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Amiri Baraka

The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual

Jerry Watts

Publication Year: 2001

Amiri Baraka, formerly known as LeRoi Jones, became known as one of the most militant, anti-white black nationalists of the 1960s Black Power movement. An advocate of Black Cultural Nationalism, Baraka supported the rejection of all things white and western. He helped found and direct the influential Black Arts movement which sought to move black writers away from western aesthetic sensibilities and toward a more complete embrace of the black world. Except perhaps for James Baldwin, no single figure has had more of an impact on black intellectual and artistic life during the last forty years.

In this groundbreaking and comprehensive study, the first to interweave Baraka's art and political activities, Jerry Watts takes us from his early immersion in the New York scene through the most dynamic period in the life and work of this controversial figure. Watts situates Baraka within the various worlds through which he travelled including Beat Bohemia, Marxist-Leninism, and Black Nationalism. In the process, he convincingly demonstrates how the 25 years between Baraka's emergence in 1960 and his continued influence in the mid-1980s can also be read as a general commentary on the condition of black intellectuals during the same time. Continually using Baraka as the focal point for a broader analysis, Watts illustrates the link between Baraka's life and the lives of other black writers trying to realize their artistic ambitions, and contrasts him with other key political intellectuals of the time. In a chapter sure to prove controversial, Watts links Baraka's famous misogyny to an attempt to bury his own homosexual past.

A work of extraordinary breadth, Amira Baraka is a powerful portrait of one man's lifework and the pivotal time it represents in African-American history. Informed by a wealth of original research, it fills a crucial gap in the lively literature on black thought and history and will continue to be a touchstone work for some time to come.

Published by: NYU Press

Amiri Baraka


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pp. v

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pp. vii-ix

Like my first book, this volume has its origins in my dissertation. I had the great fortune to study political science at Yale University during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The political science department gave me the freedom to engage my humanist sensibilities, an act of intellectual toleration that went against the prevailing tendencies in the discipline. I want to thank my committee of Robert Lane, Juan Linz, and particularly David Apter, the chairman, ...

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pp. x-xiv

In the best of worlds, it would be unwise to call out the name Amiri Baraka in a crowded hall of black intellectuals. To bring up Baraka in a symposium on art and politics is to bring a conversation to a standstill. One of the most controversial Afro-American intellectuals of the last forty years, Baraka is admired, hated, feared, dismissed, adored, and despised. During the height of the Black Power era, many black intellectuals believed that the validity of an ...

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pp. 1-20

A CLASSIC TEXT in Afro-American studies, Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual remains one of the most provocative and suggestive treatments of the political behavior and beliefs of twentieth-century Afro-American intellectuals.1 Cruse’s importance lay in his ability to discuss and situate historically some of the major political and aesthetic controversies ...

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Chapter 1: Birth of an Intellectual Journey

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pp. 21-43

AMIRI BARAKA, THE former LeRoi Jones, was born Everett LeRoy Jones in Newark, New Jersey, on October 7, 1934. The son of Coyette (“Coyt”) LeRoy Jones, a postal supervisor, and Anna Lois Russ Jones, a social worker, LeRoy was raised in a stable lower-middle-class, upper-working-class black family.1 Even though his family aspired to the bourgeoisie, Jones was fundamentally shaped throughout his early years by a rather typical American ...

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Chapter 2: Bohemian Immersions

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pp. 44-84

ON MONDAY, OCTOBER 13, 1958, Jones and Hettie Cohen were married in a Buddhist temple in New York City.1 Jones’s decision to marry a white woman was his clearest articulation of ethnic “outsiderness” and perhaps even social marginality. The marriage produced two daughters. Raised in New York City, Hettie Cohen had come to Greenwich Village after attending Mary Washington College in Virginia.According to Theodore ...

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Chapter 3: An Alien among Outsiders

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pp. 85-140

SHORTLY AFTER RETURNING from Cuba, Jones became active in the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. During one Fair Play demonstration in July 1961, he was arrested.1 Then in late 1961, Jones was elected president of the Fair Play for Cuba’s New York chapter. Spurred on by his pro-Cuban activities, Jones tried to organize a political consciousness-raising group in the Village. Known as the Organization of Young Men (OYM), Jones’s group contained ...

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Chapter 4: Rejecting Bohemia

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pp. 141-170

Only after Jones renounced the Village did his tormented identity as a black bohemian became subject to wider public scrutiny. Perhaps the most apparent indication of his identity conundrum was his decision in 1965 to leave his wife, Hettie, and their two daughters. The interracial marriage to Hettie had evidently been a source of joy and endurable anxieties until Jones began to feel the need to reconcile with the black community. In Jones’s mind, such a ...

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Chapter 5: The Quest for a Blacker Art

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pp. 171-209

The collapse of the Black Arts Repertory Theater provided the impetus for Jones to reflect on the peculiar needs of black cultural-nationalist institutions. BART’s inception and demise became centerpieces of discussions in Afro-American intellectual circles similarly intent on establishing black cultural- nationalist institutions in other locations. At least for the moment, many traditionally educated black intellectuals and artists tried to incorporate ...

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Chapter 6: Toward a Black Arts Infrastructure

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pp. 210-224

ONE DEFINING ELEMENT of the Black Arts movement was its desire to create the institutional infrastructure necessary to inspire and sustain black creative autonomy. Only through black control of an intellectual infrastructure could the Black Aesthetic become a hegemonic tendency in black intellectual and artistic circles. Throughout the twentieth century, Afro-American intellectuals and artists recognized the need for institutions that could support ...

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Chapter 7: Black Arts Poet and Essayist

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pp. 225-258

AS AN ADVOCATE of the Black Aesthetic / Black Arts movement, Jones/ Baraka was quite prolific. It was during this period that he produced much of his work. The plays that he wrote during this period included Jello (1965), A Black Mass (1965), Experimental Death Unit #1 (1965), Madheart (1966), Slave Ship (1967), Great Goodness of Life (1966), Home on the Range (1966), The Death of Malcolm X (1966), Arm Yourself or Harm Yourself (1967), and ...

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Chapter 8: Black Revolutionary Playwright

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pp. 259-290

ALTHOUGH BARAKA CONTINUED to write and perform poetry during the heyday of the Black Arts, his poetry became less significant as drama became his preferred genre. Baraka’s concern for a revolutionary mass art led him to encourage black artists to privilege those art forms most accessible to the broader black community. In 1972, he published the short essay “Black Revolutionary Poets Should Also Be Playwrights.” The essay begins as a condemnation ...

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Chapter 9: Kawaida

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pp. 291-324

I N H I S AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Jones writes that the initial days of his return to Newark were spent warding off despair. Part of this was due to the demise of the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School (BART) and his breakup with Vashti, the young “fly” black woman who had been his female companion since the end of his marriage to Hettie. In addition, shortly before he left ...

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Chapter 10: The Slave as Master

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pp. 325-347

CONTEMPORARY SCHOLARSHIP OF twentieth-century black political formations has documented the historical devaluation of issues pertaining to the specific plight of Afro-American women. Besides the male dominance of black ethnic institutions (e.g., churches, black colleges, black insurance firms, professional organizations), the absence of much concern about ...

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Chapter 11: New-Ark and the Emergence of Pragmatic Nationalism

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pp. 348-373

HAD BARAKA NOT been involved in any other political struggle, his activities in Newark alone would have solidified his status as one of the best-known black activist intellectuals of the Black Power era. His involvement in community organizing was critical to the election of Kenneth Gibson as Newark’s first black mayor. Gibson’s election was considered a momentous ...

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Chapter 12: Pan-Africanism

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pp. 374-400

THE VEHEMENCE OF white resistance to the expansion of the Afro-American civil rights struggle during the 1950s intensified the ethnic-political consciousness of Afro-Americans throughout the nation. During the mid-1950s, black citizens of Montgomery, Alabama, decided to boycott the local public transit system rather than continue to tolerate the racist seating practices on buses.1 That such an action would occur in the very “heart of Dixie” indicated ...

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Chapter 13: National Black Political Convention

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pp. 401-419

AFTER THE ATLANTA congress, Baraka’s appetite for pragmatic political involvement grew. Empowered by Gibson’s successful campaign in Newark, Baraka wanted to give substance to the symbolic unity displayed in Atlanta. Blacks, he thought, were on the brink of a new political moment if only they could be organized. During the early 1970s, such optimism was widespread among black activists and political observers, much of which stemmed from ...

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Chapter 14: Ever Faithful

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pp. 420-443

By 1974 it had become generally accepted by all but his most devout black nationalist followers that Baraka had renounced black nationalism in favor of “scientific socialism.”1 No longer committed to Kawaida, Baraka had become a disciple of what he called “Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong” thought. What may have appeared to be a rather sudden move to the left was actually a ...

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Chapter 15: The Artist as Marxist / The Marxist as Artist

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pp. 444-463

No consideration of Baraka the Marxist would be complete without a discussion of his Marxist-influenced art. Shortly after his 1974 conversion to Marxism, Baraka began to write a series of Marxist-influenced plays, the best known of which are The Motion of History, S-1, and What Was the Relationship of the Lone Ranger to the Means of Production. ...

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pp. 464-480

ALTHOUGH THIS STUDY is limited to Baraka’s political beliefs and actions through the middle 1980s, I do not want to imply that his more recent work is unworthy of critique. But by ending my study with the mid-1980s, I have been able to concentrate on Baraka’s creative life and political involvements during the height of his prominence. ...


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pp. 481-552


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pp. 553-570


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pp. 571-576

About the Author

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E-ISBN-13: 9780814784556
E-ISBN-10: 0814784550
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814793732
Print-ISBN-10: 0814793738

Page Count: 592
Publication Year: 2001

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Baraka, Amiri, -- 1934-2014 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Blacks in literature.
  • Blacks -- Intellectual life.
  • Politics and literature -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • African Americans -- Intellectual life -- 20th century.
  • African Americans -- Politics and government.
  • Baraka, Imamu Amiri, 1934- -- Political and social views.
  • African Americans in literature.
  • Blacks -- Politics and government.
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