many and elusive manifestations.

Thus, in bypassing the untapped resources of his own culture, Jacoub admits his inferiority and worthlessness and consequently proves his dislike for himself and other African Americans by creating a homicidal monster. Cleaver, therefore, concludes that the "myth of the creation of the white race, called 'Yacub's History,' is an inversion of the racial death wish of American Negroes."

In the context of the particularly prevalent social oppression which African Americans faced during the mid-sixties' staging of Black Mass, however, the racial self-hatred which the play suggests seems to be more of a symptom than a cause: "Art does not create sickness, it retlects or demonstrates sickness that already exists." In this sense, the remedy offered by proponents of the Black Arts Movement sought to blot out the source of the malignant ailment by turning from Western models as frames of reference and establishing new black concepts of cultural and moral beauty. As long as Western influence remained suppressed, racial self-hatred was less likely to thrive.

Because of its mythical references to Africa, Black Mass has been rightfully called Baraka's "most important play." This is particularly true as Africa's undeniable influence facilitates Baraka's efforts to transport his audience's cultural consciousness from America's hostile environment to the pastoral serenity of Africa. The mythical African context provides the viewer with only hints of the play's locale through subtle references, such as the magician's attire: "They are dressed in long, exquisite robes on with skull cap, one with fez, one with African hat"; their obvious un-American names: Nasafi, Tanzil, Jacoub, Rulalie, Olabumi, and Tiila; their regard for the unique ethnic identity of their art: "These are the beauties of creation. / Holding a large bowl aloft. It glows softly gold in the dim light. / The beauties and strength of our blackness, of our black arts"; and vestiges of their means of communication: "Signs in Arabic and Swahili on the wall, Strange drawings, diagrams of weird machines."

Unlike Marcus Garvey, who in the 1920s advocated that African Americans actually return to Africa, Baraka merely calls for a metaphorical return of his people to their pastoral serenity. This return to the source brings with it a self-confidence born of a freedom from mimicking other standards of art or mores. Africa, then, serves as the new frame of reference, especially suitable for the nationalist cause. Neal notes in his contribution to the Black American Reference Book, "Among black Americans today, the nationalist impulse gives rise to romantic longing for the pastoral innocence of the African past. Increasingly writers and artists are turning to the folk culture for inspiration and new formal ideas.

The term "black magic" is such a slippery one that it often lends itself to a variety of interpretations. Yet Baraka's particular use of it in Black Mass points to his earlier arguments against the industrious though isolated art of Abrahams and Baldwin. [In his 1980 book, Amiri Baraka] Lloyd Brown eloquently sums up the role of magic in African-American literature:

It [magic] is both an ethnic and aesthetic power, attacking rationalistic systems in the culture as tools of economic and racial exploitation, and rejecting overly formalistic approaches to art. The idea of magic in both ethnic and aesthetic terms is therefore intrinsically bound up with the experience of transformation: self-hatred is replaced by ethnic pride and art-for-art's sake gives way to art as responsive and committed design. Magic, the very essence of "irrationality" and disorder, in rationalistic terms, is now the symbol of a new, rebellious antirationalism.

Black magic, too, can be perceived as a weapon. It allows African Americans to conceptualize the power of transformation and, more importantly, to realize that they possess that power.

The Black Muslim myth further allows Baraka to propagate the idea of diseased Western influences by creating a sort of allegory drawn from various popular Western legends, such as Frankenstein, Dr. Faustus, Dractula, Tarzan, and Pandora's Box. What is evidenced by all of these influences is the playwright's attempt to draw from the audience's reservoir of Western icons to insure some kind of affinity with the new African-American consciousness which the play promotes. In addition to the broader Muslim myth in which the play is set, references to images promoted by fiction and the screen are more assured of striking chords of familiarity within viewers. Hence, this new consciousness does not represent a radical departure from Western images which extends toward a redefined African-American consciousness.

It should come as no surprise that the concept of the Beast in Black Mass initially evolves as a result of Baraka's close alignment with many of Elijah Muhammad's ideas about Western white male domination over the African-American male. In his Autobiography of Malcom X, Malcolm frequently claims that "the white man is the devil" and that "the black man had great fine, sensitive civilizations before the white man was out of the caves." Evident from the context of Baraka's Beast is the Islamic view that whites—like the way Satan and his army were depicted in heaven—were initially rabble-rousers among members of Islamic heaven. According to world history as Elijah Muhammad interprets it [in his 1965 Message to the Black Man], once these whites were discovered, however,

[they] were punished by being deprived of divine guidance, for 2,000 years which brought them almost into the family of wild beasts—going upon ail fours; eating raw and unseasoned, uncooked food; living in caves and tree tops, climbing and jumping from one tree to the other.

Apparently, Baraka's depiction of the Beast from the context of Islamic history is a strategy which draws learned responses from among members of his African-American audience, most of whom knew the Muslim credo. First, the Beast introduces ominous typological parallels to the beast of the Book of Revelations; thus, these parallels, as seen in the prophetic premise of Black Mass, suggest equally gloomy predictions for African Americans who favor white creations. Second, the actual appearance of the Beast and its subsequent role in the didactic drama allow viewers to focus upon the exemplum of the Beast as a tangible product of "art for art's sake."

Several Western influences assume seemingly lesser roles in the multiple strategies which Baraka employs for depicting the Beast. For example, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein provides a suitably familiar plot which allows Baraka to elaborate upon Elijah Muhammad's philosophy, with few alterations. Several of the novel's stock qualities figure prominently: the obsessed scientist who gives life to a hideous being; the innocent creature doomed to a life of isolation because of its physical distortions; and the creature's ultimate destruction of its creator. Although Baraka utilizes these particular aspects of Shelley's novel, he deviates, especially in his portrayal of the Beast. The creature that was put together by Dr. Frankenstein is given to compassion and kindness. Baraka's nameless Beast, though carved from Shelley's mold, is the antithesis of her warm, human-like protagonist; Instead of the refined diction of Shelley's version, Baraka's Beast is barely intelligible, capable only of reiterating one phrase: "I white. White. White. White." Instead of empathy which the readers are able to experience through first-person narration, viewers only see the Beast's physical repulsiveness and thus are more likely to have a one-dimensional view of it.

The Faustian legend is also identifiable in Black Mass, yet it is doubtful that Baraka's intended audiences could identify it as an influence nor, for that matter, did they need it to comprehend the basic truths of Baraka's morality play unfolding before them. The plot of Christopher Marlowe's dramatized version of the legendary Dr. Faust us involves an overly ambitious Renaissance man who sells his soul to gain the magical powers of necromancy. To be sure, each of the unemployed, poverty-stricken, and disillusioned blacks who witnessed the play could easily identify with this level of high-stakes bartering needed to merely survive in America.

Another Western legend evident in Black Mass, which, more than likely, immediately jogs the consciences of African-American viewers, is that of Dracula. Versions of the legend have appeared in so many aspects of American cultures that it is very easily recognizable. The Gothic tale of the highly contagious vampire whose bite transforms its prey into one of the same is suggested when the Beast bites Tilla:

The woman stumbles toward Jacoub, her face draining of color. Her voice grows coarse, she screams, covering herself with her robes. She emerges, slowly, from within the folds of the garment, her entire body shuddering, and beginning to do small hop the beast did. Suddenly she throws back the robes, and she is white, or white blotches streak her face and hair. She laughs and weeps in deadly cross between white and black. Her words have turned to grunts, and she moves like an animal robot.

In his use of the Dracula legend, Baraka likens the influence that the dominant white culture has over blacks who embrace assimilation to the ghastly interdependence between a bloodthirsty vampire and its unwitting prey. These highly suggestive images become especially evident when the white beast bites one of the female characters and "infects" her with his whiteness. Baraka also shows, however, through the victim's incomplete transformation from black to white that the effects of assimilation for blacks is never absolute. Unfortunately for Tilla, these remnants become evident when she "laughs and weeps in deadly cross between white and black." No matter how much they claim whiteness, they will always be black and will always be regarded by whites and other blacks as such. For African Americans who have abandoned their culture in favor of another, their awkwardness is multiplied by "the widespread use of cosmetics to bleach the black out of one's skin … and nose thinning and lip-clipping operations." What results is a similar mutation.

Implications of Edgar Rice Burrough's legendary creation Tarzan are also intertwined throughout Baraka's Black Mass. Enjoying immense popularity in the United States, the edenic version of the white man of the jungle was catapulted by the visual media to a symbol of American culture, much like today's Rambo image. Just as Dracula is an easily recognizable prototype for the African-American audience, so too is Tarzan.

Baraka's inversion of the Tarzan legend is particularly relevant to his concept of wasted or misdirected knowledge. In the original legend, Jane insists upon instructing Tarzan in etiquette and proper speech, though he obviously has no need of either in his jungle home. Similarly, in Black Mass, Jacoub insists that the Beast be taught: "We will teach this thing the world of humanity. And we will benefit by its inhuman…." He proceeds to educate the creature using a patronizing manner similar to Jane's.

Amiri Baraka's Black Mass incorporates principles from yet another western myth—Pandora's Box. The basic storyline of this Greek myth and universally popular tale involves a woman who is entrusted with a box containing all the ills that could plague mankind. Not able to resist temptation and against the counsel of others, she eventually opens the box and lets loose a myriad of evil forces. In particular, Black Mass follows three sections of the myth's structure: the prophesy, the disobedience,and the prophetic fruition. In this sense, the unleashing of evil upon the world is a result of Jacoub's disobedience to the prophetic entreaties of his associates, and the prophetic fruition occurs as the Beast eventually escapes out into the audience of the theater. The influence of the Pandora's Box myth is especially evident in the comments of Tanzil ("You have turned loose absolute evil") and in the appended words of the final detached Narrator:

And so, Brothers and Sisters, these beasts are still loose in the world. Still they spit their hideous cries. There are beasts in our world, Brothers and Sisters. There are beasts in our world. Let us find them and slay them. Let us lock them in their caves.

Baraka's recurrent tendency to juxtapose opposites in order to create absurd images is prevalent in Jacoub's determination to teach a creature that Baraka has so grossly caricatured that the act appears laughable. Just as he parodies the science and magic which Jacoub initially misuses in creating the Beast, in this instance, he underscores the futility of knowledge which does no more than ricochet off the Beast.

Mel Gussow, who reviewed the 1972 production of Black Mass at a Baraka Festival in New York, notes, in particular, the play's offensive story line: "Black man creates white man—definitely not in his own image—and then ridicules him. A portentous ritual suddenly turns into a clown show, a notion that seemed to delight the almost all-black audience opening night." Clearly the white critic was offended by what he perceived as the play's condescension toward the white race. Yet apparently Baraka had staged a play in which the ends justify the means. That is, he harnesses the general popularity and acceptance of the Islamic myth, makes several alterations, and produces a humorous, though disturbing, statement about the African-American's ritual practice of imitating white America.

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