A "Ballot or Bullet" Art: The Legacy of Amiri Baraka

In his autobiography, Amiri Baraka, born Everett LeRoi Jones in 1934, describes a stunned moment of self-discovery after reading a poem in the New Yorker. Baraka, then a twenty two-year-old aspiring poet, is confronted with a vast gulf between his reality and the sentiments and aesthetics of the poem, not to mention that of the New Yorker itself.

…Gradually I could feel my eyes fill up with tears, and my cheeks were wet and I was crying like it was the end of the world… I realized that there was something in me so out, so unconnected with what this writer was and what that magazine was that what was in me that wanted to come out as poetry would never come out like that and be my poetry.

A decade later, in his manifesto poem for a black political and artistic renaissance, Baraka would give his own succinct definition of poetry, a far cry from what he had encountered in the pages of the New Yorker: "We want poems that kill/Assassin poems, Poems that shoot guns."

I bring up the New Yorker example to simply emphasize Baraka’s singular role in orchestrating a new kind of literature from the messy and indecorous world of politics, a new art that gave vent to the black experience in America at the height of the Civil Rights movement.

He rapidly went from being an outsider to one of the most urgent voices of political rebellion and literary avant gardism in mid-twentieth century America.