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From black middle-class-ness to ""white-addicted"" bohemianism, from hate-whitey ""cultural nationalism"" to socialist optimism: the dense, often-fascinating progress of playwright/poet/activist Baraka, with enough humor, lyricism, and candid confusion to temper the didactic, ingrown, self-indulgent strains. ""You see, I come from brown niggers from way back. Yeh. But some yellow niggers. . . and even some factual, a factual, white motherfucker or fatherfucker in there."" And this racial/cultural spectrum--black, brown, yellow, white--is the preoccupation in Baraka's tangled, jivey, vivid opening chapters: childhood in Newark (""petty bourgeois"" family, crushed by the Depression); connections to blackness through music (blues, spirituals); isolation in an integrated high school; disillusionment at Howard University. (""We were readied for yellow and the best of us were black and brown. We were readied for utopia and that is bullshit. . . ."") Bizarrely, Baraka dropped out to join the A/r Force, escaping the terrors there by reading voraciously: ""At this moment my life was changed. . . ."" So, ""undesirably"" discharged (for reading Partisan Review), he took his new-found passion for ""White people's words"" to New York--sleeping with Jewish women, getting one pregnant, marrying and editing a poetry magazine, going around with the Beats and the Black Mountain guys, sliding into ""deadly hedonism,"" getting ""isolated to the extent that almost all of my closest friends, the people I saw every day, were white!"" But the jolting, pressuring success of Dutchman, plus the JFK assassination, shook Baraka up: ""I was struggling to be born,"" soon earning his reputation as a ""whitehating madman."" He turned to ""cultural nationalism,"" with the Black Arts movement, inspired by the just-killed Malcolm X, ""trying to create art that would be a weapon"" for black liberation. This too, however, was a disappointment: internal feuds (""dumb dissembling motherfuckers""); the wrongness--and bad tactics--of anti-white racism; black nationalism's ""reactionary"" elements, male chauvinism especially. (After periods of Don Juan-ism and attempted polygamy, Baraka settled down with Amina.) Likewise, after arrest and trial in the Newark riots, involvement with black electoral politics helped get the city a black mayor. . . but led to disenchantment. (""Jesse Jackson, Shirley Chisholm, Ken Gibson, most of the Congressional Black Caucus, were whoring like nobody's business."") So, in 1974, the Barakas declared their Marxist-Leninist allegiance. Still, even with such an ideological outline, Baraka writes with warmth and eloquence about people and places as well as -isms. And if most important as a subjective record of black political/cultural choices and history in the last two decades, this uneven, vigorous memoir is often funny and evocative--disarming and disingenuous in about equal portions.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1983
Publisher: Freundlich--dist. by Scribners