Islamic Azad University
Central Tehran Branch
Faculty of Foreign Languages
Department of English Language and Literature
A Dissertation for PhD Degree in English Literature
Dissident Subcultures and Universal Dissidence in Imamu Amiri Baraka’s Selected Literary Works
Dr. Alireza Jafari
Professor Jalal Sokhanvar
Dr. Hamid Marashi
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This dissertation is the study of Amiri Baraka’s identity formation and the analysis of his selected literary works (poetry, drama, and fiction) including Transbluesency, Somebody Blew up America and Other Poems, Dutchman, The Slave, Experimental Death Unit 1, A Black Mass, Great Goodness of Life, The System of Dante’s Hell, and Tales of the Out and the Gone under the light of Political Criticism and Cultural Materialism. The researcher puts Baraka’s literary works within material contexts, such as historical, social, cultural, and political contexts, in order to argue that his literary texts are entangled with repressive and dominant ideologies like Neo-Colonialism, Capitalism, and Imperialism. This research attempts to scrutinize the notions of Althusser’s ideology, Sinfield’s dissidence, Foucault’s power, the possibilities of resistance, and subversion against the Western/White dominant power in Baraka’s major literary works. The main focus of this dissertation is on two terms, “dissident subculture” and “universal dissidence.” Political Criticism and Cultural Materialism provide an opportunity to find a formidable relationship between “race” and “class” issues with their focus on “dissidence,” which has been avoided so far in the critical studies of Baraka. The dynamics of the relationship between White and Black Americans, in the contemporary U.S.A., made Baraka’s literary works (produced through nearly five decades) appropriate texts of art for the political study of the notion of dissidence or the possibility of resistance. There are also contradictions within Baraka’s literary texts in that they extend the borders of the dominant powers such as Capitalism and Imperialism. Baraka’s literary characters attempt to gain power and insights into the experiences of the “dissidence,” however, these experiences lead them to reassess their own paradoxical situations. The researcher focuses on Baraka’s language and attempts to demonstrate that the structure of his texts deconstructs the conventions of prose or poetry writing. This research scrutinizes the hidden power structures and meanings, through revealing the negative role of the dominant ideology in identity formation of Black or the oppressed individuals. The researcher suggests that subcultures constitute consciousness; it is an opposing force which contains awareness and fights for its existence. The central argument of the present study is to demonstrate that “dissidence” has been formed within Black subcultures or in “universal dissidence.” Universal dissidence is the ultimate and perfect shape of “dissident subcultures.” In short, dissidence is the product of being within a subculture or a universal dissidence.
Keywords: cultural materialism, dissident subculture, political criticism, subversion, universal dissidence
Chapter One: Introduction 1
1.1 General Background 1
1.2 Statement of the Problem 7
1.3 Objectives and Significance of the Study 13
1.3.1 Significance of the Study 13
1.3.2 Hypothesis 15
1.3.3 Purpose of the Study 16
1.3.4 Research Questions 17
1.4 Literature Review 19
1.5 Methodology and Approach 27
1.5.1 Definition of Key Terms 30
1.5.2 Limitation and Delimitation 35
1.6 Organization of the Study 36
Chapter Two: Political Criticism and Cultural Materialism 40
2.1 Marxism and Political Criticism 42
2.2 Hegemony 51
2.3 Ideology 55
2.4 Cultural Materialism 59
2.4.1 Raymond Williams and the Birth of Cultural Materialism 62
2.4.2 Michel Foucault and the Influence on Cultural Materialism 64
126.96.36.199 The Definition of Power: Traditional and Modern 65
188.8.131.52 Panopticism 70
184.108.40.206 Power and Resistance 75
2.4.3 The Dissident Reading of Literature 78
Chapter Three: A Bohemian Poet and Novelist 89
3.1 Ideological Issues in Beat Poetry of Young Amiri Baraka 91
3.2 The System of Dante’s Hell: An Outsider among Outsiders 103
3.2.1 Challenging the Discourse of Fiction Writing:
Creating a Dissident Voice 118
3.2.2 Radical Unconventional Characterization:
Involvement in a Subculture 123
3.2.3 A Confused Alien in Search of Meaning:
Political and Cultural Context 126
Chapter Four: Cursing the White Race 132
4.1 Baraka’s Harlem Poetry 133
4.2 Trying to Find a New Black Identity 145
4.3 African-American Drama and Baraka’s Profound Role 152
4.3.1 Dutchman: The Circular Story of the White and Blackness 158
4.3.2 The Slave: The Play of Racial Vandalism 172
Chapter Five: Constructing a Dissident Subculture 187
5.1 African American Poetry and the Role of Amiri Baraka 188
5.1.1 Black Nationalist Poetry: Redefinition and Enrichment
of Black Identity 193
5.1.2 Shaping a Black Dissident Subculture 221
5.1.3 Imamu Amiri Baraka: A Spiritual Leader among Black Americans 228
5.2 Revolutionary Playwright: Fighting with the White World 230
5.2.1 Experimental Death Unit #1: Planning a Revolution 232
5.2.2 A Black Mass: The Intense Hatred of White as the Secondary Race 240
5.2.3 Great Goodness of Life: The White Race as a Panoptic Force 251
Chapter Six: Universal Dissidence 262
6.1 Baraka’s Late Political Poetry and the Global Resistance 264
6.2 Tales of the Out and the Gone: Social and Cultural Short Stories 286
6.2.1 “War Stories”: Sociopolitical Matters in America
during the 1970s and 1980s 289
220.127.116.11 “New & Old”, “Neo-American” and “Mondongo”: Marxist Stories 290
18.104.22.168 “From War Stories”: What is True Democracy? 303
6.2.2 “Tales of the Out and the Gone”: Revolutionary Disorder 306
22.214.171.124 “The Rejected Buppie”: Racial Assimilation and Absurdity 309
126.96.36.199 Universal Rottenness and the Appreciation of
Black Music and Culture 311
188.8.131.52 “Conrad Loomis and the Clothes Ray”: Playing with Language 316
184.108.40.206 “Dream Comics”: Etymological Dissection 319
220.127.116.11 “Post- and Pre-Mortem Dialogue”: 9/11 Conspiracy Theories 321
Chapter Seven: Conclusion 327
7.1 Summing up 327
7.2 Findings and Implications 339
7.3 Suggestions for Further Research 348
Figure 1 363
Figure 2 364
Figure 3 365
Figure 4 366
1.1 General Background
In order to get a clear picture of Baraka’s ideology in his literary texts, the researcher intends to begin by Baraka’s biography. Imamu Amiri Baraka (October 7, 1934 – January 9, 2014), also known as Amiri Baraka and Everett LeRoi Jones, the writer of over fourteen volumes of poetry, dramatist (over twenty plays, three jazz operas), essayist (producer of seven volumes of nonfiction), fiction writer (two novels and several volumes of collected short stories), actor, movie director, and political activist, is a unique force in American literature. He is considered by many to be one of the most influential and preeminent African-American literary figures of our time; for instance, Paul Vangelisti asserts “along with Ezra Pound, may be one of the most significant and least understood American poets
of our century” (Vangelisti xi). In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante registered Imamu Amiri Baraka on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
His practice as a cultural activist redefined the role of the modern American poet and playwright. He was best known for his powerful contribution, as writer and theorist, to the “Black Arts Movement” of the 1960s—Baraka is known as the founder of this movement. To mix the open forms of Black Mountain School poetry, the 1950s Beats and with the rhetorical and musical traditions of Black culture; he explosively expanded an urgent and aggressive African-American poetry and poetics. Literary historian and critic Arnold Rampersad recognizes Baraka as the main modernizing influence on Black poetry and names him, along with Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967) and others, as one of the eight writers “who have remarkably affected the course of African-American literary culture” (Harris xviii). Langston Hughes’s example and influence on Baraka was extensive and profound, and these two poets are plainly in sympathy in terms of formal experimentation, commitment to audience, and historical consciousness, even to the extent that Hughes’s “Broadcast to the West Indies” (1943) seems to make possible Baraka’s “SOS” (1967), and Baraka’s “When We’ll Worship Jesus” (1975) becomes a later 20th-century treatment of Hughes’s “Goodbye Christ” (1932). Other impacts on Imamu Amiri Baraka’s literary works include Black music especially blues and jazz music and Black American musicians, and the theory and practice of politicized Black American authors, as well as Frederick Douglass (1818 – 1895), W. E. B. DuBois (1868 – 1963), Aimé Césaire (1913 – 2008), and Malcolm X (1925 – 1965) (Kimmelman 30). As a creative and powerful poet since the announcement of his first poems collection, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961), Amiri Baraka is also considered as a celebrated playwright, essayist, music critic, fiction writer, political activist, movie director, and editor.
Imamu Amiri Baraka was born Everett LeRoy Jones to a lower-middle-class household in Newark, New Jersey in 1934. Baraka’s initial work was published under the name LeRoi Jones. In 1967 Baraka selected the name Ameer Barakat (Blessed Prince), later “Bantuizing or Swahilizing” it to Amiri Baraka (Autobiography 267). He attended Rutgers and Howard Universities before joining the United States Air Force in 1954. His major fields of study were philosophy and religion. He continued his studies of comparative literature at Columbia University. He has taught at several schools, including the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Some of Amiri Baraka’s numerous awards and honors include an Obie Award for his play Dutchman (1964), the American Book Award’s Lifetime Achievement Award (1989), the Langston Hughes Award (1989), and PEN/Beyond Margins Award in 2008 for Tales of the Out and the Gone (2006). In 2001 he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2002, Baraka was appointed to a controversial two-year term as poet laureate of New Jersey. He lived the rest of his life with his second wife, the poet Amina Baraka. Amiri Baraka died in Newark (his birthplace), New Jersey, in January 9, 2014 at the age of 79. His funeral was held at Newark Symphony Hall on January 18, 2014.
Relatively as a result of his capacity for the maximum statement and sense of dramatic timing, Baraka’s work is often seen as belonging to distinctly defined periods, what William J. Harris names as “Beat” (1957 – 1962), “Transitional” (1963 – 1964), “Black Nationalist” (1965 – 1974), and “Third-World Marxist” (1974 – 2014). During the Beat period, Amiri Baraka lived in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and Lower East Side, setting up a name as a poet and critic, co-editing the avant-garde journals Yugen and Floating Bear with Hettie Cohen and Diane Di Prima, respectively, and associating with avant-garde musicians, visual artists, and poets, including Allen Ginsberg (1926 – 1997), Robert Creeley (1926 – 2005), and Frank O’Hara (1926 – 1966) in the 1950s. In his Autobiography, The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka (1997), Baraka described himself at this time as being ‘“open’ to all schools within the circle of white poets of all faiths and flags. But what had happened to the blacks? What had happened to me? How is it that [there is] only the one colored guy?” (Kimmelman 157).
As a Black poet, playwright, and novelist in America then being transformed by the Civil Rights Movement, Baraka felt a growing dissatisfaction with the role of Black writer as disaffected outsider. A visit to Cuba in 1960 initiated a conscious process of politicization, which eventually resulted in a strong rejection of white aesthetics and society in favor of the separatist Black Arts movement (the incidents were among the first ones that persuaded him to establish a kind of Black “dissident and independent subculture” within the United States and a “universal dissidence” within the whole world), which Larry Neal has defined as “the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept” (quoted in Kimmelman 30), although Baraka has identified Black music as being as fundamental to Black Arts as Black revolution.
Imamu Amiri Baraka’s Black Nationalist period was dramatically announced by his refusing of white Bohemian life-styles and his first wife (Hettie Cohen), after the assassination of Malcolm X in February 1965, his following move uptown to Harlem, where he founded the influential Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School, and getting married for the second time with a Black woman Sylvia Robinson (named Amina Baraka after their marriage). Later that year he moved back to Newark where he established the publishing company “Jihad Productions” and the arts space Spirit House, in addition to participating in Black revolutionary politics and politicization. One of his best-known poems of this period, “Black Art” (1966), announces his uncompromising poetics: “We want ‘poems that kill.’ / Assassin poems, Poems that shoot / guns.” For Baraka, the poem becomes a deadly weapon, and poetry—in rejection of W. H. Auden’s well-known dictum to the contrary from “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”—can and will make something happen. Baraka aimed to replace the silent reader of modernist poetry with a charged, thrilled, and articulate audience. His poem “SOS” (1967), both distress call and call to arms, issues an opening salvo to which Black people are asked to respond: “Black people, come in, wherever you are, urgent, calling / you, calling all black people” (Kimmelman 31).
In 1974 Baraka rejected cultural nationalism in favor of Marxism-Leninism as a way forward for Black revolution: “The last writing of this stopped somewhere in 1974, when we had become Communists finally, Amina and I. From there, there has been a whole whirl and world of changes and contradictions, unions and struggles until we gets into 1996” (Autobiography xi). In contrast to Black Nationalism, which he saw as racist, Marxism-Leninism offered solidarity not only among oppressed Blacks in the United States, Africa, and the West Indies, but also among oppressed classes everywhere. About the importance of racism in his life, Baraka stated:
The politics is the underlying catalyst, though. And it always is in all of our lives, were we conscious of it. The fact that I became a Communist is not startling to me, as much of a stomp down cultural nationalist as I at one time was. I was sincere, but I usually always am. The abject racism and economic super exploitation, denial of rights and national oppression, and the imperialist overbeing was pressed upon me even in the eastern city of LaLa Land, “The Village.” It grew, this sense of it, as I grew, intellectually, experientially, ideologically, … whatever. (The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka xi)
Although his “hate whitey” phase was more or less spent, Baraka’s passionate polemic still boiled in his first Marxist volume, Hard Facts (1975). “When We’ll Worship Jesus” exploits Black religious rhetoric while simultaneously ripping it apart, saying that we’ll worship Jesus, “When Jesus blow up / the white house” and “when he get a boat load of ak-47s / and some dynamite.” Baraka, who has resoundingly replaced the hesitant “I” of his early poetry with the collective “we,” declared “we can change the world / we aint gonna worship jesus cause jesus don’t exist” (“When We’ll Worship Jesus”). The intensely musical “In the Tradition” (1982), dedicated to avant-garde jazz musician Arthur Blythe, shows Baraka at the top of his form, hooking together references to the great artistic and political traditions of Black leadership in a loose and exuberant rap: “our fingerprints are everywhere / on you America, our fingerprints are everywhere” (“In the Tradition”).
One of the paradoxes of Amiri Baraka’s poetry, fiction, and drama is the continued power of his literary works, old and new, to stir strong reactions despite their obvious grounding in specific historical contexts. His poems do not grow stale, perhaps because of their outrageous energy and humor. Baraka continued to be a poet of his time, as indicated by the Internet circulation of his poem, “Somebody Blew up America,” written shortly after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The poem is a blasting indictment of white greed throughout history and became controversial because of its anti-Semitic questions: “Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed / Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers / To stay home that day,” and Baraka’s subsequent statement that the Bush administration had advance knowledge of the attacks. Baraka’s refusal to resign as poet laureate led the New Jersey State Senate Government Committee to vote for a bill eliminating the position.
Imamu Amiri Baraka’s political and literary writings have created disputes over the years, especially his support of rape and severity towards (in various times during his long career) white people, gay people, and Jews. Analysts of Amiri Baraka’s writing have repeatedly explained such utilization as ranging from being vernacular utterances of Black oppression to complete instances of anti-Semitism, sexism, racism, homophobia, and that they regard in his works. Throughout his more than five decades of literary career, Amir Baraka has been discriminated against due to the racist and political attitudes.
The present dissertation seeks to closely scrutinize Amiri Baraka’s identity formation (during more than five decades of literary career) and read his selected literary works (including his poetry, drama and fiction) in terms of Political Criticism and Cultural Materialism concepts of power, resistance, ideology, dissidence and subversion with especial reference on political criticism and historical issues. Imamu Amiri Baraka’s major literary works, including drama, poetry, and fiction, that will be studied in this dissertation are: Dutchman (1964), one act play, The Slave (1964), a two act play, Experimental Death Unit #1 (1965), A Black Mass (1966), Great Goodness of Life (1967), The System of Dante’s Hell (1965), a novel that Baraka wrote in his youth, Transbluesency, selected poems from 1961 to 1995, Somebody Blew up America and Other Poems (2004), a short collection of Baraka’s late poems, and Tales of the Out and the Gone (2006), a short story collection. By focusing on these literary works, the researcher aims to analyze Baraka’s identity formation through the passage of time.
 The whole information about Amiri Baraka’s biography in the general background section of this dissertation is taken from Baraka’s official website, his Autobiography (1997), and Burt Kimmelman’s book Companion to 20th-Century American Poetry (2005).
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