William J. Harris

William J. Harris: On "In the Tradition"

In 1980 Baraka’s long poem "In the Tradition" was published in The Greenfield Review. This poem, dedicated to contemporary alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe, is Baraka’s most fully realized and completed "epic" poem—epic in the Poundian sense that it concerns historical events. Baraka describes it as "a long poem, a poem about African-American history," and in it, he most successfully brings together his white and his black avant-garde traditions. While the thematic concerns here are black, they are expressed through an art form that derives not only from black music but also from both white and black avant-garde technique and theory. Like jazz, this form is uniquely New World, growing out of two distinct cultures and becoming something new.

The black tradition Baraka affirms in this poem is more complex than any conception of black culture he had expressed in the past. It is a tradition of heroes . . . . And it is a tradition of villains . . . . But while the poem is nationalist, affirming black people, it is revolutionary nationalist rather than culturalist. In his Marxist stage, Baraka has seen cultural nationalism as static, clinging to a feudal and romantic past, and he has seen revolutionary nationalism as committed to a struggle for a free and socialist future. According to Baraka, the revolutionary nationalist, like the cultural nationalist, believes like Marx "It in not enough to understand the world; we must change it," but unlike the nationalist the revolutionary knows the world can be changed only by organized revolution, not spontaneous revolt. 

From The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic. Copyright 1985 © the University of Missouri Press.

William J. Harris: On "Black Art"

In the poem "Black Art" (first published in the Liberator, 1966) Baraka declares, "poems are bullshit unless they are / teeth or trees or lemons piled / on a step" (BMP, p. 116). For the new Baraka the black poem had to be an active agent, not a vehicle of escape to "another world." Yet even here Baraka’s apparent rejection is only partial. In rejecting [Allen] Ginsberg’s otherworldly poetics he employs the techniques and poetics of the imagist-objectivist tradition. Like the imagists-objectivists, Baraka wanted to place real objects in his poems. His intent, however, was radically different from that of his predecessors. While [William Carlos] Williams and [Ezra] Pound, for instance, wanted to place real objects in their poems because their antisymbolist stance mandated recreation of the things themselves, Baraka wanted to place real objects in his poems to create a black world that would reflect the lives of black people . . . . Baraka wanted concrete images in his poems so that his black readers would recognize themselves and be inspired to revolt against their circumstances. Throughout the period when he changed from a Beat to a political poet, Baraka used objectivist techniques to signal the need to destroy the white world:

We want "poems that kill."

Assassin poems, Poems that shoot


From The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic. Copyright © 1985 by the University of Missouri Press.

William J. Harris: Interview with Amiri Baraka

WJH: It seems that your moving to a longer line in your poetry has to do with a rejection of the white world, of "white music" if you will.

AB: I think it has to do with the poetry since the sixties being much more orally conceived rather than manuscript conceived. The poetry is much more intended to be read aloud, and since the mid-sixties that has been what has spurred it on, has shaped it.

From "An Interview with Amiri Baraka," from The Greenfield Review, Fall 1980, copyright © 1980 by The Greenfield Review; all rights controlled by William J. Harris.

William J. Harris: On Amiri Baraka's Third World Marxist Period (1974- )

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?

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

William J. Harris: On Amiri Baraka's Black Nationalist Period (1965-1974)

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.

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

William J. Harris: On Amiri Baraka's Beat Period (1957-1962)

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.

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

William J. Harris: About Amiri Baraka

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.

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