Home: Social Essays
by LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka)
Reviewed by Robert Fleming
Back in the day, LeRoi Jones was the spiritual and cultural beacon in the late 1960s and 1970s, using his word wizardry, acerbic wit, encyclopedic knowledge, and incendiary social and political vision to provide the necessary guidance for those who wanted to break away from the passive, compromised mindset of the Negro battered by Jim Crow and legalized segregation.
Brooklyn’s Akashic Books, as a part of its Akashic Classics: Renegade Reprint Series, has released Home: Social Essays, a book of Jones (Amiri Baraka) from 1965, at the height of the bloody Civil Rights Movement. Even after 40 years, its 24 essays still carry a potent punch to many people interested in the political and social mood of one of the pivotal times in our history. The commentaries yield a snapshot of that era’s critical events: the Cuban Revolution, the Birmingham bombings, the Harlem riots, the slaying of Malcolm X, the politicization of the black male, the struggles of the Revolutionary theatre, the delights of soul food, the trials and triumphs of black writing, and the cold-blooded fight game.
In his revamped introduction, Jones revisits the years past and put them into perspective, not politically but personally. He astutely writes in this revised look upon his return to a turbulent America from a fledgling Cuban nation: “It was on my return to Newark in 1966, that what I knew superficially was thrust forcefully upon me to fully understand: that there were classes and class struggle among black people, just like all peoples. Coming home and seeing these struggles around real social and political issues transformed me from cultural nationalist to communist. I had touched some of these bases before, but this was the beginning of struggle on a higher, and perhaps even more fundamental, level.”
His lengthy essay, “Cuba Libre,” is a marvel of detailed observation and analysis, as he travels with other black thinkers to witness the emerging socialist land. Jones has never done anything by halves, as the Brits say. He becomes enamored with the concept of revolution, imagining how it could translate here. Witness his intriguing interaction with El Commandante Fidel Castro, the architect of the Cuban Revolution. Another essay, the 1961 letter to columnist-artist Jules Feiffer, is a hearty “bitch-slap” to timid white liberals everywhere and their political cowardice.
His pen and mind sparkles throughout the book. Note the majestic essay, “City of Harlem,” a social and cultural history of the capital of black America, done as well as anything written by James Baldwin or Ralph Ellison. You can almost smell and taste as Jones describes the treats of “Soul Food” in the eateries above 100th Street in New York City: barbecued ribs, fried chicken, grits, okra, black-eyes peas and rice, gumbo—all served at the well-known places of guilty pleasure—the Red Rooster, Wells, Joch’s, or Jennylin’s. In the essay, “The Myth of a Negro Literature,” Jones is on target when he singles out the mastery and authenticity of black music of blues and jazz after slamming the phony Europeanized books that some of the more popular Negro writers were producing at the time.
Like a superb trial lawyer, Jones dissects the meaning of the words, individual and individuality—like the embattled former President Bill Clinton wrestled with the words— “is” in the scathing essay on a writer’s values, “Brief Reflections on Two Hot Shots.” And oh man, he dogs the writers, James Baldwin and Peter Abraham and their production of “noise.” His take, “What Does Nonviolence Mean?,” is a rallying cry to mobilize the weak and powerless against the brute forces of the white racists.
There is a reason why this book is considered a classic in the Baraka literary canon, with some of the daring, powerful essays: “Tokenism: 300 Years for Five Cents,” “The Last Days of the American Empire,” “American Sexual Reference: Black Male,” and “The Legacy of Malcolm X and the Coming of the Black Nation.” Sometimes he gets it wrong, but on average, he makes stunning predictions in these commentaries. When he falters, it is because the wisdom of time has proven him on the wrong side. We love when Jones is smart, angry, perceptive, and creative. This book, Home: Social Essays, is as fascinating and intriguing as it was upon its first reading in the late ’60s. And the observations of Jones (Baraka) still remain timely even as we speak.