Autobiography of LeRoi Jones, The

by Amiri Baraka
   With rarely other than liveliest eloquence, The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones offers a full, busy, life-and-times of leroi jones/amiri baraka, one of Afro-America’s literary and cultural lead players. It has come to rank with other key works of modern black U.S. life-writing, such as Richard Wright’s Dixie-to-Chicago Black Boy (1945) and posthumous American Hunger (1977), Chester Himes’s itinerant self-history The Quality of Hurt (1972) and My Life of Absurdity (1976), James Baldwin’s Bible-cadenced Notes of a Native Son (1955), the epochal Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), the five-volume portrait begun in Maya Angelou’s Gather Together In My Name (1974), and Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982). As for Jones/Baraka and a career spanning his Newark, New Jersey, origins, Harlem, Cuba, and Africa, leaving him not only at the forefront of postwar U.S. writing but the era’s race-andclass politics, he can be said to have had abundant grounds for speaking of his life as the negotiation of “a maze of light and darkness.”
   In his introduction to the 1997 edition, Jones/ Baraka confirms that his text met with a tangled compositional and then publishing history. The “last writing” ended in 1974. The manuscript languished and when eventually published in 1984 was made subject to unwanted editorial cuts. The 1997 version not only restores most of the original but, in the light of his transitions from Greenwich Village–Beat literary bohemian to black nationalist to Marxist–Leninist, inserts passing Marxist commentaries on the life history to date. In this respect he regards this version as “the first complete edition of The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones.” “White nationalism is the dominant social ideology” runs an early observation in the introduction, a foretaste of the tone to follow. He speaks of his own early temptation toward becoming a “white-minded Negro,” his rancor at the first marriage with the white, Jewish hettie jones, whom he accuses of telling “self-legitimizing martyr stories,” and his early move into and then out of “White Village socialization (the Beat thing).” Once launched into The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones proper, for the most part he follows the historical trajectory of his life. Newark supplies the originating site: his postal-supervisor father and the family links to the funeral business; his schooling— the fights, gangs, race lines, and black street; radio and comic-book heroes; athletics; and the early and presiding fascination with blues (“our poem of New World consciousness”) and jazz (“the music took me to places I’d never been”). In these accounts, as in the rest of The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones, he writes as a mix of memorial prose– poem, black vernacular slang, and frequent riffs of image and rap.
   In remembering his move to the Newark campus of Rutgers University, then two years at Howard (“We were not taught to think but readied for super domestic service”), with his follow-on stint as a gun–weatherman in the air force (“disconnection and isolation”) and from which he was “undesirably discharged” on grounds of suspected communism, he conjures up his passionate jags of reading, Dostoyevsky to Joyce, Dylan Thomas to Henry James. His return to Newark leads directly into the “hip bohemianism” of Greenwich Village. There, his recollections alight on the flurry of new self-awakenings and affairs (“I was like blotting paper for any sensation”). He thinks back with some affection to hanging-out at Pandora’s Box and his own writing and art energies amid such names as charles olson, frank o’hara, ted joans, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, allen ginsberg, and diane di prima, with whom he cofounds the magazine Yugen. He summons an unrelenting circuit of small magazines, literary gatherings, readings, scrapes, dope, and drinks parties. His jazz interests, of necessity, persist: the sets and recordings by Coltrane, Parker, Gillespie, Mingus, and Davis; venues like The Five Spot; and his own notes for cover sleeves and reviews. He marries Hettie Cohen. In 1961 he sees the publication of preface to a twenty volume suicide note as his first-ever collection.
   The “Friends of Cuba” trip with other black writers and notables in 1960, however, in which he witnesses the attempt to forge a socialist order and meets Castro, deepens a “growing kernel of social consciousness” and becomes “a turning point in my life.” The resulting transition into Black Nationalism, he recalls, coincides with a simply prodigious literary outpouring, notably the play dutcHman, the poetry of The Dead Lecturer and Black Magic, musicology of Blues People and Black Music, and the critique of Home: Social Essays, which includes the essay “cuba libre.” The same brand of nationalism leads to the abrupt departure from Greenwich Village and Hettie Jones for Harlem, his role in Black Arts Theater, the affiliation and splits with Ron Karenga, the FBI harassment and gun charges, the marriage to Sylvia Robinson/ Amina Baraka, and a two-years-later return to Newark. In the light of the 1965 assassination, “Malcolm, Malcolm, semper” becomes his mantra. His home city (“my view was that Newark should be a model for the country”) has since remained his base. Its politics span Kenneth Gibson’s mayoral campaign—an administration he indicts for its failure to make good on its promises, on education ventures such as the Afrika Free School, and on housing, tenancy, welfare, and other black community issues. In shared vein he looks back to his chairmanship of the National Black Political Convention, held in Gary, Indiana, in 1972, as another “high moment in my life,” even though it would mark the beginning of the end of his “nationalist” phase.
   For, in its turn, the later parts of The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones outline his next transition into Marxist–Leninism, repudiating Karenga’s “Africanist” Kawaida doctrines and “one-man domination” in favor of proletarian socialism. “Baraka the Marxist,” with a self-conscious touch of parody, he calls himself. Throughout he adds citations from the likes of Mao, administers ideological self-reprimands for his Village (“Never-never-land America”) and black nationalist phases (“the deep backwardness of cultural nationalism”), and looks to a revolutionary anti-imperialist and Third World socialist pathway for himself and for the Amina Baraka with whom he has had five children and who serves as a kind of colloquium voice throughout in tackling the world as “a prison for black people.”
   The Marxism–Leninism arrived at in The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones will not be persuasive to all readers. But even those who think it an ideological anachronism would be hard put to doubt the force of mind at work, the commitment and yet the self-interrogation. “Partial evidence” may well be the concluding chapter’s gloss on his life and its contexts. That, however, is not to underplay Jones/Baraka’s encompassing participant– observer’s perspective on his own history, nor the intelligent vigor, the flair, with which he gives it expression.
   A. Robert Lee
   Autobiography of LeRoi Jones, The by Baraka, Amiri
(LeRoi Jones)
(1934– )
   Few writers, African-American or otherwise and spanning the late 1950s through to the present time, can claim quite so diverse or ideologically marked a repertoire as Jones/Baraka. In the LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader (1991) he gives due recognition to his “Beat–Black Nationalist–Communist” evolution even though, he also insists, “it doesn’t show the complexity of real life.” His output has embraced every kind of genre: poetry, story, novel, drama, essay, autobiography, journal editorship, anthology, speech, and a plenitude of nonfiction work from jazz and blues histories to his various critiques of U.S. racism and neocolonialism in Africa and the Third World. It would be hard to doubt that he has been other than a fierce controversialist, hugely articulate in his displays of word and image, and resolute in his political activism. His name, deservedly, figures with those of Ralph Ellison or James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, or Alice Walker, at the very forefront of Afro-America’s postwar literary achievement.
   Born Everett Leroy Jones in 1934 in Newark, New Jersey, he graduated from Barringer High School in 1951, did a year at Rutgers University at the Newark campus before transferring to Howard University (1952–54), and entered the air force (“Error Farce” he calls it) as a weather–gunner from which after being stationed in Puerto Rico, he was “undesirably discharged” for supposed communist beliefs (1957). He started to call himself “LeRoi” in 1952 to distinguish himself and emphasize the French word roi, meaning “King.” His move from Newark to Greenwich Village in 1958 unlocked a long nascent literary creativity, aided not least by the “hip bohemianism” of the Lower Manhattan Bleeker and MacDougal Street worlds and a literary-art circuit of small magazines, theater, film, readings, and parties whose luminaries numbered charles olson of Black Mountain fame, Frank O’Hara as dean of the New York poets, a black coterie that included ted joans, avant-garde dance and music figures such as Merce Cunningham and John Cage, and the Beat connections to Allen Ginsberg, Diane Di Prima, and Gary Snyder. In short order he had cofounded Yugen magazine with Di Prima, in 1958 had married hettie cohen (with whom he had two children and divorced in 1965), and had his poetry appear in a slew of modernist and countercultural magazines; he saw a first collection, preface to a twenty volume suicide note, which most carries his Beat-phase footfalls, published in 1961. His anthology, The Moderns (1963), to which he himself was the only black contributor, confirmed his resolve also to “make it new” in the tradition of Pound, Joyce, William Carlos Williams, Mallarmé, or Lorca. Throughout, as subsequently, and like Langston Hughes, whose attention he was early to win, he has held to a passionate commitment to blues and jazz as the very core of African-American cultural identity above all the musical generation of John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, Charles Mingus, and Miles Davis.
   Jones/Baraka’s Beat-bohemian phase, usually dated as 1958–62, began to close in the light of his 1960 visit to Cuba. That brief stay, written up as “cuba libre,” led as he said to his writings becoming ever “blacker,” not least in the face of Klan and other southern violence, the ghetto implosions of cities from Watts to Harlem to Bedford–Stuyvesant, and the rise of Black Power in the form of the Black Panthers, SNCC, and a rejuvenated Nation of Islam. This black nationalist alignment caused him to leave Hettie Jones, move to Harlem, Islamize his name to Amiri Baraka in the wake of Malcolm X’s assassination in 1965, help establish the Black Arts Theater in Harlem, and move yet further into local community activism. Charged falsely with building a gun arsenal, and with a new marriage to Sylvia Robinson/ Amina Baraka with whom he would have five children, he took up the Kawaida doctrines of Ron Karenga, the imprint of whose uncompromising Africanist ideology can be seen in such plays as The Slave (1965) and A Black Mass (1965). In 1967 he moved back to Newark, at once a site of origins and family but also of the Kenneth Gibson mayoral campaign, tenancy and school challenges, urban renewal and its ambiguities, and overall black community needs and rights.
   None of this slowed his immense literary productivity, whether key verse collections such as The Dead Lecturer (1964) with its rallying poem– anthem “black dada nihilismus,” and Black Magic (1969), his then hitherto most black cultural poetry collection, or his landmark play dutcHman (1964), a stage parable of destructive black–white interface in the circling New York metro, or the fiction of The System of Dante’s Hell (1965) and Tales (1967), given over to the city as hallucinatory pit or inferno, or his major anthology, edited with Larry Neal, Black Fire (1968). Alongside ran an equally fecund body of essay and discursive writing, from the formidable musicology of Blues People (1963) and Black Music (1967) to the razor-keen cultural critique of Home: Social Essays (1966). But his black nationalism phase would also have its day for him. Ahead lay his move into Marxism–Leninism, the belief that U.S. and allied monopoly capitalism operates at the heart of race and class division and requires its own revolutionary socialist counterthrust. That has been his sustaining ideology, the necessary cultural seam, in the poetry of In Our Terribleness (1970) and the Marxist-impelled Hard Facts (1975), the drama of Four Revolutionary Plays (1969) and What Was The Relationship of The Lone Ranger to The Means of Production? (1978), and the anticapitalist political essay–work of Daggers and Javelins (1982). The publication of the Jones/Baraka Reader and The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones, the latter initially in 1984 and then in a restored and marxianized version in 1997, together can be said to give a working overall portrait to date, both man and authorship. Jones/Baraka has long seemed a near writer– polemicist whirlwind, at one and the same time poet, man of theater, fiction writer, autobiographer, and editor (notably of The Black Nation, 1982–86) with, of late, a turn to opera, the accused radical who has faced and has won two important court trials, and for all the grounding in black community Newark, ongoing public intellectual. The controversialism continues, not least the charges of white baiting and anti-Semitism. For even as he has held important university academic and other appointments, his poem “Someone Blew Up America,” written in the wake of 9/11/2001, and his forced resignation as New Jersey poet laureate serve as a reminder that the 70-year-old Jones/ Baraka has lost nothing in the way of the resolve to make his art one of challenge. The Beat poet and one-time Greenwich Village resident seems a long way behind. The black Nationalist, to anachronistic effect or otherwise, may well have taken on the mantle of Marxist–Leninist in a post-Soviet and George W. Bush-led America of the new century. But whichever the incarnation there can be little doubting his always powerful creative vitality, the committed, undiminishing call to consciousness.
■ Harris, William J. The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1985.
■ ———,ed. The LeRoiJones/AmiriBaraka Reader. New York: Thunder Mouth’s Press, 1991.
■ Lee, A. Robert. Designs of Blackness: Mappings in the Literature and Culture of Afro-America. London and Sterling, Va.: Pluto Press, 1998.
■ Reilly, Charlie, ed. Conversations with Amiri Baraka. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994.
■ Sollors, Werner. Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones: The Quest For aPopulist Modernism.” New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978.
   A. Robert Lee

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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