Though earmarked early as a bright middle-class black boy headed for the Respectable Professional Negro track, Baraka jumped ship to seek out an earthier reality among the lumpen proletariat of Newark's ghettoes. It is this Diogenian search for truth in experience that fuels The System of Dante's Hell, a bildungsroman stylistically like no other in African American literature, but thematically not so different from those found in the most famous works of the Black Novel's big three—Wright, Ellison, and Baldwin.
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Not least of the similarities is the way each relates the torment visited upon young black men stuck between two worlds that had little use and few answers for their schizophrenic psyches. In the chapter called "The Eighth Ditch is Drama," the Jones of the sixties bickers with his adolescent predecessor.
The cadence and mode of address is not so far removed from those found in Dutchman :. You sit right now on the surface of your life. I have, at least, all the black arts. The smell of deepest loneliness.
An essay written in third person
I'm stronger than people think. I'm an athlete, and very quick-witted. Ha, I'll bet you wdn't play the dozen with me. Looking up. I wdn't do that. You'd only make me mad and I'd have to kick your ass. I want more than yr embarassment! Dante's Hell is the book whose creation Baraka credits with the cesarean birth of his singular voice. Joyce's Ulysses is an obvious influence on Baraka's experimen- tations, not just syntactically but in the obsession with viewing the folkways of his birthplace through a consciously artsy lens.
The book also marks him stepping away from the influence of Charles Olson and Robert Duncan.
In interviews Baraka has said Olson's theories of a Projective Verse encouraged his desire to write poetry that spoke about his life and didn't obey the patented gentility of the then-dominant New Yorker school. Duncan's early novels, as critic Robert Elliot Fox has pointed out, contain prose constructions and syncopations that read like textbook Baraka. The role of Dante, whose Inferno Baraka studied extensively at Howard, lies in providing a structural and moralistic grid Baraka purports to invert from the very outset:.
It is heresy, against one's own sources, running in terror, from one's deepest responses and insights … the denial of feeling … that I see as basest evil.
We are not talking merely about beliefs, which are later, after the fact of feeling. A flower, turning from moisture and sun, would turn evil colors and die.
From there the book proceeds in ways that are maddeningly referential to the author's Newark upbringing, jumping back and forth in time between incidents, personalities, and social rituals. Some passages are little more than character sketches of folks Baraka encountered during what seemed to have been a convulsive rite of passage from childhood to adolescence. The writing is lush in description, full of lyrical feeling in the more episodic moments, and displays a tendency typical of Baraka's work at this stage to collapse philosophical, carnal, poetic, and racial epiphanies into a litany of self-affirmation and self-loathing:.
We danced, this face and I, close so I had her sweat in my mouth, her flesh the only sound my brain could use. Stinking, and the music over us like a sky, choked any other movement off. I danced. And my history was there, had passed no further. Where it ended, here, the light white talking jig, died in the arms of some sentry of Africa.
Some short-haired witch out of my mother's most hideous dreams. I was nobody, now, mama. Another secret nigger. No one the white world wanted or would look at. What the book captures in embryonic formation is Baraka's lifelong rage against bourgeois respectability.
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To some degree that battle is also against that most respectable of literary endeavors, the Negro Novel, which by the sixties had become a cornerstone of American race relations. Baraka's novel is, in its experimental bent and exploded views of mental minutiae, a sort of mockery of the prevalent notion that the job of the Negro novelist was to explain black men to white men.
If this novel has an agenda it is to be so far up its own ass as to only be concerned with what one young black man has to say to himself. While for Ellison, the tradition of the novel wears the status of a national hero, Baraka's critical writing barely deems it worth examining at all. The exception is an essay included in Home in which he berates the state of so-called Negro writing. There is a degree to which Baraka is actually upholding a tradition of Oedipal infighting, initiated by Wright and brought to a boil by Baldwin and Ellison—of mainstream-approved black writers banishing their competing brethren and sistren to the land of the wannabes.
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Reading that essay today reminds one that Baraka was once as much of an elitist as Ellison. The willful difficulty of Dante's Hell only shows just how precious he could get. Yet like Ellison, Baraka had no interest in writing that did not embrace his folkways and his bookish concerns. He seems bent on demonstrating to his white colleagues the ways in which being an African American allowed him to expand the provinces of American fiction.
Baraka was not just mimicking his influences, but passionately inventing forms that addressed his readings in Western literature and philosophy as well as his abiding passion for black working-class culture.
Eschewing racial polemics in favor of self-revelation, Baraka used his fiction, as he would his other mediums, to stab away at American middle-class existence as not just corny but sterile, moribund, and inhuman. Like Wright, Ellison, and Baldwin, Baraka reveals the existential dimensions of black Americanness—the mental anguish that evolved from trying to see oneself as fully human under American apartheid. The fondness and tenderness with which Baraka writes of whores, junkies, winos, and criminals is all about humanizing people whose capacity for intelligence and feeling belie the stereotypes.
Dante's Hell magnificently illuminates the consciousness of America's ghettoes—all the deep thinking about Being and Nothingness hidden beneath the surface. The book demands to be read as a flow of verbal energy rather than as a linear narrative, though the last chapter, where his young seviceman incarnation encounters a willful and motherly prostitute named Peaches, settles so comfortably into straight narration as to seem calculated to quiet those who'd bark that he wrote experimental prose because he couldn't tell a story.
Of course he could, and in his inimitable style, too.
If The System of Dante's Hell is Baraka's Ulysses, Tales is his Dubliners, a loose collection of short narrative vehicles that display Baraka's capacity for sociological introspection to great advantage. Like the Eighth Ditch chapter of Dante's Hell, it is a play thinly dressed up in fictional trappings. More conventional stories— "Salute," " Uncle Tom 's Cabin: Alternate Ending, " and "Heroes Are Gang Leaders" —work his time in the Air Force and the Village into driving, suspenseful scenarios rife with deft character descriptions and incisive dialogue.
Some are little more than thumbnail sketches for Baraka to show how brilliant he can be conducting a jam session with his own pen. As in his poetry, there are lines that scream their origins from Baraka's singular sense of wit, syntax, and life-affirming sarcasm. They remind one of Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis in their commitment to an elliptical, disjunctive, darting attack, one very much at odds with the verbose rhythmic cascade generally asociated with the so-called jazzy writing of Jack Kerouac.
Just as jazz musicians converted stentorian Western concert instruments into vessels of spontaneous broken rhythms and lightfooted virility, Baraka used short prose to resonantly capture his most fleeting sense-impressions. The most outstanding piece of Tales is "The Screamers," a story many critics and readers consider to be Baraka's best piece of short fiction.
It is certainly a masterpiece of concision; in six pages Baraka reports of a riot that jumped off during a rhythm and blues performance in fifties Newark while simultaneously providing an anthropological precis on the ritual importance of fashion, gesture, music, and manners in a roughneck urban juke joint. The prose itself is a wonder of cinematic detail, sociological revelation, music criticism, and poetic illumination. As in many a Baraka work, the language is the protagonist, though the central story in this instance would be compelling in the hands of a hack.
Baraka the adult sophisticate and Baraka the virgin explorer of forbidden spaces converge to create a pungent hybrid:. The dancers ground each other past passion or moved so fast it blurred intelligence. We hated the popular song, and any freedman could tell you if you asked that white people danced jerkily, and were slower than our champions. One style, which developed as Italians showed up with pegs, and our own grace moved towards bellbottom pants to further complicate the cipher, was the honk.
The repeated rhythmic figure, a screamed riff, pushed in its insistence past music.