Harlem Renaissance

Amiri Baraka, a seminal Beat poet, angry playwright, revolutionary activist and scrappy indie publisher from Newark, New Jersey has died. The Allen Ginsberg Project blog has the scoop. Here's a Litkicks article about Amiri Baraka by Jamelah Earle from 2003.

Please feel free to share your memories or personal encounters with Amiri Baraka by leaving a comment below.


Amiri Baraka, a seminal Beat poet, angry playwright, revolutionary activist and scrappy indie publisher from Newark, New Jersey has died.

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Thursday, January 9, 2014 09:09 pm
Amiri Baraka
Levi Asher

With all this acting experience behind me, Shelton thought I was ready for a crack at the movies. Not Hollywood, just Astoria, Long Island. He got me a part out there playing mob scenes in a picture with Paul Robeson. From that I got a real part in a short featuring Duke Ellington. It was a musical, with a little story to it, and it gave me a chance to sing a song -- a real weird and pretty blues number. That was the good thing about the part.

The rough part, of course, was that I had to play a chippie. Opposite me there was a comedian who'll kill me because I can't remember his name. He played my pimp or sweetheart. He was supposed to knock me around.

He knocked me down about twenty times the first day of shooting. Each time I took a fall I landed on the hard old floor painted to look like sidewalk. And there was nothing to break my falls except the flesh on my bones. The second morning when I showed up at the studio I was so sore I couldn't even think about breaking my falls. I must have hit that hard painted pavement about fifty times before the man hollered "Cut."

I saw a little bit of this epic one time at the studio, but that was all. Mom, of course, thought I was going to be a big movie star and she told everyone to watch for the picture. I don't know if anybody else saw it, but we never did. It was just a short subject, something they filled in with when they couldn't get Mickey Mouse. We'd have had to hire a private detective to find out where the hell it was playing.

What a voice. Rich, dark, sassy, slangy and street-smart. Funny, bitter, bristling with innocent joy. I'm talking about Billie Holiday's voice, but I'm not talking about her singing voice. I'm talking about her memoir, Lady Sings the Blues by Billie Holiday with William Dufty, published in 1956:

We've been looking at some great lost rock memoirs (by Ian McLagan, Dee Dee Ramone and Chuck Berry) lately, and some of these feel pretty vintage today. But the earliest rock memoirs have nothing on the early jazz memoirs for raw authenticity. The best jazz memoir of them all may be Billie Holiday's slender but gut-punching tome, which was turned into a popular movie starring Diana Ross in 1972, but should be read, not watched, for full effect.

Eleanora Fagan was born dirt poor in 1915 and shuffled between broken homes, reform schools and jails in Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York City throughout her young life, She scrubbed rich people's homes for nickels, was raped at age ten, then spent her early teenage years in a bleak reform school on Manhattan's Roosevelt Island, then called Welfare Island, before becoming a prostitute at 14. She liked to sing Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong songs while she scrubbed, and eventually she gathered her courage and auditioned at a Harlem bar.

It turned out she was the very epitome of a natural singer, with amazingly expressive instincts, and she shot quickly to fame. As some actors are character actors, Billie Holiday (the name Eleanora Fagan took on) was a character singer, imbuing emotion and personality into every word, enunciating with a wide range of vocalizations. In her voice you could hear a child crying, an angel humming, a mouse squeaking. Modulating her theatrical impulses with a self-trained instinct for timing and a disciplined command of tonal control, she revolutionized jazz singing, and is still remembered as one of the great voices of all time.

It turns out that Billie Holiday tell stories as well as she sings. Maybe better. She loves to talk, and often hovers above philosophical themes, as when she evokes the Greek philosopher Heraclitus:

No two people on earth are alike, and it's got to be that way in music or it isn't music.

I never forget this wonderful old Spaniard Pablo Casals, who played the cello once on TV. When he finished some Bach he was interviewed by some American chick. "Every time you play it, it's different," she gushed.

"It must be different," says Casals. "How can it be otherwise? Nature is so. And we are nature.

So there you are. You can't even be like you once were yourself, let alone like somebody else.

She wields slang as expertly as Jack Kerouac, and is always amused by her own quirky life, even when life serves her nothing but problems. In this book, she goes to jail early in life and returns over and over. She marries repeatedly, attaches herself to one man after another, and eventually loses much of her self-control (though, from the evidence of this book, none of her self-respect) through severe heroin addiction. But Billie's tough. In the pages of Lady Sings the Blues, she smirks through all the pain, always finding the wit in the situation, as when she is arrested in California.

It was Joe Tenner, boss of the club, who went to bat and called Jake Ehrlich, a famous San Francisco criminal lawyer. Mr. Ehrlich recently allowed his biography to be written. My trial is included in it as one of his "picturesque criminal cases". I thought he was picturesque myself that day when he walked in and got me and John Levy out on bail.

The anecdote at the top of this article about Holiday's attempt to be a film star shows her tendency toward comic self-effacement -- because the short film she's talking about here was no Mickey Mouse cartoon. It was Duke Ellington's 1935 masterpiece Symphony in Black, an attempt to update George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with a grittier African-American jazz/classical synthesis. It's no surprise that Duke Ellington, who could have chosen any singer in the world, chose Billie Holiday for this ambitious cinematic work. You can watch the entire 9 and a half-minute short here, including Billie Holiday's sidewalk fight, followed by her big number and some jazz combo dancing that I like almost as much as Bang Bang by Will.i.am:

As an early pop music memoir, Lady Sings the Blues was written without heavy editorial oversight, and the word on the street is that many of the facts don't check out. The book was "written" via interviews with William Dufty, who assembled the book from their conversations and didn't do any advanced fact-checking. So, these are the stories Billie Holiday told. The artistry is all in the telling.

True, not true -- does it matter? The book definitely tells the truth about what it felt like to be raped at age ten, and then to get blamed for being raped in juvenile court. That's plenty enough truth for me.

Here's Billie singing Fine and Mellow:

And here's Strange Fruit, one of her signature songs, and an extremely intense number:

I love this memoir even though I am not particularly a committed Billie Holiday fan. I'm much more likely to groove out to Sarah Vaughan, who was nine years younger than Billie Holiday and added a smooth melodic touch to the rough-edged Billie Holiday sound. But Sarah Vaughan did not invent herself from the ashes like Billie Holiday, and she could never have told stories like Billie Holiday. It's not surprising that Billie Holiday could tell great stories, as she was also a songwriter (God Bless the Child, for instance, was her own composition).

(If Sarah Vaughan could have written like Billie Holiday, she might have gotten revenge, since Billie Holiday savages her younger competitor -- with a gentle feline touch, of course -- in a couple of amusing scenes in Lady Sings the Blues)

Billie Holiday's life story really was a tragedy, because she lived much of her childhood, adolescent and adult life either in jail or under threat of police persecution. Like Chuck Berry, she was constantly sent back to jail for one mild offense after another (clearly, it was not always safe in 20th Century USA to be a successful African-American musician, especially a bawdy and uppity one with a taste for the fast life).

It's a tragic fact that Billie Holiday struggled for money at every moment of her life. Even when she had it she didn't have it, and she never learned how to handle money and was exploited and stolen from constantly by men she wanted to trust.

The rock singer Lou Reed must have loved Lady Sings the Blues, because his tribute song Lady Day encapsulates the beginning and ending of this book in two succinct verses. First, we see her auditioning at the little Harlem club:

When she walked on down the street
She was like a child staring at her feet
But when she passed the bar
And she heard the music play
She had to go in and sing
It had to be that way

Then, in the short song's second verse, we fast-forward to the end of her life.

After the applause had died down
And the people drifted away
She climbed down off the bar
And went out the door
To the hotel
That she called home
It had greenish walls
A bathroom in the hall

Billie Holiday died while being arrested for drug abuse in 1959, three years after Lady Sings the Blues was published.


What a voice. Rich, dark, sassy, slangy and street-smart. Funny, bitter, bristling with innocent joy. I'm talking about Billie Holiday's voice, but I'm not talking about her singing voice. I'm talking about her memoir, 'Lady Sings the Blues'.

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Tuesday, June 4, 2013 10:18 pm
Paperback edition of Lady Sings the Blues by Billie Holiday
Levi Asher
As Black History Month winds to a close, I thought I'd focus my attention on some of the work I'm familiar with that's either by African American writers, or in some way has to do with civil rights.

-- The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: or, Gustavus Vassa, the African first came out in 1789. It is Equiano's narrative of his life in Africa, his capture and life as a slave. Definitely worth reading. Another book in the memoir category is The Confessions of Nat Turner, told by the man who led the now-historical 1831 slave revolt in Virginia that left 59 white people dead.

-- The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson (along with two other novels by greatly-underrepresented author Nella Larsen, Quicksand and Passing), deals with the phenomenon of black people passing as white and its psychological implications. Only slightly branching off this vein is Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson, a tale of two boys (one white, one black) switched at birth.

-- C.W. Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition is an exploration of life, sterotypes, and a race riot in a Southern town. It's also an excellent book.

-- The Souls of Black Folk, by W.E.B. DuBois is a collection of essays on African American life, that includes, among other things, interesting comments on the phenomenon of double consciousness (simultaneously being aware of who you are and how you're perceived), and the seemingly prophetic statement that the problem of the 20th century is (was) the problem of the color line (this statement was the seed for a LitKicks October Earth discussion, available here). A poem that is related to the notion of double consciousness is Paul Lawrence Dunbar's "We Wear The Mask".

-- James Baldwin's Blues for Mister Charlie is a brilliant play that is loosely based on a real life event -- the brutal lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till (information on Till's murder can be found here). His short story, "Going to Meet the Man" also deals with lynching, but from a different perspective, climbing into the power issues that surround it.

-- A great collection is The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, edited by William J. Harris. Regardless of what you may think of Baraka and some of the more inflammatory comments he's made, this book is, quite easily, the most effective, detailed, literary journey through American racial politics that exists, by demonstrating the path LeRoi Jones took to become Amiri Baraka.

-- Here at LitKicks, we sometimes talk spoken word in the form of hiphop (we even had a couple of discussions: here and here), but I thought I'd focus on a couple of remarkable speeches instead. Malcolm X's speech "The Ballot or the Bullet" is an amazing bit of rhetoric, and is still good, even today. (Text of the speech available here.) Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence" (full text here) is a speech he gave one year before his assassination, and though it doesn't get the same kind of attention as his other speeches (namely, "I Have a Dream"), it's still pretty incredible. Though both of these speeches dealt with time-specific things, it wouldn't be that hard to argue that many of their points are still applicable today.

There are lots of things I didn't mention here -- the poetry of Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Claude McKay and Countee Cullen, the novels of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, among others -- but I thought I'd cut myself off before my post got too monstrously long.

Anyway, have you read any of these works? Do you like them? Think they're important? What do you think about them? Any others you'd like to suggest?

To push this out into a wider question, what do you think about the fact that this literature is often pigeonholed into specialized African American Lit or Civil Rights categories? Isn't it all just literature? Or does making a specific category for writers or subjects based on race make it more likely that this literature will be preserved?
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Friday, February 25, 2005 01:36 pm
Jamelah Earle
Poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) was born on June 7th in Topeka, Kansas. Brooks' family moved to Chicago when she was very young and she remained there for much of her life, later becoming a frequent contributor to local and regional publications and programs. She was chosen as the Illinois Poet Laureate in 1948 and was the first African-American writer to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Brooks began writing poetry at an early age and was first published at age 13. She would go on to write more than twenty books of poetry as well as other books, such as her novel, Maud Martha a look at racial and ethnic identity's impact on day-to-day life. Brooks frequently incorporated her experiences and observations of minority urban life in her poetry as well, as in this well-known poem:

We Real Cool
The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

Throughout her life, Gwendolyn Brooks' work and career was subject to much debate, including the question: did she sacrifice content and style for political statement? Reading through her work answers with a resounding "no". Brooks' use of the modern vernacular, coupled with the head-on approach to many social issues makes her work important and influential, not only to the people she portrayed/represented in her writing, but to other young writers as well. Brooks herself was encouraged by poets James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, and later became a role model and mentor to many young poets through her own teaching, speaking and philanthropical endeavors.

Quote: "Very early in life I became fascinated with the wonders language can achieve. And I began playing with words." --Gwendolyn Brooks (I think we're all glad she did.)

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Saturday, June 7, 2003 01:33 pm
Caryn Thurman
"Hang yourself, poet, in your own words.
Otherwise, you are dead."

Langston Hughes was one of the major voices of the Harlem Renaissance. He blended the literary freedom of American writers such as Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg with the rhythms of blues and jazz, and spoke honestly and profoundly about an unfamiliar America: an America of oppression, of poverty, of struggles, of racial hatred. But his writings did not only depict the hardships of African-American life, they also painted pictures of a group finding its own voice and place in a weird, expanding country that pretended they didn't exist. The work of Langston Hughes brings forth a time and existence that is new to everybody who reads it, and breaks down barriers separating black and white.

Langston Hughes was born under the sign of Aquarius on February 1st, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. His father left at an early age, and Langston was bounced through various Southern towns and cities. While living with a Grandmother he was introduced to The Crisis, an influential magazine edited by W.E.B. DuBois, and he was also taken to see Booker T. Washington give a speech.

Hughes' literary career began formally after visiting his father, who was working as a farmer in Mexico. Though he had published in school newspapers, Langston found his literary voice while taking a ferry across the ancient Mississippi river. It was then, at 19, when he wrote "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," a touching poem conjuring up the images of his roots and heritage, and recognizing all the rivers of the world as one and the same.
    I've known rivers:
    I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

    My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

    I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
    I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
    I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
    I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

    I've known rivers:
    Ancient, dusky rivers.

    My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

"Rivers" was published in The Crisis which led Hughes to New York, attending Columbia University and meeting with W.E.B. DuBois and Countee Cullen. In 1922 Hughes left Columbia University and began working menial jobs around New York, while publishing his work in The Crisis. After witnessing the blues in a Harlem cabaret he wrote "The Weary Blues," a definitive poem that captured the essence of Harlem in the image of a solitary piano player, playing his songs into the deep night.

After traveling to Africa one year (viewing with his eyes the unconscious memories found in "Rivers"), and Europe the next, Langston became part of the Renaissance in full swing in 1925. His poem "The Weary Blues" landed him a book deal, and he published a book of the same name in 1926. He met with the literati of Harlem, such as fellow writer Zora Neale Hurston, who he later tried to write a play with, though she abandoned the project due to ego clashes.

While Weary Blues was well received and praised, his next volume Fine Clothes to the Jew was criticized for being too harsh and negative. People were not willing to look at the darker side of African-American life, and some middle class African-American writers were not willing to be identified with the poor working class African-Americans. After publishing Fine Clothes to the Jew, Hughes would continue to write gritty and honest plays and poems, especially through the Great Depression of the 1930s. His poetry took on an increasingly political tone during this time, and his poems reflect an abandonment of the blues and jazz that influenced his earlier work, taking on a more straightforward and dry tone. His associations with radical political groups in Europe led to the FBI opening a file on Hughes, investigating him for alleged Communist activities. Poems such as One More S. in the USA and Ballads of Lenin probably didn't help much.

During the 30s and 40s Hughes took the time to branch out into play writing and even musicals, such as Street Scene which would be produced many times in several different cities. He published an autobiography entitled Big Sea, which was somewhat overshadowed by the publication of Richard Wright's classic novel Native Son. Hughes also started a series of humor columns starring his Harlem every man, Jess B. Semple, which was collected and published in several volumes.

With Montage of a Dream Deferred, Langston continued to explore his natural ability to combine musical elements into poetry. The collection swayed in and out of different themes, focusing on contemporary Harlem. It contains two of the best-known poems of Langston Hughes, Theme For English B and Harlem (2). It may be of some interest to see how Langston's use of jazz rhythm and sound correlates to the work of the beats, specifically Jack Kerouac's experimentation with what he called "spontaneous bop prosody."

Hughes continued to work throughout his last years, publishing and reading. He recorded albums with jazz backing, read at the Newport Jazz Festival, and wrote a series of books for young children. He was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1961, His last project was a collection called The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers: An Anthology from 1899 to the Present, published in 1969. In this collection he chose to include the first published story by a young Alice Walker.

He entered a hospital on May 6th and underwent prostate surgery a few days later. He died May 22nd.
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Monday, May 26, 2003 12:03 am

Amiri Baraka was born Everett LeRoy Jones on October 7, 1934 in Newark, New Jersey to Coyette ("Coyt") LeRoy Jones and Anna Lois Jones. He graduated from high school with honors in 1951 and began attending Rutgers University, only to transfer to Howard University in 1952. It was also in 1952 when he first changed his name, this time from LeRoy to the "frenchified" LeRoi. In 1954, he flunked out of Howard and joined the Air Force, where he attained the rank of sergeant before being discharged "undesirably" in 1957. It was then that he settled in New York's Greenwich Village and began to be influenced by the art scene there.

Beat Period (1957-1962)

In 1958, he married Hettie Cohen, and the two edited the literary journal Yugen together. Yugen, printed from 1958-1963, published works by Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Philip Whalen, among others. In 1961, he began printing The Floating Bear, a literary newsletter with Diane DiPrima. It ran until 1963.

During this period in Baraka's life and writing, his race was not a central issue. Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961), his first book of poems, show the influences of Ginsberg, Charles Olson, and Frank O'Hara, and contain numerous references to popular culture and his fellow writers. ("Who has ever stopped to think of the divinity of Lamont Cranston?/ Only Jack Kerouac, that I know of: & me." From "In Memory of Radio") In 1960, he was quoted as saying, "I'm fully conscious all the time that I am an American Negro, because it's part of my life. But I know also that if I want to say, 'I see a bus full of people,' I don't have to say, "I am a Negro seeing a bus full of people."' This view began shifting dramatically for Baraka over the next few years, as his race became a central issue not only in his art, but in his life, as he would become an outspoken activist in the Civil Rights Movement and the American class struggle.

Transitional Period (1963-1965)

It is in this period of Baraka's life when he became disenchanted with white bohemia and his race became a bigger issue in his art. In 1963, he published Blues People: Negro Music in White America, part of his lifelong interest in, study of, and writing about black music and its history. The poems from The Dead Lecturer (1964) show the struggle Baraka faced as his consciousness shifted from white bohemian to black political activist. The poem An Agony. As Now., opens with "I am inside someone/ who hates me", and goes on to describe the painful conflict between who he appeared to be and who he would later change into. Another poem from this period, "The Liar", further demonstrates this shift and his consequent distancing from the Beats in lines like, "When they say, "It is Roi/ who is dead"? I wonder/ who will they mean"?

In 1964, the Obie Award-winning play Dutchman was produced in New York, and brought Baraka his first real fame. The play is Baraka's most famous work, and was once hailed by Norman Mailer as "the best play in America." It's a highly stylized drama that depicts the American civil rights struggle in the characters of Lula (a white woman) and Clay (a black man) and their subsequent conversation while riding the subway. Clay tolerates, even flirts with Lula, but he eventually lashes out at her (and the white hipster mentality in general) with a long speech about how black art is created out of hatred for white people:

Charlie Parker. All the hip white boys scream for Bird. And Bird saying, "Up your ass, feeble-minded ofay! Up your ass." And they sit there talking about the tortured genius of Charlie Parker. Bird would've played not a note of music if he just walked up to East Sixty-seventh Street and killed the first ten white people he saw. Not a note!"

Lula ends up stabbing Clay to death, then flirting with the next young black man who enters the subway car, showing that the cycle will continue to repeat itself.

In his autobiography, he wrote about the fame that Dutchman had brought to him, saying that he had realized he wanted to be a voice for his people. "...Even if I wasn't strong enough to act, I would become strong enough to SPEAK what had to be said, for all of us, for black people, yes, particularly for black people, because they were the root and origin of my conviction, but for anyone anywhere who wanted Justice!"

Black Nationalist Period (1965-1974)

After the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, Baraka left his wife Hettie Cohen and moved to Harlem, calling himself a Black Cultural Nationalist, one who is committed to black people as "a race, a culture, a nation." That year he also organized the Black Arts Repertory Theater-School, wrote his only novel The System of Dante's Hell, and moved back to Newark. He married Sylvia Robinson (now Amina Baraka) in 1966, and also published Home: Social Essays, which contains much of his early Black Nationalist ideology.

In 1967, he changed his name again, this time completely. He took on the Bantuized Muslim name Imamu ("spiritual leader" later dropped) Ameer ("prince" later changed to Amiri ) Baraka ("blessed"). He also published his only collection of short stories that year, a book called Tales. He published Black Music in 1968, and along with Larry Neal, edited an important anthology of African American Literature, Black Fire. In 1969, Baraka published a collection of Black Nationalism-inspired poetry, called Black Magic. One of the poems in the book, "leroy", says, "When I die, the consciousness I carry I will to black people. May they pick me apart and take the useful parts, the sweet meat of my feelings. And leave the bitter bullshit rotten white parts alone."

While a Black Nationalist, Baraka spoke publicly about his hatred of white people, though he later renounced the attitudes he carried during that period as racist. In his autobiography, he writes, "We hated white people so publicly, for one reason, because we had been so publicly tied up with them before ... I guess, during this period, I got the reputation for being a snarling, white-hating madman. There was some truth to it, because I was struggling to be born, to break out from the shell I could instinctively sense surround[ing] my own dash for freedom."

By 1973, Baraka began his split from Black Nationalism, marked with the poem "AFRIKAN REVOLUTION", which shows the beginning of his ideas changing toward the belief that racial oppression and class oppression are inextricably linked.

Third World Marxist Period (1974-)

In 1974, Baraka rejected Black Nationalism and announced his change to Third World Marxism in an article that appeared in Black World. In a 1984 radio interview, he explained, "As long as it was a bourgeois nationalist, reactionary nationalist kind of trend--a "hate whitey" kind of thing, during that period of the movement, they didn't really have any problem with that. They might get officially excited ... That is, if you say that the enemy is "all whites" without making a class analysis and showing that there's only a handful of super-billionaire vampires that actually control the society, the ruling class. When you do that and start making an analysis with your art in a forceful way, then they don't see that as a charming commodity that they need like they might need some tiger teeth around their neck..."

In 1975, Baraka published his first collection of Marxist poetry, Hard Facts, and in 1979, he wrote The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka (published 1984), while s erving a 48-consecutive weekend sentence in a halfway house for an altercation with his wife.

In 1995, he published the work Wise, Why's Y's: The Griot's Tale, a book of poems written in the style of the Griot, who were, as Baraka described them, "the African Singer-Poet-Historians who carried word from bird, mouth to ear, and who are the root of our own African-American oral tradition." The poems trace the history of black people in America from the days of slavery to the present.

In 2002, controversy surrounded Baraka once again, this time over the poem "Someone Blew Up America", about the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. Baraka wrote the lines,

"Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?"

and started an uproar, which included the New Jersey government asking him to step down from his position as the state's poet laureate. (Full text of the poem and discussion of the controversy from the Poetry & Politics board can be found here.) Recently, Baraka was named poet laureate of the Newark schools, amid continuing pressure from the state government to get him to quit the state's position. Baraka continues to refuse to resign as New Jersey's poet laureate, and has accepted the Newark position as well.
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Sunday, January 5, 2003 05:20 pm
Jamelah Earle
"It was a time for sitting on porches beside the road ... Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins ... the sun and the bossman were gone, so the sins felt powerful and human." This was the first generation of blacks born free, free from the bonds of slavery but not yet secure in their own civil rights. This was a time of segregated towns, schools, and public facilities. Zora Neale Hurston's 'Their Eyes Were Watching God' could not have occurred in our world of modern technology, political correctness, and civil rights for all human beings and whales too. This novel could only survive in the window of time between the end of slavery and the beginning of the movements for black civil rights and women's liberation.

Zora Neale Hurston began her writing career in the mid 1920's during the Harlem Renaissance but did not publish her first novel until the 1930s at the encouragement of other Harlem Renaissance writers. Much like Janie, her character in 'Their Eyes Were Watching God', Hurston did not receive the recognition she deserved during her life. And in fact many of her writings were lost until the early 1990s when Alice Walker began researching the long lost author and her works. During the Harlem Renaissance women writers were not as well known as the male writers mostly because they were still at this time not being recognized as human beings, let alone educated people with something to say. Hurston touches upon this in 'Their Eyes Were Watching God'. Hurston was often criticized for not being political enough and for portraying her characters as they were in real life and not how white people stereotyped them. Hurston was very outspoken and insisted upon writing about life as she knew it. This includes writing her dialogue as it sounds, allowing the reader to understand that black people have a language of their very own which is distinct and still alive today.

As Nanny holds Janie she tells her of the only life she knows where "de white man is the ruler of everyting ... we don't know nothin' but what we see." Even though the blacks are free, in there eyes the power still lies with the white man, for it is he who monopolizes government and business, who has the power in legislation and who has far greater access to higher and better education. Imagine an African American grandmother in 2002 explaining her views of life to her granddaughter. Her main focus would be the empowerment of the African American woman in society, the workplace, and in marriage. She would encourage her granddaughter to stand up and be viewed as equal to or better than any man despite his race or nationality. She would speak of a multicultural society where a countless number of African Americans continue to succeed in a country full of opportunities. Nanny does not see such promises on the horizon for herself or Janie. Her goal is to see Janie married not for love or for happiness but for safety and security; Nanny asserts "Mah daily prayer now is tuh let dese golden moments rolls on a few days longer till Ah see you safe in life."

In Janie's society the chain of command is such that it forbids opportunity for black women, where they are put of the same level with an animal bred for working: "De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see." Nanny explains the chain of command: the white man, to the black man, to the black woman/mule. In her society the woman's place is in the home, cooking and cleaning. Janie's second husband publicly affirms this when he is unanimously elected mayor of Eatonville and Janie is asked to give a speech as the wife of the new mayor. "Mah wife don't know nothin' 'bout no speech-makin' ... She's uh woman and her place is in de home." Unlike today this comment does not create a disturbance but is accepted as proper and customary. In today's society a position such as the Mayor or President's wife creates the obligation to speak at public engagements. Hillary Clinton went on her own tour speaking at different places across the United States and around the world. Joe Starks would never have such a thing, "Somebody got to think for women and chillun and chickens and cows ... sho don't think none theirselves." Joe is notorious for comments that in today's society have the potential for getting him sued. Yet when placed in the time period just after slavery, such comments were not thought twice about.

The "porch" also plays a great role in the setting of this novel. It is viewed as the hierarchy of their society. Where the elite sit and place judgment upon all that dare to pass by: "They made burning statements with questions, and killing tools out of laughs." It was where their thoughts of the day and its occurrences came alive." Because they were not able to participate audibly at their jobs they saved it all for the porch. Today our jobs are another place to express our opinion, welcome or not. We are not placed in a circumstance where we, at some time or another do not have the opportunity to put in our two-sense. The porch is a place for them to become human again. "So the skins felt powerful and human. They passed nations through their mouths."

If it were not for the unique timing and circumstances of this novel, its powerful statements and character discoveries could not take place. Put in another time era other than the window of time between he end of slavery and the beginning of black civil rights and women liberation would not give it justice. Taking it out of its setting would result in a novel not as moving and as powerful as Zora Neale Hurston had intended, thus robbing it of its beauty and strength.
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Friday, July 5, 2002 11:59 am
Jolee Moffett
Writing about Zora Neale Hurston is a bit of a challenge. She began publishing her short stories in periodicals during the Harlem Renaissance, but didn't publish her major novels until the 1930's. Her age varied according to what she felt like saying at the time. She was bold and outspoken at a time when it wasn't considered proper, particularly for a woman, and even more so for an African-American woman. In general she was fiercely independent, and didn't feel obligated to live by anyone's standards or give information about herself that she didn't feel like giving.

According to Hurston she was born on January 7th, 1901 in Eatonville, Florida, but researchers have found her actual birth to have been in 1891, in Notasulga, Alabama. She did move to Eatonville at a very early age however, where her father became a minister and later on the mayor. Eatonville was an all black incorporated town, and inspired the setting for her first novel, "Jonah's Gourd Vine" (1934). At an early age Zora's mother died, and Zora felt she had failed her mother by not successfully completing her last request, which was to not allow a certain folk custom to take place at her death bed. When Hurston's father remarried, Zora took an immediate dislking to her new stepmother, and began to travel with a theatre company. She moved to Baltimore afterwards to finish high school, and then began to attend college, where her first short story was published. In 1925 she published in Opportunity magazine, and decided to move to Harlem upon encouragement from Harlem Renaissance figureheads such as Alain Locke and Langston Hughes.

It was during this time that she began to study Anthropology, specializing in folk customs and folklore. She traveled through the South collecting information and stories from the people who lived there, which provided the basis for not only her fictional works, but for Anthropological writings such as "Mules and Men" (1935), and "Tell My Horse" (1938).

Before her first novel was published, Zora Neale Hurston co-wrote a play with Langston Hughes, until she allegedly grew tired of his attempts to steal all the credit and dominate the play. The publication of "Jonah's Gourd Vine" revealed the truly unique style of Hurston: the beautifully musical-poetic style, the use of southern vernacular, and the depiction of southern rural life (and it's folk customs) all came into play in this novel. She elaborated in this style for her most popular novel, "Their Eyes Were Watching God" (1937), which has since become a classic and required reading for many High School English classes, and Women's Literature classes as well. It tells the story of a woman and her coming of age in the somewhat oppressive rural America. Two fictional works followed, including "Moses, Man of the Mountain" (1939) in which the Old Testament was brought to life in the American south, and "Seraph in the Suwanee" (1948).

Aside from these, Hurston published an autobiography called "Dust Tracks on a Road" (1942). By the time of Hurston's death in 1960, her fame had sunk into obscurity. She was working as a maid, and hadn't published since 1948. It would be 14 years until her rediscovery, which was aided by an essay written by up-and-coming writer Alice Walker, called "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston". Her play with Langston Hughes, "Mules and Men", was finally published in 1991.

Hurston has always been the subject of much criticism. She was criticized as not being political enough by Richard Wright, and she has been criticized for not having any good male characters in her books. She wrote about life as she saw it, and was adament about not portraying African-Americans stereotypically or in the fashion accepted by white people at the time. It is perhaps because of her honesty and the beauty of her writings that she has made this resurgence in modern literary studies.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2002 10:51 pm
Richard Wright's 'Native Son' is classic protest literature. It ranks alongside great works like 'Grapes of Wrath' by John Steinbeck. It is a book with an agenda, but it expresses a deep sympathy for humanity. It is Richard Wright's most celebrated work (though his autobiography 'Black Boy' has also won many readers) because of it's power and strength.

Richard Wright was not directly associated with the Harlem Renaissance, mainly because he did not live in New York in the 20s and didn't publish and major works until much later. Born on September 4, 1908, he spent his early years on a plantation with a family stricken by poverty. He lived in Mississippi until the age of 6 when his family relocated to Memphis, Tennessee. Not long after, Wright's mother fell ill and they moved to Jackson, Mississippi to live with his grandmother. He attended public schools and even spent a few years at a Seventh Day Adventist school. He published his first story in a small local paper in 1924. The story was called 'The Voodoo of Hell's Half Acre'.

After working a series of menial jobs, Richard moved by himself to Chicago to work for the Post Office. The Great Depression rolled along and relieved him of his duties here. The Depression also led to his involvement with the Communist Party, and he soon began to write articles for the Daily Worker and other Communist publications. His first major publication was of his story 'Superstition' in Abbot's Monthly.

Writing for the Daily Worker led him to New York where he became the Harlem Editor. He also worked on a short-lived literary publication that yielded some excellent stories that were collected in a book entitled 'Uncle Tom's Children' in 1938. The next year he received the Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him the ability to complete his novel 'Native Son' and publish it in 1940.

'Native Son' tells the story of Bigger Thomas, an African American who murders a white woman. The crime that Bigger didn't actually mean to commit leaves him feeling alive for the first time; he has broken free from a meaningless existence and done something that has caused a reaction. The astounding portrayal of Bigger is still shocking. When reading 'Native Son' we feel the violence, anger, confusion and feeling of entrapment inside this character. The novel does slip however, under the overbearing Communist propaganda that Wright so enthusiastically wrote into the novel's courtroom trial section.

In 1941 Richard Wright married another member of the Communist Party, after an unsuccessful marriage to a dancer in 1939. He had two daughters from this marriage, one in 1942 and the second in 1949.

In 1944 Richard Wright grew tired of Communism and broke his ties with the party, moving to Paris and becoming yet another in the long list of American expatriate writers (including James Baldwin, T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, etc.) He befriended such great existentialist writers and philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, and produced a second novel entitled 'The Outsider'.

Wright took to traveling and found time to publish his autobiography, 'Black Boy'. He spent much of his time in different parts of Europe, Asia and Africa until he began to succumb to an illness known as aerobic dysentary. During his last years he took to writing Haiku. The poems he produced were gentle and humorous, a stark contrast to the brute strength of 'Native Son'. These poems have been published, with an introduction by one of Wright's daughters.

In 1958 he published his last novel, 'The Long Dream'. He also collected the stories that would end up in his posthumously released 'Eight Men'. He died in Paris on November 28, 1960. His work was highly influential to the civil rights movement, and to many African American writers who followed him.
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Sunday, December 30, 2001 08:51 pm
With the death of Booker T. Washington in 1915 came the rise of a new attitude in African-American art and culture. Racism in American had steadily grown worse, and compromise solutions were having little effect.

It was the combination of African American migration to Northern cities and the radical voice of W.E.B. DuBois that called for a new social order, including equal treatment of races and sexes, and a black criteria for black art. DuBois encouraged African-American citizens to let their talents flow and express their identity and heritage, instead of run away from it or pretend it didn't exist. DuBois also called for literature and art that spoke out against racial oppression and racism. The response came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance.


Poets were responsible for much of the recognition and fame of the Harlem Renaissance. During this time, poet James Weldon Johnson expressed the need for new symbols and use of the English language in the poetry of new African American authors. Langston Hughes responded with a style that was influenced by the free form poetry of Carl Sandburg, Walt Whitman, and Paul Laurence Dunbar, combined with the language and rhythm of jazz and the blues, the music of the Renaissance. Sterling Brown also responded with a similar, gritty style of poetry.

Claude McKay and Countee Cullen preferred traditional forms of verse found in European poetry. McKay was a Jamaican immigrant who wrote powerful and sometimes militant racial protest poems. Countee Cullen was a middle class intellectual whose poetry was modeled after romantic poets like John Keats. Their poems were similiar in form, but their subject matter embraced everything from love to the confusion of being a minority writer.

Women poets of this era did not recieve as much recognition, partly because of the lack of patronage, but also because they were ignored by the individuals who most aided recognition of Renaissance writers, such as Alain Lock (who wrote "The New Negro" in 1925). Some of these poets included Anne Spencer, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Gwendolyn Bennett.

One of the most innovative writer from this period was Jean Toomer, whose major work "Cane" did not fall into any category. Influential fiction writers of the time included Nella Larson, who has been a source of feminine study lately. The satirical novels of Wallace Thurman and George Schuyler were also popular at the time. Zora Neale Hurston was just beginning to write during this time, and even co-wrote a play with Langston Hughes, which was only released in the early 1990's.

With the stock crash of 1929 came the end of the Harlem Renaissance, giving way to the new art known as the Reformation.
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Saturday, April 7, 2001 08:42 pm