Thursday, January 9, 2014


I knew him first as LeRoi Jones. Back in the 1950s he was part of the downtown scene, included among those called Beats, though a lot of his early work was more influenced by the teachers and students at Black Mountain, an experimental college in the South.

He was known to have had an affair with the poet Frank O'Hara back then, which made LeRoi seem equally or more connected to The New York School poets (the label originally intended to be ironic but subsequently becoming iconic). As a teenager in the Village with my black girlfriend and trying to make my mark as some kind of precocious jazz musician and poet, any passing contact I had with downtown poets was perfunctory and usually not pleasant.

Diane Di Prima and Joel Oppenheimer were friendly and I identified with Diane's work and background more than anyone else except LeRoi Jones. He was involved with Diane, had at least one child with her if I remember correctly. And he married the poet who became known as Hettie Jones.

I was impressed with and influenced by the boldness of his plays, DUTCHMAN and THE TOILET, and fell in love with his prose in his short story collection (though they defied that category as it existed at the time with their originality), TALES, and his "novel" (equally unique) THE SYSTEM OF DANTE'S HELL. And dug the scholarship and previously ignored or unknown historical perspective of his nonfiction BLUES PEOPLE (though the other two prose books could be called "nonfiction" as well, as TALES tells in part of his experiences as a black kid growing up in Newark, where my grandparents had lived and I went to high school, as does THE SYSTEM OF DANTE'S HELL, which also recounts in part his experiences in The Air Force, similar in some ways to mine).

When he changed his name to Amiri Baraka and began berating, unfortunately, Jews and "faggots" it was hard not to see the play of his affair with O'Hara and marriage to Hettie as the basis for his vindictiveness. I argued with him once about it in a public forum where he dismissed me at the time because of the whiteness, pinkness actually, of my skin tone.

But his early influence on me and on "American literature" and play writing and music (through his essays and reviews and books on that subject, including BLUES PEOPLE) as well as on American politics (it was a line from a poem of his after he was beat up by Newark police during the uprising the papers called a "riot" that became the rallying cry for a lot of young activists in the late 1960s, including The Jefferson Airplane: UP AGAINST THE WALL MOTHERFUCKERS!) cannot be denied.

I wasn't as impressed with his later writing, though it could sometimes still be powerful, as in the long poem he wrote after 9/11 when he was poet laureate of New Jersey in which he seemed to be expressing anti-Semitic sentiments again, though he might argue against that. Or in the monologue/rap he does as the Greek chorus, in a way, in the underrated Warren Beatty film, BULWORTH.

I still reread his early work, when he wrote under his given name, LeRoi Jones, and am still impressed with how original and evocative it is for me. He was full of contradictions, as most of us, and aggravated me even up until recently, with his attacks on Corrie Booker and others trying to make change but not fast enough or radically enough for Amiri. But his passion and often his clarity will be missed as much as the genius of his writing and its influence, at least on this early fan and follower.      

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