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  • 'The Sweet Meat of My Feelings':The Ghost of Leroi Jones, The Black Maternal, and the (Re)Birth of a Nation's Kweer
  • L. Lamar Wilson

"In the beginning was not only the word but the contradiction of the word."

—Ralph Ellison, "Society, Morality, and the Novel"

"The African-American male has been touched, therefore, by the mother, handed by her in ways that he cannot escape, and in ways that the white American male is allowed to temporize by a fatherly reprieve. … The black American male embodies the only American community of males handed the specific occasion to learn who the female is within itself. … It is the heritage of the mother that the African-American male must regain as an aspect of his own personhood–the power of 'yes' to the female within."

—"Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe," Hortense Spillers, Diacritics

(Warning: This piece recounts graphic descriptions of sexual assault detailed in the works of Jones/Baraka.)

After enduring the murder of Malcolm X in March 1965, a severe beating by police in his native Newark, New Jersey, in July 1967, and the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, LeRoi Jones (née Everett Leroy Jones) made a final and dramatic shift in his poetics and life that had been underway at least seven years. He adopted the personae of Imamu Ameer/Amear Baraka and ultimately Amiri Baraka. These noms de guerre were among many he had chosen during the first half of his life, all of which allowed Jones to shed on the page—in layer by metaphorical, typological layer—the beatnik ideals that had shaped the personal and artistic experimentation he had cultivated over a decade among Eastern-European and Jewish immigrant yuppies, publishers, and patrons with whom he had aligned intellectually in New York's Greenwich Village. Free of Everett Leroy, Le Roi, and LeRoi Jones, Amiri Baraka committed fully to the Marxism and radical black nationalism he had begun to proselytize in Harlem and his hometown, which would intensify over the latter half of his life.

There was much for LeRoi Jones to cast off publicly to become Amiri Baraka. He had been in an interracial marriage to the former Hettie Cohen, a Jewish-American which [End Page 124] produced two daughters, and had sired another daughter, born to Italian-American poet Diana di Prima, in 1962, two years before he was formally divorced and four years before he married his partner for the last 48 years of his life, Amina Baraka (née Sylvia Robinson), with whom he raised five children and midwifed a movement to liberate the souls of black folk from their "respectable Negro" ideologies. He also had documented in several semiautobiographical works—most notably the play The Toilet (1964), the novella The System of Dante's Hell (1965), and Tales (1967), his sole short-story collection—the complex same-sex desire that manifests in brutally violent encounters that characters respectively named Foots, Ray, and Roi have with teen and young adult peers and older men. Fred Moten's In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Radical Tradition (2003) and José Esteban Muñoz's Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009) have examined these intimacies in Jones's plays at length, and most of the past few decades' leading black gay intellectuals, including E. Patrick Johnson, Robert Reid-Pharr, Ron Simmons, and Darieck Scott, have unpacked the homophobia throughout the aforementioned works, particularly his fiction.1 I focus in this essay, then, on Jones's poetics—both in lineated poems and lyrical prose—and I parse the sonic, metaphysical, sociopolitical, and linguistic choices that Jones crafts into his speakers' mouths and narratives. As I constellate my own interventions in black queer studies, I resurrect the nominalism kweer2, the Middle English term for foreign cantors (primarily of Jewish descent) in the young Christian church, to reanimate the proverbially dead personae of LeRoi Jones. These speakers and characters are all but forgotten, I argue, because they are male survivors of sexual assault who not only challenge the discourse that paints Baraka as an anti-Semitic homophobe but also flout a widely...