The Lightning that was Leroi Jones

Amiri-BarakaOn January 9th, 2014 Leroi Jones, aka Amiri Baraka, died at the age of 79. (Like Muhammad Ali, Jones changed his name when he embraced Islam.)

Upon his death,  The New York Times described him with the sort of words one might use to describe lightning: illuminating. . . incandescent. . . pulsating. . .  incendiary.

The FBI once dubbed him “the person who will probably emerge as the leader of the Pan-African movement in the United States.” Others dismissed him as a gadfly.

Articulate and prone to rage, this streetwise beat poet helped pave the way for the rap, hip hop and poetry slams that came to follow. His work makes a good starting point for discussion about “art for art’s sake” vs art as activism. (Dan McCleary, founder of the Tennessee Shakespeare Company recently published an excellent related essay addressing this issue.)

Jones/Baraka’s humor was spare, incisive and brutal––as in his best known poem,  Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note.  While I usually feature just one or two selections in my HIA blog posts, this time around you’ll need to get at least elbow deep. The poems in text below are from a collection entitled, “Transbluesency” — (Marsilio Publishers, New York, 1995.) Beneath them is a selection from YouTube followed by links to two more of his works.

A Poem for Speculative Hipsters

He had got, finally,
to the forest
of motives. There were no
owls, or hunters. No Connie Chatterleys   
resting beautifully
on their backs, having casually
brought socialism
to England.   
                  Only ideas,
and their opposites.
                he was really

Wise I

     WHYS (Nobody Knows
The Trouble I Seen)

If you ever find
yourself, some where
lost and surrounded
by enemies
who won’t let you
speak in your own language
who destroy your statues
& instruments, who ban
your omm bomm ba boom
then you are in trouble
deep trouble
they ban your
own boom ba boom
you in deep deep


probably take you several hundred years
to get

Snake Eyes

That force is lost
Which shaped me, spent
in its image, battered, an old brown thing
swept off the streets
where it sucked its
gentle living.

And what is meat
to do, that is driven to its end
by words? The frailest gestures
grown like skirts around breathing.
We take
unholy risks to prove
we are what we cannot be. For instance,

I am not even crazy.

Audubon, Drafted

It does not happen. That love removesitself. (I am leaving, Goodbye!
itself, as rain, hard iron rain
comes down, then stops. All those
eyes opened for morning, close with
what few hours given them. With tears,
or a stone wall, shadows drag down.

I am what I think I am. You are what
I think you are. The world is the
one thing that will not move. It is
made of stone, round and very ugly.

The People Burning

Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note


One response

  1. I had never heard of Baraka until he died. NPR did a few “remembrances” of him. The one poem that I recall from the broadcasts is the one that was so subversive, New Jersey politicians removed him as the state’s poet laureate. As usual, I thought the poem was pretty good–and totally honest.

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