Searching for LeRoi Jones, Finding Amiri Baraka


The fact that his name was LeRoi signified something to me. 

There was no Norton Anthology of African American Literature in the world yet; Toni Morrison had not yet won her Nobel Prize for literature. All we got in an early-1980s freshman composition class was “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note.” And the only reason I knew the author was black was that there weren’t that many white dudes named LeRoi Jones—certainly not spelled with an “i” as opposed to a “y.”

There was just something early-midcentury Negro about that name.

Twenty years later, I would have simply been able to Google him. But back then, the university library was my search engine. Not only did I find LeRoi, but I also found Baraka.


The outpouring for affection for the late Amiri Baraka shows that I wasn’t alone. White America might not ever understand our affection for those Negroes we refer to with just one name. And I’m not talking Negroes in the way some are apt to talk about Negroes in the 21st century, but those folks born before black power who were the very embodiment of black majesty: Duke, Billie, Satchmo, Miles, Lena, Mahalia. And yes, Baraka, even as that name became the most distinct marker—other than Malcolm X—of the symbolic break with Negroes and the reintroduction of black folk (Du Bois, after all, didn’t call it "The Souls of Negroes").

As one of the few Negroes in the room as the white creative intelligentsia of the 1950s—Kerouac, Ginsberg, Mailer, even Jane Jacobs—tried to reimagine themselves in a world they had just figured out, Jones would have been perfectly within his rights to simply ride out that wave. But he would place himself in many rooms: going to Cuba in 1960; carrying the water for the Black Arts Movement; electing Newark, N.J.’s first black mayor, Kenneth Gibson; attending the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Ind., in 1972; and being a delegate at the sixth Pan-African Congress in Tanzania in 1974, to name a few. To be sure, Amiri Baraka lived a public life that was as full and varied as that of any artist and thinker of the 20th century.

But life gets messy. Messy often produces great art. And in the mid-1960s, perhaps no black artist was as messy and brilliant and visionary as Baraka. Just look at the words on the page—the spacing, the openness, the gaps, the silences (the parentheticals … )—as if dude was trying to tell us that it ain’t all there yet, but I’m trying to figure it out.

And figure it out he did. And unlike Kanye, who is waiting for some white people who like him to allow him to be his fully brilliant self, Baraka was keen to just try it himself.  So much of the Black Arts Repertory Theatre that was ground zero for the Black Arts Movement, which Baraka was so synonymous with, was that this was about doing our own shit. If you want black art, go out and make black art. If you want black studies, go out and make black studies.


If you want black power … go out and make black power.

And when you consider the genius amid the mess; the definitive tome of music criticism, Blues People; three volumes of poetry published in the 1960s; the play (and, later, the film) Dutchman; and other works of theater and fiction, you’d be hard-pressed to think of another more productive literary figure in the United States during the period. And like those open spaces and gaps on the page of his poetry, Baraka continuously reworked, reimagined and edited his own life.


For those of us on college campuses in the 1970s and 1980s, Baraka was as accessible as a black intellectual could be. Raise your hand if you didn’t see or hear Baraka at least once during Black History Month. And it wasn’t unusual for figures like Baraka, Sonia Sanchez or Haki Madhubuti to spend more than a few hours, off the clock, to answer questions, as Baraka did with me when I was a young graduate student in the 1990s.

The tape recording of our session is long gone by, but there are so many gems from that conversation that stay with me to this day: how brilliant Toni Morrison was as a Howard University student, how important Sterling Brown’s mentorship was to Baraka’s own development, the significance of the last line of James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man: “I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage.”


At the time of our conversation, Baraka was in the throes of a very public dispute with director Spike Lee about Lee’s depiction of pre-Nation of Islam Malcolm Little. It was in the context of that dispute that Baraka insisted that it was better for us to set up community theaters in our basements to present our art than to offer it up to the highest bidders.

It’s a theme that captures the most lasting legacy of Amiri Baraka: As one of the most visible figures of a generation of black radical artists—who did not have full access to mainstream publishers, venues, magazines, newspapers, film studios and television and radio airwaves—he still managed to create art and institutions that reflected the very black communities that were under siege during the period. It’s an example that we would do well to emulate now.


Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University and a fellow at the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is the author of several books, including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. Follow him on Twitter.

Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University and a fellow at the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is the author of several books, including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. Follow him on Twitter

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