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Amiri Baraka

An Agony. As Now.

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1964

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Summary and Study Guide


Amiri Baraka, also known as LeRoi Jones and Inamu Amear Baraka, was an American poet, playwright, novelist, essayist, and music critic. Baraka is most known for his poetry and plays. His career spanned over 50 years, from the 1960s until his death. He is most closely associated with the Black Arts movement, which he helped found in 1964. While his influence is undeniable, Baraka’s militantism, homophobia, misogyny, and anti-Semitism have drawn wide condemnation.

“An Agony. As Now.” was published under the name LeRoi Jones in The Dead Lecturer: Poems (1964), Baraka’s second poetry collection. 1964 was a pivotal year for Baraka. Shortly after this collection, Baraka became radicalized, leaving his family and moving to Harlem to pursue activism and art. One of Baraka’s most well-known poems, this poem previews questions of race, survival, and violent revolution that would become prominent aspects of Baraka’s later work. This poem acts as a metaphor for the experiences of Black men in mid-20th century America.

Poet Biography

Amiri Baraka was born Everett Leroy Jones on October 7, 1934, in Newark, New Jersey. His father was a postal supervisor and lift operator, and his mother was a social worker.

For university, he won a scholarship and initially attended Rutgers University before transferring to Howard University. He earned his bachelor’s degree in English in 1954. He later studied at Columbia University and the New School without earning a degree.

In 1954, Baraka joined the United States Air Force as gunner. He regretted this decision, as he found the experience degrading and racist. While working in a base library, Baraka was inspired by Beat poets and began to write his own poetry under the name LeRoi Jones. After being accused of being a communist, Baraka was reassigned to gardening duty before being dishonorably discharged for violating his oath of duty.

After leaving the Air Force, Baraka moved to Greenwich Village and began working in a warehouse of music records. During this time, his relationship with the avant-garde Black Mountain poets and New York School poets began. He became closely associated with Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, and Charles Olson. Baraka thought of poetry as a process of discovery at this time, and that form should reflect the poet’s feelings.

He married Hettie Cohen in 1958. They had two daughters, Kellie and Lisa.

Alongside his wife, Baraka founded Totem Press. This press published Beat poets that included Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Their press partnered with Corinth to publish more books and to found a quarterly literary magazine called Yugen, which ran for eight issues until 1962.

Baraka visited Cuba in July 1960 with a grassroots campaign that supported the Cuban Revolution. This experience was formative as Puerto Rican artists criticized him for being more focused on building his reputation rather than ending oppression. These criticisms dramatically changed Baraka’s writing and pushed him towards Black Nationalism. In 1961 Baraka co-authored a “Declaration of Conscience” in support of Fidel Castro’s regime.

In the early 1960s, Baraka participated in numerous workshops and worked as an editor and critic for multiple journals. He was a member of the emerging Black Nationalist group Umbra Poets Workshop alongside notable writers like Ishmael Reed. In October 1961, an issue of a journal he edited was seized by the postal service and the FBI charged them with obscenity for publishing one of their political essays.

Baraka published his first book of poems, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, in 1961. Also in that year, he co-founded the New York Poets Theatre with American poet Diane di Prima. Baraka and di Prima had an extramarital affair for several years and they had a daughter in June 1962.

Also a noted music critic, Baraka published Blues People: Negro Music in White America in 1963. The book tracked the development of Black music from slavery to contemporary jazz.

Marking a sharp break away from the influence of Beat poets, Baraka wrote several prose pieces during the mid-1960s, including the novel The System of Dante’s Hell (1965) and the short story collection Tales (1967). These pieces of experimental fiction often told neo-slave narratives.

In 1964, Dutchman premiered. One of Baraka’s most notable and acclaimed works, it was also controversial. In the play, a white woman accosts a Black man on the New York City subway. The play received the Obie Award for the Best American Play, and a film was produced in 1967.

After the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, Baraka changed his name from LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka. At this time, Baraka left his wife and children to move to Harlem. Baraka was moving towards Black cultural nationalism while becoming more critical of the Civil Rights Movement. During this time, he published one of his most well-known, controversial, and revolutionary poems from his early career, called “Black Art” (1965). This poem became a major text for the Black Arts movement.

Baraka positioned theater as training for an impending revolution, as outlined in essays like “The Revolutionary Theatre” (1965). When he moved to Harlem, he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School, often called BARTS. Though it only stayed open for less than a year, the program was influential in the Black Arts Movement and attracted other well-known Black artists. The closure caused other Black artists to create their own artistic institutions across America.

In 1966, Baraka married his second wife, Sylvia, who later adopted the name Amina Baraka. They have five children. They opened the Spirit House, a playhouse and artists’ residence in Newark.

In 1967, Baraka became involved with Kawaida, a movement centered on nationalist, Pan-African, and socialist ideologies. The movement prioritized African names and at this time, Baraka changed his name to Imamu Amear Baraka. That same year, Baraka was convicted of carrying an illegal weapon and resisting arrest during the Newark riots. He was sentenced to three years in prison. At his trial, his poetry was read as evidence against him.

In 1968, Baraka formed a record label, Jihad, that only produced three LPs.

Starting in the late 1960s and 1970s, Baraka started expressing even more prejudice in his work. Throughout his career, he had often shared homophobic and misogynistic thoughts, but now he became increasingly anti-Semitic.

Starting in 1974, Baraka moved away from Black Nationalism, which he saw now as racism, and the Black Arts movement toward Marxism-Leninism, becoming a third world socialist.

In 1979, while holding a lecturer position at the State University of New York at Stony Brook in the Africana Studies department, Baraka published an article describing perceived racism in the department. His main claim centered on the lack of tenured professors in the department. Shortly after this, Baraka accepted a tenure-track assistant professorship. In 1983, he earned tenure.

In June 1979, Baraka was arrested in Manhattan, though the validity of the charges were contested by Baraka and his wife. The police claim they were called to intervene in a domestic assault where Baraka was hitting his wife, Amina. When the police sought to stop the assault, Baraka attacked the police, as well. Amina accused the police of lying. Though the assault charges were dismissed, Baraka was found guilty of resisting arrest. Amina called the police fascists. After much legal wrangling that went all the way to the State Supreme Court, Baraka’s charge was upheld but he was allowed to serve his 90-day sentence on 48 consecutive weekends at a halfway house. While serving his sentence, he wrote The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (1983).

Baraka published an anti-Semitic essay called “Confessions of a Former Anti-Semite” (1980), in which he describes his first marriage to Hettie, a Jewish woman, and describes her as the enemy. The essay dismisses historic anti-Semitic prejudice and violence, insisting Jewish people hold as much privilege as white Americans.

Alongside Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, Baraka spoke at a commemoration ceremony for James Baldwin in 1987. In 1989, Baraka won an American Book Award and a Langston Hughes Award. In 1990, Baraka applied for a tenured position at Rutgers University. When his appointment did not pass, Baraka compared the committee to Klansmen and the rejection to Nazi persecution.

In 2002, Baraka collaborated with The Roots on a song and Baraka was placed on Molefi Kete Asante’s list of 100 Greatest African Americans.

Baraka was named the Poet Laureate of New Jersey in July 2002. While the position was for two years, Baraka only held it for one year. The major point of controversy was at a poetry festival when Baraka read his 2001 poem that describes the September 11th attacks as a conspiracy between Israeli Jews and the American Government. Because the law did not allow Baraka to be removed from the position and he refused to resign, the governor abolished the position.

Amiri Baraka died on January 9, 2014 of complications from a recent surgery. Over his life, Baraka received many honors, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation Award for Drama, and an induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Poem Text

Baraka, Amiri. “An Agony. As Now.” 1964. Poetry Foundation.


The poem begins with the speaker describing his contentious relationship with someone whom he is inside, revealed to be his own body in the next line. The soul’s voice describes the things he can see and smell outside of the body. He also describes how he is forced to have sex with the body’s chosen women.

Describing his experience, the body focuses on the limitations imposed upon him. He can only look out “[s]lits” (Line 7), separate from sunlight and fresh air.

The soul is forced through an erotic encounter. The experience is tortuous. The soul compares his psychological torture to the physical torment of being trapped inside a metal body.

The speaker starts to address a second person who also contributes to his suffering. The pain is overwhelming and occupies the speaker’s attention for several stanzas. The first type of pain arises from the separation between himself and his body. Then, he describes the pain of losing his mind and the pain of social Othering.

In the middle of stanza five, a parenthetical describes a seemingly random image of an old man looking through his books. This image suggests that the speaker is commenting upon the literary canon as a source of his Othering and his pain. Addressing his past self, the speaker criticizes for conforming and dismisses his old definition of beauty, as it was connected to the “white sun” (Line 31).

The speaker considers how he would describe beauty, asserting that he could describe “the cold men in their gale” (Line 32). While he develops that image, he focuses on people in nature, which contrasts sharply with the speaker’s own experience.

The description of the speaker’s body is echoed, but these descriptors are more general. The speaker no longer associates himself with his body, allowing him to transcend to pure emotion so that he can “live inside” (Line 39) love. This is a revolutionary thought, as it requires the rejection of the body and of social expectations. The soul can gain freedom.

But this thought is nothing more than a hopeful illusion. Instead, the body has no feeling because it is metal. There is no freedom, as the soul is left “inside it” (Line 44), screaming.