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No creative genius was needed to write the scenario, no prophet required to predict the pattern. When, in the mid-sixties, LeRoi Jones’ once cryptic, once-allusive poems started to become more expansive in form and more transparent in meaning; when his tightly wrought one-act plays started giving way to ritual and pageant; when his essayistic analyses of society began to thrust like daggers and plunge like javelins—when, in short, Amiri Baraka began to emerge from behind the identity of LeRoi Jones—the media had it story. Change it, exchange it, rearrange it (what did it matter?)—the media had its story.

The life and literature of Amiri Baraka have been fair game for nearly two decades. Alternately lionized by black nationalists as Imamu (‘spiritual leader,’ ‘Lord’), explained away by the black bourgeoisie and white liberals (Poor Roi’s confuses!),or granted membership in the nether-pantheon of black demons by more reactionary whites, Baraka has received objective glances mostly in passing. In the past five years, the situation has become even more extreme, with support dwindling and reaction fully fueled. The bin in which Baraka found himself in the late Sixties and early to mid-Seventies today approaches a bone-raw stranglehold.

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I can understand that some persons reading much of Baraka’s recent poetry might find it tedious, but I cannot believe that anyone hearing Baraka read it would be similarly included. The verbal cleverness and imagistic tightness which characterize the early Jones poetry work well on the printed page, whereas Baraka’s recent work lives fully only in performance; yet rarely do Baraka’s critics take that fact into account. And if we grant Baraka his current (and long-held) belief that literature should have appeal for the masses, we should expect that work to eschew the sort of verbal, formal, and metaphorical complexity that marks his early writing. An academic critic may or may not be stimulated by such work, but to remark, as [Darryl] Pinckney does in his 1979 review of Baraka’s Selected Poems, that such writing makes for "tiresome" reading is to skirt the important issues which Baraka’s recent poetry raises, not to engage them.

Furthermore, to write an author off as an "agitprop" has a distinctly McCarthyite ring to it. It’s not Red-baiting, Pinckney, [Henry Louis] Gates, and [Henry] Lacey would, I assume, say. But it isn’t, it’s not too far removed from that. At the very least, dismissing someone with a label does not make for very satisfactory scholarship. Initially, Baraka’s reputation as a writer and thinker derived from a recognition of his talents with which he is so obviously endowed. The assaults on that reputation have, too frequently, derived from concerns which should be extrinsic to informed criticism.

It has not been my intention here to argue that Baraka’s recent work is his strongest, or even that it is of equal worth to his early creations. Nor do I wish to argue against either of these propositions. . . . I have, rather, attempted to underscore some of what I understand to be the critical biases which inform the more considered attacks on his writing. Baraka, it seems to me, has become a convenient target of those within the academic (and political) establishment who, often reflexively, and without malice, write off any author whose criteria for literary achievement run contrary to their own. As a result, Baraka’s writing has tended not to receive the sort of balanced evaluation that it deserves. Studying the reception of his work provides signal insights into the complex of persons and publishing outlets that, together, affect literary production in America.


From "Critics’ Jaws, Genres’ Bellies, and Amiri Baraka," in Amiri Baraka: The Kaleidoscopic Torch. Copyright © 1985 by James B. Gwynne.