Amiri Baraka's poems from the late 1950s and early 1960s came out of his association with the multi-racial, bohemian avant-garde centered upon New York's Greenwich Village. But in a change that Baraka has identified as culminating with the assassination of black leader Malcolm X in 1965, he moved to Harlem, in uptown Manhattan, and subsequently to his hometown of Newark. With this move his writing focused upon his desire to separate himself from what he came to see as a bohemian culture that was self-indulgent and apolitical, to root his writing in his own black experience and the suffering of the black community, and to advocate radical measures to alleviate that suffering. This move towards Black Nationalism, which led in 1967 to his discarding the name LeRoi Jones and taking up his Muslim name, is traced in Black Magic, his third book of poems. These poems, from a figure who had become well known in 1964 for his Obie Award-winning play Dutchman, made Baraka a major influence upon a future generation of black writers in the 1960s, pointing the way to a writing rooted in ethnic experience - an influence that has been compared to the impact 40 years earlier of the Harlem Renaissance. The poems are characterized by anger at white oppression and hypocrisy, a call to action - often to violence - and a demand for pride in the beauty and the potential of a free black America. While not denying the influence of these poems, some, mostly white, critics echoed Kenneth Rexroth's complaint that a promising poet had succumbed to a rhetoric that had become increasingly undisciplined.
The volume opens with Baraka's short prose essay, "An Explanation of the Work," in which he explains his division of the book into three parts: Sabotage, Target Study, and Black Art. In the first, he wants to see fall "the superstructure of filth Americans call their way of life." The second is more specific study, "less passive," and more "like bomber crews do [to] the soon to be destroyed cities" (the "targets" include President Johnson and the Vietnam War). The third section is "the crucial seeing, the decisions, the actual move." His subsequent work, the poet explains, writing this "Explanation" in 1968, has gone on to be more "spiritual."
Baraka's study of black music, and his claim in the 1960s that in music the American negro had made his only original contribution to art, is reflected in the longer line that he uses in this book than in his earlier poems, and in the multiple rhythms, and chant-like phrases which build one upon one another. The stanzas fill the space on the page in various and unpredictable patterns and directions. These musical parallels reinforce his sense of the poem as part of a sacred ritual, bringing the community together in a set of shared beliefs, for that community's mutual understanding and protection. "Sacred Chant for the Return of Black Spirit and Power" is one example of these features. In a number of other poems in the volume this sense of the sacred is contrasted with what the poems denounce as the oppressive white religions of Christianity and Judaism. Akin to these white religions is the oppressive power of white popular culture. A number of poems condemn the role models offered by Hollywood and by national television shows, and the denial of physical fact as well as cultural heritage by blacks who see the figures of white popular culture as figures to copy. (An example is "Poem for HalfWhite College Students").
In this book Amiri Baraka is thus putting white culture behind him, as well as the identity of LeRoi Jones. A number of poems bear titles echoing well-known texts by white writers, the poems appropriating the titles for their own purposes. Examples are "Babylon Revisited," "Return of the Native," and "David Copperhead," while "Citizen Cain" extends the practice to film. More generally, the legacy of Byron, Kipling, and Eliot is disowned in "The Bronze Buckaroo," the poem that ends section I. But the most important transformation recorded in the volume is that of the poet himself. He wants to serve the future by changing his legacy. The poem "leroy" asserts:
When I die, the consciousness I carry I will to black people. May they pick me apart and take the useful parts, the sweet meat of my feelings. And leave the bitter bullshit rotten white parts alone.
In the prose paragraphs of "Gatsby's Theory of Aesthetics," he affirms that he writes "to invest the world with a clearer understanding of it self, but only by virtue of my having brought some clearer understanding of my self into it."
Despite the criticism that the white bohemian avant-garde receives in the volume, the style of many of the poems is a more vigorous and angry, and obscene, version of the line developed most famously by Allen Ginsberg in "Howl." Ginsberg is singled out in particular in "Western Front," as representative of the apolitical, self-indulgent bohemianism that Baraka wants to separate himself from. The long line, cataloguing through apparently spontaneous random examples the characteristics of a culture, its contradictions and hypocrisies, was as well suited to the oral directness, multiple shifts of tone and rhythm, and breaking of established poetic conventions of Baraka as of the poet of "Howl." But where Ginsberg's poems call for a change in consciousness, Baraka's call not only for this but also for the violence that he feels is the only way to achieve it. Thus a poem early in the volume, "A POEM SOME PEOPLE WILL HAVE TO UNDERSTAND" ends with the call, "Will the machinegunners please step forward?" The "Black Art" section begins with "SOS," a poem which makes the urgency explicit, while the volume ends with "Black People!" a post-1966 poem that Baraka says he added "cause I felt like it." This poem identifies the necessary communal act for the "we" who are addressed to be the killing of the "white man" and the remaking of a world fit for the future of black children:
We must make our own World, man, our own world, and we can not do this unless the white man is dead. Let's get together and killhim my man, let's get to gather the fruit of the sun, let's make a world we want black children to grow and learn in do not let your children when they grow look in your face and curse you by pitying your tomish ways.
In 1974, five years after the publication of this volume, Baraka came to regard his Black Nationalist position as itself unproductively racist, and taking up a Marxist perspective his concerns broadened to treat economic and political oppression outside of exclusively racial terms. But, as he noted in a "Preface to the Reader" for the 1991 LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, commenting upon his comparative lack of visibility after the 1960s, "it was easier to be heard from with hate whitey than hate imperialism!" (p. xiii).
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