- LeRoi Jones’s Radio and the Literary “Break” from Ellison to Burroughs
The opening pages of The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (1984) depict a deeply visceral encounter with radio: “I pulled a big brown radio down, also on my head… . Another scar, still there. The radio had a knob missing and the metal rod sunk into my skull just left of my eye” (2). LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) doesn’t make much of the episode—only asking, half mockingly, “Ah, these multiple head injuries … is something beginning to occur to you?”—but its placement at the beginning of his life story suggests its importance. The metal rod does not merely graze or scratch his head, but sinks into the skull, where the scar of the radio remains. Baraka would become best known as a leader of the Black Arts Movement in the late 1960s and ‘70s whose improvisational writing style was deeply influenced by jazz aesthetics. Rather than treat radio as incidental to the distribution of music, however, Baraka demonstrates in his work a deep concern for the relationships that develop among producers, performers, and listeners.
Here I will argue that the technology of radio influenced Baraka’s early style and provided a model for the conflicting voices he portrays in Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note (1961) and The System of Dante’s Hell (1965). Baraka understands radio as an interracial medium, and as such it is a fecund site for exploring his racial imagination during this transitional period. Furthermore, focusing on Baraka’s encounter with sound technology rather than jazz music exclusively highlights his role in a genealogy of media criticism from which he is typically excluded. I link Baraka with the protopostmodernist William S. Burroughs in a lineage that begins with Ralph Ellison’s use of the break, and in so doing I excavate an unexplored facet of the relationship between the Beats and black aesthetics.
As his career progressed, Baraka increasingly came to identify black sound with an authentic racial identity rooted in African traditions. But his attention to early radio—not only as a disseminator of black music but also as a model for dispersed identity and disjunctive style—shows that the “blues continuum” he identified among diasporic descendants is fully immersed in the conditions of modernity. Rather than seeking a return to an imagined originary, integral community, it instead vitally participates in the challenges, opportunities, and contradictions of contemporary technology, particularly the material circumstances of broadcast sound. The recognition of Baraka’s interest in both the future, or “post-Western,” and the “pre-Western” “beginnings of our expression” (as he put it in a 1970 essay, “Technology & Ethos”) matters particularly at this supposedly “postracial” moment when depictions of Africans and African Americans continue to circulate as signifiers for premodern authenticity in a postmodern global media culture.1
Baraka’s early treatment of radio in Preface and System builds on Ellison’s radio-phonograph in Invisible Man to consider technology as both a means of and [End Page 357] metaphor for interracial encounter. Critics note the deep nostalgia that poems such as “In Memory of Radio” and “Look for You Yesterday, Here You Come Today” show toward Baraka’s childhood radio drama heroes such as Captain Midnight, Green Lantern, and the Lone Ranger.2 Yet they miss how Baraka’s fondness for radio participated in the wrenching conflict he experienced, negotiating his identity in the period of transition from bohemianism to black nationalism. Radio, Baraka demonstrates in his work, has caused him to internalize white radio voices, mirroring the process Ellison’s hero describes when he asks his audience, “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” (581). Just as Baraka reconsidered his relationship to white colleagues, collaborators, and influences in the Village following his 1959 trip to Cuba, these works show him reevaluating the interracial communication radio provides. The imaginative boundary-crossing that was effortless to a child, and that he cultivated as an editor and cultural broker in Greenwich Village, becomes problematic. Rather than utterly reject the technological and figurative possibilities of radio, however, Baraka found in the medium’s static...