Amiri Baraka is unarguably one of the best black revolution leaders who expressed their ideas through works of literature. His poems and other pieces of literature have stood the test of time and are still held in awe worldwide among literary circles. His great styles of writing and controversial ways of putting across the black revolution message have led to him being even compared to great black revolution poets such as Langston Hughes (Baraka, 282). Amiri Baraka writing style in his poetry experienced notable changes during different phases of his life. From the beat phase to the Islamic phase, Amiri Baraka's use of colors and vernacular language changed significantly.
The use of colors in a symbolic way is evident in both the beat and Islamic phase. Amiri Baraka has used colors to symbolically pass along a particular message according to the period in which the poem was written. In the beat period, Amiri Baraka uses color to talk about the oppression and challenges the black people face in America. The colors black and grey are used consistently in his poems written during this period (Washington, 283). He also uses other colors to symbolize the oppressors of the black people; the whites. However, during the Islamic phase, Amiri Baraka seems to have undergone a conversion. His poetic style changes after his conversion to Islam. During the Islamic phase, Amiri Baraka moves away from using colors in his poems to symbolize black oppression and opts to use them to promote Islamic dogmas and principles such as justice and equality. Islam seems to have provided him with a new sense of purpose in his black revolution efforts; a fact that is evident in the change of the symbolistic use of colors in his poems (Washington, 284).
Amiri Baraka's poem Notes for a speech is one of the most thought-provoking of his poems. It addresses the themes of racism and black liberation. The poem starts with the line "African Blues does not know me..." (Baraka and Paul, 45). The color blues is used here symbolically. It is used to symbolize the shame felt by the people of color of America during the period; shame felt for being black (Washington, 301). Amiri Baraka clearly states that he in no way ashamed but very proud to be black. The poem also in another of its lines addresses the idea of racism. "A country of black and white..." this line is used to highlight the racist situation in America during the beat period (Baraka and Paul, 45). It shows that the country was racially divided into the blacks and whites. In another of his lines still in this poem, he adds "Who you, to concern the flat white stomachs of maidens, inside houses dying. Black..." (Baraka and Paul, 45). The colors white and black are used to show the division between the whites and black. The death of a black man is assumed just to be another normal occurrence which is of no concern to the white people. In his poem titled 'An Agony. As Now.' the symbolic use of colors is evident. One of its lines reads "A white sun in its white sentences..." (Baraka and Paul, 47). Amiri Baraka uses the sun here to signify God. Unlike the previous uses of the white as a symbol of oppression in his other poems, in the poem "An Agony. As Now." Amiri Baraka here uses the word white as a symbol of love (Washington, 303). It is the white sun that offers him the love that has been alienated from him.
In his Islamic phase, Amiri Baraka changes his style of poetic writing. Instead of using colors to write about the problems faced by the black people, he opts to use colors to promote the ideologies and dogmas of his newly adopted faith; Islam. The two main ideas his use of colors promotes are equality and justice. His poems during this phase highlight the need for equality and justice among both blacks and whites. Unlike earlier where the whites are portrayed as evil and blacks as the victims, Amiri Baraka strikes a reconciliatory tone in his poems during the Islamic phases. Rather than just condemning the actions of the whites, he advocates for justice to be served equally among both races, irrespective of the color of the recipient of the justice.
In his poem titled "Incident" Amiri Baraka talk about the death of a man. The death seems to be as a result of earlier transgressions committed. One line from the poem reads "...he died in darkness darker than his soul..." (Baraka and Paul, 56). This goes to show that the man was previously evil and had committed. The use of darkness of the soul here seems to point to point to the whites for all the atrocities they had committed against the black people. The fact that the killer and the murdered man knew each other before the shooting took place seems to reinforce the idea. The theme here is that of justice for the actions the dead man committed against his killer (Washington, 310). Due to the fact that Amiri Baraka style of writing had changed, he consciously avoids specifying which of the two was black or white. Another of his poems addresses the idea of equality. The poem is titled "Ka'Ba". "...we are beautiful people..." (Baraka and Paul, 65) These lines want to emphasize that black people are equal to the whites in all aspects even in beauty. It destroys the myth and thought that black people are inferior in looks to whites. The poet goes on to add that "the ...our world is more lovely than anyone's..." (Baraka and Paul, 34). The world being referred to here is that of the black people. In this poem, Amiri Baraka uses the color black to symbolize beauty and show that black people are equal to any other race in the world.
Vernacular language is another style of Amiri Baraka that changed between the beat phase and the Islamic phase. During the beat period, Amari Baraka is quite vocal in raising the issue of black liberation. Almost all of his poems tend to center on the subject. Too often, Amiri Baraka's poems written during this period consist of vernacular words (Washington, 347). It has been suggested that the use of vernacular in the poems during this period points to the fact that the poet wants to closely associate himself with the nations he talks of; the black and white nations. Amiri Baraka in his beat phase poems uses vernacular such as in "Wise 1" where he says that '... who ban your omm boom ba boom...' (Baraka and Paul, 87). This use is aimed at creating awareness of the black cultural practices.
However, this soon changes during the Islamic phase after his conversion to Islam. In his latter poems, there is the sporadic use of vernacular words. His poems now contain fewer colloquial words than before (Washington, 340). The reason for this might be because, after his conversion to Islam, Amiri Baraka sees himself as a kind of spiritual leader for the black people. He advocates mainly for justice during this period and to reach greater audiences in his quest; he opts to cut down on the use of vernacular in his poetry.
However, it is important to note that the use of vernacular in poems during the beat period is not an exclusive style to Amari Baraka. On the contrary, it is a conventional stylistic device for African-American poets during the beat phase (Smethurst, 45). In a broader perspective, it is a common style for all African-American people in general. During this period, black poets formed groups that championed the use of vernacular to put across their political messages and other issues. A good example of such a group of writers would be the Harlem Writers Guild which consisted of great and influential poets like Maya Angelou. However, if there is a poet who gave the single largest contribution to the use of vernacular, then that poet is Amiri Baraka. His collection of poems titled Black Magic Poetry contain extensive use of vernacular (Smethurst, 56). The use of vernacular was encouraged among black awareness poets during the beat phase to enlighten other communities on the expression of cultural viewpoints and differences.
Baraka, Amiri. The autobiography of LeRoi Jones. Chicago Review Press, 2012.
Smethurst, James. The Black Arts Movement: Literary nationalism in the 1960s and the 1970s. Univ of North Carolina Press, 2006.
Baraka, Imamu Amiri, and Paul Vangelisti. Transbluesency: The selected poems of Amiri Baraka/ LeRoi Jones (1961-1995). Marsilio Pun, 1995.
Washington, Robert E. The ideologies of African-American Literature: From the Harlem Renaissance to the Black Nationalist Revolt: a sociology of literature perspective. Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.
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