Amiri Baraka

"Home: Social Essays"

(Reviewed by Daniel Luft JAN 19, 2009)

In Latin America governments change hands monthly, and no matter how repressive, illegal and non-representative a government might be, as long as it plays ball with the United States, is “anti-Communist,” we say nothing…And this is the society Rev. King wants to get the poor Negro ready to enter. Better Hell itself. But “partnership” in Gomorrah is the best thing offered by the white man to the Negro in America today. -- “What Does Nonviolence Mean?”

Home: Social Essays by Amiri Baraka is a reprint of a book he published back in 1965 when he was still known as LeRoi Jones. The crisp writing from 40 years ago is a reminder of a time when the written word was a bit more dangerous and taken more seriously by the general public and authors were admired for their intellects rather than their royalties. Since the youth culture of America has gradually become even more overwhelmingly youth oriented (and engineered) there is a lack of thoughtful, cultural commentary that exists on the popular level. The last two decades of nonfiction bestsellers are full of partisan bickering from the left and right whose authors blather on to their ready made audiences.

In the foreseeable future there probably will be no book that captures public imagination like Armies of Darkness or even Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972. We will instead get books like David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again which is fine on its own but views society one little niche at a time. Home: Social Essays is a valiant, failed attempt by a young writer to assess the tone and the culture of the African American condition in the early 1960s.

The book begins muscularly with a long article, “Cuba Libre,” about a trip to Cuba on the first anniversary of Castro’s coup. Baraka travels with a group of other black intellectuals who check out the new land; it culminates with a few quick questions for Castro just before an enormous rally. This article catches Cuba at a magic time, shortly after the revolution but before the Bay of Pigs debacle when Cuba was a truly independent state and Che Guevera was still alive. The writing here is as bright and excited as John Reed’s accounts, a generation earlier, of the Russian and Mexican revolutions. Baraka loves most of what he sees in Cuba and remains high on revolution for the rest of the collection.

He continues strongly with “Tokenism: 300 years for Five Cents.” It is an angry, incendiary article that takes aim at the mainstream press for congratulating America every time a large business hires a black man for any job that had been previously held only by whites:

"…the fact that more Negroes can buy new Fords this year than they could in 1931 is supposed to represent some great stride forward. To where? How many Fords will Negroes have to own before police in Mississippi stop using police dogs on them? How many television sets and refrigerators will these same Negroes have to own before they are allowed to vote without being made to live in tents, or their children allowed decent educations?"

This blast at the consumer society of America has lost none of its punch over the years and implies that we are all subverted by these small raises and we do so little with them when we get them. Baraka clearly has the restructuring of America on his mind and “Tokenism: 300 Years for Five Cents” is a great lost essay of the 20th century.

Unfortunately, the rest of the book, which is about life in America, does not hold up like “Cuba Libre” or “Tokenism.” Baraka, who currently considers himself a Marxist, considered himself a black nationalist when he wrote this book, ready to arm the young like he saw it done in Cuba.

The remaining articles in this book largely restate the frustrations mentioned in “Tokenism” but are never so nuanced in their style or tempered in their arguments. In essay after essay Baraka comes off as a radical who is suspicious of the civil rights movement of the early 1960s and is terrified of the black middle class joining the team that had oppressed African Americans for 400 years.

His failing in these essays is that he always equates the middle class with middle-brow thinking and a complacent attitude toward the country. What’s worse is that Baraka’s definition of middle class also means middle aged. Everyone seems young and beautiful in revolutionary Cuba and, in “Cuba Libre,” he jokes with one of his fellow travelers that the old people must all be in Florida.

The titles of these lesser essays tell the story of the book: “Black is a Country,” “The Last Days of the American Empire,” “American Sexual Reference: Black Male,” “The Legacy of Malcolm X, and the Coming of the Black Nation.” It is admirable that Baraka tried to take on the entire country as his subject but these pieces are barely worth noting as artifacts of a different time.

These problems come close to sinking the book but, scattered among these angry essays are a few insightful notes on African American literature. And when Baraka speaks for writers and literature, he is speaking as an expert. Baraka has always been a risk-taking writer in his poetry, his plays and his fiction so he has reason to expect the same from his fellow authors. In the transcription of his speech “The Myth of Negro Literature,” Baraka excoriates all but a few African American writers because so much of the writing comes from the black middle class and is trying to be accepted by a white audience. His argument and his fear is that the emerging black middle class was becoming as staid and boring as the white middle class that was allowing it to exist.

"It was, and is, a social preoccupation rather than an aesthetic one. A rather daring way of status seeking. The cultivated Negro leaving those ineffectual philanthropies, Negro colleges, looked at literature merely as another way of gaining prestige in the white world for the Negro middle class. And the literary and artistic models were always those that could be socially acceptable to the white middle class, which automatically limited them to the most spiritually debilitated imitations of literature available."

Forty-five years of hindsight proves Baraka’s point when he lists the authors he thinks are great: Jean Toomer, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. He also makes a nod toward the lesser read Chester Himes: “…one can find more moving writing in any of Chester Himes’ bizarre detective novels than in most ‘serious’ efforts by Negroes…” Himes books, though not read in high schools and colleges like the more esteemed authors mentioned above, remain easy to find or even to stumble upon by the casual reader. The dominant author of the 1950s and 60s who Baraka considers to be a hack, bestselling author Frank Yerby, is now hard to find in the dustiest of used book stores.

Even when discussing the literary world, Baraka suffers from a bit of tunnel vision; he reads what an angry young man wants in these authors’ works. He mentions time after time how he is troubled by Baldwin’s need to prove himself a nice guy. This is a far cry from the Baraka who lauded Baldwin in his 1996 book Eulogies. There he wrote: “He was in the truest tradition of the great artists of all times…Jimmy’s voice, as much as Dr. King’s or Malcolm X’s, helped shepherd and guide us toward black liberation.” There is also no mention of Richard Wright’s famous 1944 essay “The God That Failed” in which the celebrated Marxist broke all his ties with the Communist party. Surely the budding Marxist, Baraka, was aware of this piece.

Baraka has always had talent to burn. He has also burned with paranoia and confusion regarding his place in both America and its literary landscape. It is this fire inside of him that has kept him from the larger audiences that his contemporaries and friends Kerouac and Ginsburg achieved.

Home: Social Essays presents us with the entire problem of Amiri Baraka’s career; he is always intelligent and creative – even avant garde – but in the end he has angrily turned his back on a sympathetic readership. The literary essays in this book, along with “Cuba Libre” and “Tokenism,” make this book worth reprinting and rediscovering. The rest is very bitter reading.

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Fiction:
  • The System of Dante's Hell (1965)

Drama:

  • Tales (1967)
  • Dutchman and The Slave (1964)
  • Four Black Revolutionary Plays (1969)
  • The Motion of History and Other Plays (1978)

Poems:

Essays and nonfiction writing:

Other:

 

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Book Marks:

 

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About the Author:

Amiri BarakaAmiri Baraka is an American writer of poetry, drama, essays and music criticism. He was born in 1934 as Everett Leroi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, which he changed to LeRoi Jones in 1952. In 1967 he adopted the African name Imamu Ameer Baraka, which he later changed to Amiri Baraka.

Baraka studied philosophy and religious studies at Rutgers University, Columbia University and Howard University without obtaining a degree. In 1954 he joined the US Air Force, reaching the rank of sergeant. After an anonymous letter to his commanding officer accusing him of being a communist led to the discovery of Soviet writings, Baraka was put on kitchen duty and given a dishonorable discharge for violation of his oath of duty.

He then went to Greenwich Village in which he became interested in Jazz and the Beat Poet mvovement and came in contact with many well known authors and poets.

In 1960, he went to Cuba a visit that initiated his transformation into a politically active artist.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Baraka courted controversy by penning some strongly anti-Jewish poems and articles, similar to the stance at that time of the Nation of Islam.
Around 1974, Baraka distanced himself from Black nationalism and became a Marxist and a supporter of anti-imperialist third world liberation movements. In 1979 he became a lecturer at SUNY-Stony Brook for the Africana Studies Department, and was greatly admired by his students. The same year, after altercations with his wife, he was sentenced to a short period of compulsory community service. Around this time he began writing his autobiography. In 1980 he denounced his former anti-semitic utterances, declaring himself an anti-zionist.

In 1984 Baraka became a full professor at Rutgers University, but was subsequently denied tenure.

In 1987, together with Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, he was a speaker at the commemoration ceremony for James Baldwin. In 1989 he won an American Book Award for his works as well as a Langston Hughes Award. In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Amiri Baraka on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans. He was named Poet Laureate of New Jersey by the N.J. Commission on Humanities, from 2002-2004. His last two books of poetry, Somebody Blew Up America & Other Poems and Un Poco Low Coup received tremendous critical acclaim.

Baraka lives in Newark, New Jersey with his wife and author Amina Baraka; they have five children and head up the word-music ensemble, Blue Ark: The Word Ship and co-direct Kimako’s Blues People, the “artspace” housed in their theater basement for some fifteen years.

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