The Paradox of Experience: Black Art and Black Idiom in the Work of Amiri Baraka

By Roney, Patrick | African American Review, Summer-Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

The Paradox of Experience: Black Art and Black Idiom in the Work of Amiri Baraka


Roney, Patrick, African American Review


One of the perplexing ironies of recent theoretical work on ethnic writing and the ethnic self in Afro-American literature is that work's tendency to exclude any serious discussion of the writer who, perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, sought an art form that would express the radical, singular ethnicity of African American existence. Amiri Baraka, whose explorations and experiments as an avant-garde poet span more than three decades, had helped to establish the problematic of African American ethnicity and of a radical black subjectivity in his role as the organizer and leader of the Black Arts Movement (BAM) and co-founder of the idea of a black aesthetic. This benign neglect, which usually confines itself to a few obligatory remarks on Baraka's lasting influence, is all the more perplexing when we consider that several new volumes of his work have been published in the last decade. (1)

The reasons for the present neglect are several. Undoubtedly, Baraka's outspoken and uncompromising political commitment to black revolution from his earlier days as a cultural nationalist to his present affiliations with Third World Marxism renders him less than palatable to the now-institutionalized study of ethnic literature. However, political stance alone does not deny such a writer admission to the new canon. Of a more present concern are certain critiques, labeled as "postmodern," leveled against the Idea of "blackness" as a narrow metaphysical form of essentialism, which is said to uphold the political and aesthetic principles of the Black Power Movement and its artistic counterpart, the Black Arts Movement. Houston Baker serves as a prime example of this. Although he claims a lasting spiritual kinship based on his own involvement during the decade of the 1960s, in retrospect he finds BAM unable to properly theorize the culturally specific aspects of Afro-American literature and culture because the Movement's artistic aims rested on the assumption that there exist unique aspects of African American creative expression in the form of music and performance, aspects that "lay closest to the verifiable emotional referents and experiential categories of African American culture." Such an assumption led the members of BAM, including Baraka, to construct an aesthetic theory that was based on "cultural holism," which not only relies heavily on the Herderian and Romantic idea of the Volk, but implies an "impressionistic chauvinism" that in the final analysis represents a modified form of intuition; that is, a direct and immediate vision of the essence of blackness. Commenting upon Stephen Henderson's theory of black poetry, Baker finds that his idea of a unique and separate Black Aesthetic simply inverts the humanist principles of an integrationist poetics and then constructs an ontology of blackness that leads to the closure of meaning and, with it, the closure of culture: "For it is, finally, only the black imagination that can experience blackness, in poetry or in life" (Baker 74, 81).

Despite the validity of Baker's critique, what is disturbing about his treatment is the ease with which the BAM and Baraka are classified as an important though underdeveloped stage in the process of creating a black ethnic writing--a process that has reached fruition, we are led to believe, in recent postmodern fiction. Moreover, his and other "postmodern" critiques have a tendency to pass over certain radical artistic possibilities that Baraka had explored with an uncommon rigor, possibilities that have remained unthought and which may, ironically enough, represent a far more radical attempt to articulate a heterogeneous black self than more recent writing that favors the narrative deconstruction and reconstruction of identity in an often autobiographical or quasi-autobiographical style. (2)

This essay proposes to reexamine the central task of Amiri Baraka's poetry within both the period of the Black Arts Movement and beyond. …

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