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Black Bourgeoisie

Amiri Baraka, also Leroi Jones, is an African American poet and playwright.


1. Biography

2. Major Works/Biography Pt. II

3. Poetry

3.1 Introduction
3.2 Black Bourgeoisie
3.3 Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note

4. Annotation of Black Bourgeoisie

5. Criticism

7. External Links/Interview

8. See Also...

9. Bibliography


By: Jennifer Morganroth

Amiri Baraka was born in 1934 in Newark, New Jersey. As a child, he spent much of his time writing science fiction and creating comic strips. Being an excellent and bright student, Baraka graduated high school at fifteen and attended the Howard University in 1952. Right before attending this university, he changed the spelling of his last name from LeRoy to Leroi. Here, he learned with many black scholars who are well known today. However, he did not excel in college as he had in high school and flunked out.

After flunking out of college, he moved to New York's Greenwich Village in 1957, after being dishonorably discharged by the United States Air Force. There, he became part of the Beat movement and married Hettie Roberta Cohen, a white Jewish woman. Together, they founded a forum for Beat Poetry in a magazine called Yugen. Over the years he established himself as a music critic and a poet, putting together his collection Preface to a Twenty Volume Sucide Note. He recieved his first critical approval as a poet when it was published in 1961. He soon began to incorporate in his writings his political, spiritual, and social beliefs and started using this poetry to teach people about his views on life.

Baraka divorced his wife and moved to Harlem after the murder of Malcolm X, a black Muslim leader. This was a turning point in his life. He stopped associating himself with white people and focused his writings on the African American community. In Harlem that same year, he established the Black Arts Repertory Theatre School and got re-married to a black women, Sylvia Robinson. His hatred for white's increased greatly, and he was very public about his strong dislike for them.

In response to Malcolm X's death, Baraka converted to Islam in 1968. This is when he changed his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka, which means "blessed spiritual leader," but later dropped the spiritual title of Imamu. His wife also changed her name to Amina Baraka. Although he was one of the biggest black nationalists, he rejected Black Nationalism in his idea that it suggested racism. He thought socialism was a possible solution to the adversities in America and incidentally withdrew his anti-white statements.

In 1979, he taught creative writing in the State University of New York at Stony Brook, joining the African Studies Department. He is believed to be one of the most influential figures in the advance of Black literature; his works illustrate the cruelty the black community faced in the dominated white society. He focused on his personal and political disposition that was reflected in his various themes of poetry. This included race relations, Beat aesthetics, Black Nationalism, and the current political events occurring in his time. His main purpose in life and as a poet was to create African American literature that echoed the principals and values of the black community. He is currently living in New Jersey with his wife.

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In order from the left: Black Arts Repertory Theatre, Malcolm X, Amiri and Amina Baraka, Amiri teaching students

Major Works and Baraka's Shift from Nationalism to Socialism

By: Ryan Touhill

Baraka had two massive influences on the majority of his works. The first was Cuba. In 1960 Baraka was invited by the New York capther of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee to take a tour of the country. A direct quote from his autobiography states that the visit was "a turning point in [his] life." During his stay in Cuba, Baraka had a revelation. He changed his game plan, so to speak, from a repertoire of poems and stories to an arsenal of politically spurred poems, filled with a sense of Black Nationalism. Some of his best-known works were published during this time, such as "Blues People: Negro Music in White America" (1963) and "The Dead Lecturer: Poems" (1964).

The most famous and probably most disputed work that Baraka created was "Dutchman," written in 1964. Considered a masterpiece by some and a blatant attack on the white people by others, "Dutchman" was nonetheless a witty and layered drama. Baraka, thanks to his publication of this particular play, was now a name in every household in America, whether he was praised or loathed. "Dutchman" won an Obie Award for Best Off-Broadway play, the highest award that can be won for any drama not run on the Broadway stage at the time. Baraka called "Dutchman" a representation of the "difficulty of becoming and remaining a man in America...Manhood--black or white--is not wanted here."

The next two works by Baraka, "The Slave" and "The Toilet," both published in 1964, were again seen as a realistic portrayal of the incredible tension between the races. "The Toilet" was incredibly controversial after its publication, showing a story of a homosexual white boy who is attacked in the bathroom by a group of black children. The play laces two paths that the viewer must take. Are blacks violent and destructive if placed together, and will they function well with the white society? Or is the white race considered a unnatural, disgraceful group of people with their ties to homosexuality? Baraka was a genius when it came to playing both sides of the issue. "The Slave" is a play, once again, about racial conflict. However, many critics began to realize that Baraka's role as a mediator between the two races began to shift to a pro-black, anti-white point of view. In his autobiography Baraka stated that it "was really the last play where I tried to balance and talk to blacks and whites [...] We've talking to the white society and it's useless."

The second occurrence in the life of Baraka was a two-layered instance. In 1965, shortly following the assassination of Malcolm X, Baraka divorced his white Jewish wife and moved from Greenwich Village to Harlem, completely dissociating himself from the white society. He began to be more vocal in his anti-white viewpoint, and wrote several works. Such works were "Slave Ship: A Historical Pageant" (1967), The System of Dante's Hell (1965), and "Tales" (1967). These three works, a drama, his only novel, and a collection of short stories (respectively), were all very profound in expressing Baraka's hatred of whites. When asked by a white women one day while walking down the street, the answer to her question of "What can white people do to help blacks?", he simply shot back "You can help by dying. You are a cancer." Shortly following the publication of "Tales," Baraka made another attempt to further himself from the white community from changing his name from LeRoi Jones (current at the time), to Imamu Amiri Baraka, meaning "blessed spiritual leader." Symbolism of this change and division was his marriage in 1966 to Slyvia Robinson, who later changed her name to Amina Baraka.

A decade later, what had become of Baraka was not what most of his critics would have thought. Completely dropping his view of Nationalism and fierce anti-white state of mind, Baraka had switched over to the Marxist-Leninist movement. In other words, Baraka had now chosen a path of socialism. He had realized that the black movement was a struggle for equality, and that the white man was not the enemy. Quoted in 1980, Baraka stated that "I came to my Marxist view as a result of having struggled as a Nationalist and found certain dead ends [...] and had to reach out for a communist ideology." Baraka published four more works during this transition, which were analyzed carefully and with relief, for the once harsh anti-white activist had now become a man whose only wish was for equality, not superiority.

"Hard Facts: Excerpts" (1975)
"S-1" (1978)
"The Motion of History" (1978)
"The Sidnee Poet Heroical: In 29 Scenes" (1979)

Baraka through the years...

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By: Jennifer Morganroth

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Black Bourgeoisie was published in 1955 in France with the title of Bourgeoisie Noire. By 1957, it was translated from French to English, taking on the name Black Bourgeoisie. It was a book written by Franklin Frazier, whose main purpose was to criticize the African American middle class. He depicted them as being entirely dependent on their economic status and condemned their positions in the dominated white work force. Incidentally, it became one the most contentious books written in the late 1950s. This book was not favored by the white, professional, and middle class.

Frazier's lack of sympathy in his portrayal of the wealthier blacks, made some uneasy and apprehensive. They were worried that the gap between the rich and the poor would widen during a time where it would greatly affect their racism movements, especially since the biggest and most well-known Civil Rights activists, Rosa Park's and Martin Luther King Jr., began their campaigns. The Cold War played a huge part as well. The Soviet Union influenced this book and poem greatly. It added the theme of worker equality along with race equality.

Baraka worked with Frazier in Howard University. In Frazier's novel, Baraka included a short poem known as Black Bourgeoisie. In this short poem, he was ashamed of black's eager imitation of whites, describing them as economic materialists. This poem received much criticism, especially from the middle class society. This poem was a verification of the racism issues surviving in the late 1950s. Baraka's poem was simply a summary of the main themes and ideas demonstrated in Frazier's book.

Black Bourgeoisie

1 has a gold tooth, sits long hours

2 on a stool thinking about money.

3 sees white skin in a secret room

4 rummages his sense for sense

5 dreams about Lincoln (s)

6 conks his daughter's hair

7 sends his coon to school

8 works very hard

9 grins politely in restaurants

10 has a good word to say

11 never says it

12 does not hate ofays

13 hates, instead, him self

14 him black self

Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note

1 Lately, I've become accustomed to the way

2 The ground opens up and envelopes me

3 Each time I go out to walk the dog.

4 Or the broad edged silly music the wind

5 Makes when I run for a bus...

6 Things have come to that.

7 And now, each night I count the stars.

8 And each night I get the same number.

9 And when they will not come to be counted,

10 I count the holes they leave.

11 Nobody sings anymore.

12 And then last night I tiptoed up

13 To my daughter's room and heard her

14 Talking to someone, and when I opened

15 The door, there was no one there...

16 Only she on her knees, peeking into

17 Her own clasped hands

Note: This poem is used as a comparison to the poem "Black Bourgeoisie." The poems share similar attitudes, tones, moods, and they both include a reference to Baraka's daughter. Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note is used as a refrence only to help annotate the other poem, as its similarities draw great parallels.


By: John Slochower and Allie Volinsky, with contributions by Rachel Eisenstadt, Laura Jungreis, Jennifer Morganroth, Adelia Shiffraw, and Ryan Touhill
Note to Reader: Please understand that all annotations made a solely subjective opinions made by the members of our group. They are by no means the objective truth. The reader is obviously allowed to make any insights he or she deems necessary.

Black Bourgeoisie

The title refers to an African American person who belongs to the middle class. In Marxist theory, it is also the class that, in contrast to the proletariat or wage-earning class, is primarily concerned with property values. This fits well with one of the motifs of the poem, being that Amiri Baraka makes consistent references to money which leads the audience to believe that this man is materialistic.
*Marxism refers to the philosophy and social theory based on the works of Karl Marx, who was a German philosopher, political economist, and revolutionary in the nineteenth century.

The author of this poem clearly takes a pessimistic view towards the world, using derogatory terms (coon-7, ofays-12) for both black and white people. The utilization of inward hatred towards the end of the poem is also the means by which the reader is left with a gloomy and depressed feeling.

General (format, organization, etc): By having one word with a capital letter, the poem seems casual, almost as if the author is just thinking aloud as opposed to reciting a formal message with a deep meaning. This allows for a contrast between the relaxed nature of the format and the meaningful, yet mysterious feeling of the poem.

Line 1: Although he has a "gold tooth", the subject still thinks and dreams about money. His 'wealth' is used to fix and repair himself, as he feels he has to mend the past to move forward. The meaning behind the world "gold" strikes a strong difference with the overall feeling of despair throughout the poem. He "sits long hours"; he appears to be idle, but after reading the poem, he is shown to be a thoughtful and reflective individual.

Line 2: Sitting on a stool thinking - this part of the line allows the reader to imagine a man on a stool - which is usually uncomfortable and low to the ground. The stool tells the reader that this man is probably not particularly affluent. It creates the contrast between his current state as someone who is not wealthy and that for which he wishes. This could be a connection to the theme of the despair of the black people during this time. The fact that this person is thinking about money means that he is materialistic and wealth is important to him. Money appears in some form in lines 1, 4, and 5. He has a gold tooth and refers to cents (sense) and Lincolns, as in pennies. Since the mood of this poem is pessimistic, perhaps this person is upset because he has been unable to make such money. Or perhaps one of the reasons he is upset with himself is because of his materialistic desires.

Line 3: As the man sitting on a stool thinks pensively, this line allows the reader to fully understand his confusion and pessimism referred to in earlier lines in regard to material wealth, as he "sees white skin in a secret room". This white skin refers to skin color, and as a privilege which is kept secret. He is not allotted this privilege, which would allow him to seek this material wealth he desires. He acts as a spectator to this “secret room” as he knows that he will never be permitted access and therefore adopts a pessimistic attitude.

Line 4: The act of rummaging, of looking through wildly, searching, for what you may or may not have for "sense" as in wisdom fits in with the theme of the poem in that the subject is figuring out how he feels by thinking and in the end saying he hates himself. (See "sense" and "cents" below.) Also, having "cents" (see Line 5) for "sense" is saying that having money to buy things (wealthy) does not give you "sense", although one might to try to find "sense" for "cents".

Line 5: "Lincoln (s)" (5) can mean both pennies, which are the lowest form of currency in the United States, as well as Abraham Lincoln, who was key in the very early stages of extending U.S. rights to African-American citizens. The penny as a monetary unit is a parallel to the treatment of African-Americans during this time. Line 4's "sense for sense" also ties in "Lincoln (s)" as it not only is sense as in clear-thinking, but is pronounced the same as "cents"; the poem's subject dreams about men having sense to accept him as a full and equal member of society and also "cents" to rise out of poverty as he "sits long hours on a stool thinking about money" (2).

Line 6: Conking one's hair is only done in black communities. It is the attempt to straighten curly hair by chemical means. This adds to the emphasis of the differences of the black culture and practices. However, conking also has a different connotation. Not only does it mean to straighten one's hair, but it can also mean to have failed or stop functioning. This might add a hidden meaning to this line. His daughter's hair or head may have stopped functioning in order to survive the harsh reality not only blacks in that time had to face but also women. She may have turned off her instincts and feelings in an attempt to be able to accept the discrimination against her race. This is parallel to his poem "Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note." In this poem, it is like his daughter is responding to her father's idea of failure. She is praying in an attempt to restore her faith in a better life for her family.

Line 7: The use of the word "coon" creates a sense of reality and harshness, as it is a derogatory name for a person of African American heritage. By "send[ing] his coon to school", this agitated black man seems to be attempting to raise the status of himself and his son; Baraka could also be inferring that this man wants to also gain more respect for his race.

Line 8: The simplicity of this sentence is in tune with the rest of the poem. Working hard relates back to the theme of money, and the desire for it. He wants his children to have everything he couldn't. This simplistic line may also refer to the previous statement made to his "coon" son, referring to him with a derogatory name for the purpose of displaying the injustice of the situation. Baraka sees that no matter how hard his son may work, he will be viewed in this derogatory sense, and therefore maintains his pessimistic outlook.

Line 9: He can grin politely in restaurants for several reasons. The black man may be trying to simply seem less foreign and instead, more likable to the white race, in an attempt to gain a better place in society (similar to his intentions in line 7). Conversely, this "grin" can be seen as a symbol quite similar to that of the "mask"; the black man makes himself seem charming, and camouflages himself. He is smiling because he knows that by looking as if he wants to assimilate he gives the white man a feeling of superiority. In a previous poem we had read, the black man gained a greater sense of satisfaction in knowing that he had tricked the white man. However, in this poem we believe that the character's mask causes him shame and serves as a reminder of white domination. In this way, it could serve as one reason for which the character hates himself more than his oppressors at the conclusion of the poem.

Line 10-11: He does not say this "good word" because it is pointless, as it alone will not advance the placement of his people in society. He also fears the consequences of saying these good words; he knows his grin will be interrupted in many ways, and therefore he feels justified in grinning. It is a desperate attempt to convince himself he does not need to conform, while at the same time, he is trying to fit into the white community. However, if he says something "good," he cannot take it back, and feels as though he would lose his inner-struggle and have to come to terms with his feelings of damnation. When reading these two lines, the reader gets hope in that he will say the good word, but when one finds out that he never says it, it brings the reader back down even deeper to the despair of the man.

Line 12-14: He hates himself because of the "mask" he constantly has to wear, the mask of acceptance, of "grinning politely in restaurants," of pretending that everything is alright. He hates himself for hiding behind this superficiality in order to achieve a good life. He hates himself more then the "ofays"* because although the whites cause him to hide his feelings, he is the one who has to pretend, smile, and be polite to the white people; people he openly admitted his hatred towards. Most of all, he hates the life his daughter is going to live in this white dominated society.
*A derogatory term for a white person; Pig Latin for "foe."


By: Laura Jungreis, Rachel Eisenstadt and Adelia Shiffraw

Throughout the years, Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) has written several poems, plays, essays and books. In general, critics agree that his style is random, incoherent, full of anger and racially stimulated. All of his works revolve around racial issues. Costello calls the play The Toilet “an ugly but affecting racial play.” Bergonzi comments on The Slave, saying “however certain this black man is of his hatred, his is also certain what it has cost him. Hatred has cost the black man everything else that he has desired from life, and it has cost him all his art.”

PRO: Interestingly, both critics agree that the play The Dutchman is magnificent. Bergonzi says the dialogue is “almost perfect” and that “it may be the most important imaginative literary document of the American race war since Native Son [a 1940’s novel by Richard Wright].” Costello says that the “brilliant dialogue” is “by far the best art Jones has shown in any of his plays.” Other works are praised as well. Bergonzi thinks that “Rhythm and Blues” and “Green Lantern’s Solo” are “two of his strongest poems.” In Baraka’s work Preface To A Twenty Volume Suicide Note, he received positive criticism by fellow poet Denise Levertov who remarked that his work was especially unique due to is influences such as the rhythms of jazz music. She also focused on Baraka’s (then Jones) ability to take precise observations on social and political issues at work, as an extremely aware poet. Critic Clyde Taylor feels that in his later works, including Black Magic and In Our Terribleness, Baraka draws greatly from "the long cascading, line of Coltrane and what might be called the Eastern-Astral school of black music." Taylor feels that Baraka's tone "moves in one unimpedable breath, with its own swoops, cries, distributed vocal parts, sound effects and faultlessly chosen words." He also goes so far to remark that "Baraka is probably the finest poet, black or white, writing in this country these days."

CON: Critic Bernard Bergonzi said that in the novel The System of Dante’s Hell, “any kind of coherence or organization is sacrificed.” He thinks “[This prose style] is probably satisfying to write but soon gets monotonous to read.” He also declares that “one is denied even the surface attractions of rhythm” in “Hymn for Lanie Poo.” He calls another set of poems, The Dead Lecturer, “sparer of sense” and “less attractive.” Critic Donald P. Costello states that LeRoi’s essay Liberator is “incoherent, frantic, filled with sentences in upper case, with quintuple question marks and double exclamation points. Much of it is inexplicable.” He comments on The Slave, calling it “rabid,” and The Dutchman, saying it is “a play about hatred.” In response to Baraka’s Blues People, Charles Keil, although fond of his work, opposed his “wild speculations, inconsistencies, misinformation, and absurd arguments that run through his early chapters on blues prehistory,” asserting that Baraka (then Jones) had a habit of shaping information to suit his principles. Clyde Taylor, while appreciative of the poet, also agrees that a great deal of his early work is at times, discordant. "Jones shows remarkable growth as "a long breath singer" in contrast to the telegraphese of the earlier work," Taylor asserts when describing Baraka's evolution as a poet. Baraka had changed from a "free-form" and loose writer, to one that was more coherent, when he moved from the East village to uptown New York. Taylor believes that Baraka became more cohesive with his work at this point; for he had experienced the two conflicting worlds (that of the black man, and that of the white man), commonly addressed in his writing.

COMPARISON: When comparing published criticism to “The Black Bourgeoisie,” we agree. We see both positive and negative aspects of his work in this particular poem, as he has a definite angry perspective, yet has not definite message to the reader for hopes of change in this oppression. On the positive side, this unclear statement make the reader think and find their own message without his prompting as a poet. We also found great irony and enjoyment in a great portion of his word choice, it gave further depth to the poem as well as flow which allowed the reader to fully elaborate (please refer to annotation).The poem is simply about a bitter, angry black man. No clear rhythm is present, and the language is simple, anything but pretentious. Unlike most poets, It seems that Baraka does not try to make a clear statement through this work. Instead, he utilizes his strong and sincere personality, which is distinctly evident in the tone. Being a dramatist, Baraka is able to easily engage the reader and leave him with not only a lasting impression, but also a feeling of satisfaction. Clyde Taylor concurs, as is evident when he remarks that "Mostly, his poems carry no argument, no extractable, paraphraseable statement. [...] Even after several readings, one is able to remember mainly a flavor, a distinct attitude of spirit, an insistent, very personal voice." The poem is, however, much more coherent than most critics make any of his other works out to be. We therefore disagree with the harsh words of David Littlejohn, who believes Baraka is "the most difficult of all Negro poets, and it is hard to say whether any reader can be guaranteed a just repayment for his efforts." Littlejohn even claims that Baraka's, "approach to poetic language reaches far beyond mere coherence or what we would call sense."

External Links/Interview

1. http://www.amiribaraka.com/
-The poet's official homepage

2. http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/445
-A biography and list of selected works (including poetry, drama, and prose).

3. Amiri Baraka Interview

See Also...

For those interested in more Amiri Baraka, check out the following selected works:

1. Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961)
2. Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1963)
3.The Dead Lecturer; Dutchman & The Slave (1964)
4. The System of Dante's Hell (1965)
5. The Baptism & The Toilet (1966)
6. Home: Social Essays (1966)
7. Tales (1967)
9. Black Music (1967)
10. Black Magic: Collected Poetry, 1961-67 (1969)
11. Four Black Revolutionary Plays (1969)
12. Slave Ship: A Historical Pageant (1969)
13. J-E-L-L-O (1970)
14. Raise Race Rays Raze: Essays Since 1965 (1971)
15. Hard Facts (1975)
16. The Motion of History and Other Plays (1978)
17. The Autobiography of Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka (1984)
18. Daggers and Javelins: Essays 1974-1979 (1984)
19. Transbluesency: The Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/Leroi Jones (1961-1995)(1961-1995)
20. Tales of the Out & Gone (2006)


Bergonzi, Bernard. Black Literature Criticism. Ed. James P. Draper. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1992.

Bernotas, Bob. Amiri Baraka. Ed. Nathan I. Huggins. New York: Chelsea House, 1991. 7-108.

Costello, Donald P. Black Literature Criticism. Ed. James P. Draper. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1992.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 16: The Beats: Literary Bohemians in Postwar America. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by Ann Charters, University of Connecticut. The Gale Group, 1983. pp. 3-24.

Littlejohn, David. Black Literature Criticism. Ed. James P. Draper. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1992. 3 March 2005. Z Net. 1 March 2007. < http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=7411>.

Taylor, Clyde. "Baraka as Poet." Modern Black Poets. Ed. Donald B. Gibson. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1973. 127-134.

Thompson, Audrey. "E. Franklin Frazier." 17 June 2005. Howard U. 1 Mar. 2001 <http://www.howard.edu/library/Social_Work_Library/Franklin_Frazier.htm>.