As the car carrying PW's interviewer proceeds through Newark, N.J.'s black neighborhoods, one recognizes many of the street names--Hillside, Central Avenue, Newark Street--that crop up in Amiri Baraka's fiction. It's not surprising; Baraka's writing has always been characterized by the habitual retelling of his life's story--his intellectual and emotional development; his conflicts and his strident, impassioned political transformations.
Born and raised in Newark, Baraka (or LeRoi Jones, as he was known until 1967) still lives in a black middle-class neighborhood not very far from where he grew up. The house where the car stops is large and old and thoroughly lived in. The ground floor is a comfortable warren of light-drenched rooms filled with wood furniture and hung with paintings and prints. Baraka rakes back his long and graying hair as we talk in a small room lined with books. Just as in the photographs of LeRoi Jones from the late '50s and early '60s, Baraka's eyes--wide open, animated and sly--command attention. The writer is short, perhaps five feet, six inches. He's a bit stooped in posture and, as a result of diabetes, rail thin. His dark green pullover and darker slacks hang loose on his frame, but his movements are quick and energetic. His conversation is informally erudite, mildly but comically profane and inflected in the colloquial, hip manner of the black jazz musicians he has written about for decades.
The publication of The Fiction of Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka (Lawrence Hill Books) will introduce Baraka's fiction to a new generation of readers. The book includes the two published works that established his reputation as a fiction writer: Tales, a collection of short stories that includes the surreal masterpiece "The Screamers," and The System of Dante's Hell, a Joycean autobiographical work of idiosyncratic linguistic invention. The volume also includes 6 Persons, an unpublished novella that assembles all the clashing phases of his life into a pointillistic, grumbling, literary self-examination. 6 Persons chronicles Baraka's life up to Malcolm X's murder in 1965, the point at which he broke with the white downtown literary scene (and left his white wife and their two children) and moved to Harlem to found the Black Arts Repertory Company and later the Black Arts Movement.
An uncompromising, albeit cultish and mercurial black political activist, Baraka has radically shifted political ideology in ways that have often left both his admirers and detractors incredulous. After years as an aggressive black nationalist and black arts aesthetician, he became an extreme left-wing Marxist in the 1970s.
Yet despite these political makeovers, his fiction has remained formally inventive, vividly poetic and deeply emotional. Baraka is a seminal American poet, an Obie award-winning playwright (The Dutchman, 1964), a pioneering black jazz critic and a deft literary essayist. His work draws both from African-American vernacular culture (particularly the improvisational legacy of the blues, jazz and black music in general) and the black American literary tradition, with its demands for social justice. He has combined these influences with the experimental techniques and forms associated with the American and European 20th-century literary avant-garde. Baraka's fiction, probably his least known body of work, manages to be both formally difficult and relatively accessible and synthesizes these seemingly antithetical traditions into vibrant works of the American literary imagination.
From Newark to the Air Force
Baraka was born in 1934. His mother was a housewife and his father was a postal worker and an elevator operator. His family emphasized the arts, and at family gatherings, "you had to sing or dance or tell stories or something," he remembers. "You couldn't just sit there, the old folks would think something was wrong with you. 'You can't sing, boy?'" He remembers piano, drum and trumpet lessons, drama class and art school. "My sister and I sang duets."
Small but intense, he was an all-around high school athlete. He won medals in track, played second base, point guard in basketball and was a halfback on the football team. "I love sports. If I had been a little bigger, I would never have been a writer." Baraka also remembers the games of the old Negro Baseball League champions, the Newark Eagles. "We used to go to see them all the time. I knew all the players."
After attending Rutgers ("there was about three black people there") briefly, in 1952 he enrolled in Howard University in Washington, D.C., the pinnacle of black scholarship for upwardly mobile African-Americans of the period. He remembers Howard with a mixture of pride and irritation. His time there is fictionalized in The System of Dante's Hell, in the story "The Alternative" from Tales and in 6 Persons. But he also flinches at memories of the school's stifling propriety and "the whole caste-color-system" that rewarded light-skinned blacks at the expense of the dark. "Petty little bourgeois, middle-class Negro madness," says Baraka.
Baraka tells PW he got thrown out of Howard "a couple of times"; "I was more interested in reading and hanging out," than attending classes. "There were always people jammed up in my room. We thought we were intellectuals and we tried to embarrass the Negroes whenever we could."
Originally a premed student, he switched to literature, studying Dante, the 17th-century English poets and the moderns Stein and Joyce. He praises "some good teachers," like the late poet Sterling Brown, who grounded him in both European classics and in black American culture, particularly "the importance of the blues; that it was first a verse form and then the music flowed from that."
Kicked out of school (he never graduated), he headed back to Newark and joined the air force in 1954. And although he calls it "the worst thing I could have done," he also admits that the air force was "where I really got most of my education." A weatherman and a B-36 gunner, he was stationed in Puerto Rico and ended up the base librarian. Soon, the library became an informal classroom for "about eight, nine of us, black, white, Mexican. I would order TheHistory of Western Music and each night there would be something else we would listen to, say, 'Well, what do they mean by counterpoint? Oh, that's what it is.'"
And books. "All kinds of books, man--we read Proust in there, all kinds of wild shit that I would never have read--Thomas Hardy, whatever. We'd read the whole New York Times bestseller list, which was BS like it is now, though I think it was a higher level of bull then. I remember this fellow saying, 'What's a Kafka?' I said I don't know what a Kafka is. Order it. Then we'd spend a week reading Kafka. We actually taught ourselves a great deal."
He was also writing poems and sending them to the New Yorker, the Kenyon Review, the Sewanee Review and the Hudson Review. "I would send them all out and they would come back quick. I should have saved those rejections."
In the end, though, Baraka was kicked out of the air force, too. He had too many books in his room--airmen were allowed to have only the Bible and one book--and among them was The Communist Manifesto. "Someone said I was a Communist. As it turned out, 40 years later, now it's true," says Baraka laughing.
Discharged from the service, he returned to Newark in 1957, "determined to go to New York." He got a job at the Gotham Book Mart on West 47th Street and moved into an apartment on East 3rd Street in the East Village, "$28 a month for three rooms, no heat. I remember my mother wept when she dropped me there because the place was so shabby." He married the writer and poet Hettie Cohen in 1958, and they began publishing Yugen, an underground literary magazine devoted to the work of other poet luminaries of the beat generation. (Baraka remarried after leaving that marriage; he now has seven children with the poet Amina Baraka).
By the early 1960s, he was reading at different places in the Village, and had published his first volume of poetry, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, and his first works of jazz criticism (including Blues People and Black Music, two noted critical histories of blues and jazz). He knew the beat scene and other notable writers of the period: "I met [poet] Jack Micheline down in the Village. Allen [Ginsberg] was in Paris. I sent him a letter on toilet paper asking was he for real. He sent me a letter back on better toilet paper saying that he was tired of being Allen Ginsberg. Allen and I were friends after that."
At the time, he was trying to free his poetry from the influence of Robert Creeley and Charles Olson. "I decided I would consciously write another way. So I decided to put what I was writing about in my mind as a visible focus, but just write spontaneously off that image." He also let the line of his poetry extend across the page. "Other poets had a tendency to write a short, terse, well-defined kind of line," Baraka explains. "Once I let go of that preconception about the line, I found that the ideas that I wanted to talk about but couldn't, would come out, just flow out. I don't know if I consciously wanted to write fiction. It became that." The result was an extended, prosaic line of verse that prefigured the style of Dante's Hell and 6 Persons, which was written in 1973-1974.
While his work is admittedly autobiographical, Baraka says the books are not an extended memoir. "You take your life and talk about it any way that you can get into it. Some of it's fiction, some of it's like illusion, some of it's would-be, never-be and added-on-to. Some of it's literal. But it's fiction in the sense that it ain't happen like that. It's not linear. It's all kind of ways. Back and forth and up and down; reflections. The mind works like that if it's not put into the straitjacket of trying to recall literally what happened. Ultimately, what you try to get is what was the feeling of that period, what was the emotional charge of that period."
The language in these works is complex, allusive and fragmentary, like thought, but it is also emotional, capturing the raw vernacular of those times, and Baraka's characterizations of whites, homosexuals and Jews will no doubt offend all three groups. "People will jump on me about it," Baraka says. "I was going to make it politically correct, but looking at it, I thought, 'Well, that was then.' I certainly would not have described certain things that way now. In my wild mind that was the way I saw those things. I know some of it is very abrasive."
"I never wanted my fiction to be formal American literature because that's boring to me," Baraka says. "While this stuff might be more difficult, it's much more interesting to write." Surprisingly for such a pivotal literary figure, he has three unpublished novels, written since the 1970s, all in the same streaming, hallucinatory, machine-gun-paced syntax. Baraka shrugs. "The editor of 6 Persons said, 'I can't read that. Why don't you write something clear like Dante?' I said, 'What? A few years ago you told me Dante was unreadable.'"
Baraka has had a long and idiosyncratic publishing career. "My relationships with publishers haven't been great," he says. He declines to talk about his editors. His longest publishing relationship was with William Morrow, but he has also been published by Grove Press, Third World Press, Doubleday, Bantam and Thunder's Mouth Press. The Italian publisher Marsilio is currently publishing his poetry and will publish a collection of essays on music later this year. He is represented by Sterling Lord Literistic.
"I'm going to try and get some books published by major publishers and continue to do my own publishing," Baraka says. "I've published a lot of my own works." The unpublished novels include Burning Mirror ("It will give you the mood of the late '70s and the political shenanigans going on"); Why Are You Saying This ("a book about the rise of the buppie, the Negro academic"); and Negrocity ("an overview of all the backwards Negroes I've ever known"). There is also a book of short stories called Tales of the Out and the Gone. And Third World Press is publishing a nonfiction work, Jesse Jackson and Black People, sometime this year.
"Wherever I speak," says Baraka, "I always urge that writers publish their own writing. Don't wait for these people [corporate publishers] to discover you, they're only going to try and turn you into them. Get your own galleries, get your own venues. You've got to have an alternative superstructure to this one, an alternative to this commercial culture."