- The Different Persons of Amiri Baraka:Collectivity, Singularity, and Becoming-Minor
Now something that you formerly loved as a truth or probability strikes you as an error; you shed it and fancy that this represents a victory for your reason. But perhaps this error was as necessary for you then, when you were still a different person—you are always a different person—as are all your present “truths”.…—Nietzsche (1974, 245–46)
People always say, “Well, what’s Baraka doing now? He keeps on changing.”—Baraka (1984, 334)
…everyone is a little group…and must live as such….—Deleuze and Guattari (1983, 362)
In his texts as in his life, Amiri Baraka refuses closure and takes flight. His career is punctuated by sharp breaks and extreme, often dramatic transitions in form, politics, places and manners of living, even personal identity (successively LeRoy Jones, LeRoi Jones, Imamu Ameer Barakat, Imamu Amiri Baraka, Amiri Baraka). More than just an idiosyncratic predisposition, Baraka makes of this protean flux an aesthetic principle. In his 1964 essay “Hunting Is Not Those Heads on the Wall,” Baraka famously condemns the artifact worship of “academic” literary critics (read: New Critics) and advocates a process-oriented aesthetic emphasizing the active creating expressed in the gerund “art-ing” over the reification of that process in the noun art (1966, 173–78). Art and literature, he proposes, must be viewed as an active unfolding. Contrary to the belletristic desire to seal off a text from history, Baraka’s texts tap into and channel the flows of history, not merely spilling off the page but exploding: his controversial post-9/11 poem, “Somebody Blew Up America” (2002), sounds “Like an Owl / Exploding in fire…/In terrible flame like the whistle of a crazy dog” (2003, 50). Unlike one of his erstwhile [End Page 247] modernist inspirations, T. S. Eliot, Baraka will never be pinned and wriggling on a wall.
This refusal to be pinned down is evident in the wide range of Baraka’s literary output: from his literary debut as a Beat latecomer with Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note…(1961) to his death in 2014, Baraka moved through a series of discrete periods, distinguishable both formally and ideologically.1 After an initial Beat period spanning the years 1959 to 1962 and characterized by a free-verse poetic style and a strident antiformalism that insists on absolute aesthetic freedom (exemplified in his early essay on poetics, “How You Sound??” ), Baraka underwent a transition that lasted until his adoption of Black cultural nationalism in 1965. Works of the transitional period evince a progressive “blackening” of both content and form, the emergence and development of what William J. Harris calls “the jazz aesthetic” (1985); introducing Home: Social Essays (1966), which chronicles these years from a later Black nationalist vantage, Baraka famously writes: “By the time this book appears, I will be even blacker” (1966a, 10). This blackening of Baraka’s work would accelerate in 1965, when he fled white bohemian culture and entered into a Black cultural nationalist period that lasted until 1974; Baraka’s centrality to the Black Arts Movement during this time cannot be overstated. Finally, his most recent radical break occurred when he repudiated Black cultural nationalism in his 1974 essay “Toward Ideological Clarity” and began instead to espouse revolutionary Marxism. Baraka henceforth understands Black liberation in a global context and targets not simply white culture but rather monopoly capitalism. His Marxist literature has continued to exhibit the formal innovation and generic hybridity found in earlier periods, but it is now grounded on a leftist revolutionary politics that invokes a global revolutionary subject.
Given such variety in identities and commitments, it is unsurprising to find negotiations of subjectivity throughout all four periods. In many instances, those negotiations take the form of an introspective but fragmented or divided self, as in the transitional poem “An Agony. As Now” (1964): “I am inside someone / who hates me. I look / out from his eyes” (Baraka 1964, 15). Similarly, the chapter of The System of Dante’s Hell (1965)—Baraka’s first and, until 2000, only published novel—titled “The Eighth Ditch (Is Drama” portrays a seduction...