LeRoi Jones / Amiri Baraka

Blues People, the title of Skip Norman’s notorious 1968 short that features the naked bodies and voices of a white woman and a Black man, quotes the title of LeRoi Jones’ book of 1963, Blues People: Negro Music in White America. Born Everett LeRoy Jones in 1934, the future poet, dramatist, essayist, and critic started to spell his first name in “frenchified form”—LeRoi—in 1952, the same year in which he entered Howard University in Washington, DC.

After a bohemian “Beat period” in New York’s Greenwich Village and Lower East Side, publishing small-run magazines such as Yugen and Floating Bear and his first book of poems titled Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, Blues People was a nonfiction venture into criticism, a comprehensive study of Black music, locating it “in its social and historical context, tracing it from slave times to the avant-garde scene of the early 1960s” (William J. Harris). For Jones, music, and “Negro music” in particular, was an essentially epistemological endeavor, “the result of thought perfected at its most empirical, i.e., as attitude, or stance.” According to Jones, the “basic hypothesis” of Blues People is the need to understand blues and jazz, and their autonomy, in contradistinction to white, Western notions of art and aesthetics, as the “result of … certain specific ways of thinking about the world.”

In the year after publishing Blues People, Jones released the poetry collection The Dead Lecturer (including, among others, the poems Rhythm & Blues, Black Dada Nihilismus and An Agony. As Now), utilizing the structures of jazz and blues and leaving behind the Beat idiom. The same year, the play Dutchman became a surprise Off-Broadway success. Four years later, in a letter recently retrieved from the DFFB archive by Madeleine Bernstorff, Skip Norman explains to Jones’ New York literary agent (The Sterling Lord Agency) the “method” by which he planned to “incorporate portions of the text from Dutchman into [his] film Essay” Blues People. For the entire voice over dialogue of the 1968 film is derived from Dutchman, which in itself draws on Jones’ Blues People. “I have not dramatized the Dutchman. I have simply used dialogue portions to strengthen (point or counterpoint) a pictorial statement.” Norman maintains that he conceived the film by departing from music, that he tried “to convey (in film language) a feeling similar to the feeling Charlie Parker conveys when he is blowing some of his most beautiful stuff or the feeling LeRoi Jones conveys in the DEAD LECTURER (in context and style).”

Norman also summarized what he considered quintessential about Jones’ Blues People: “As Mr. Jones has stated so aptly and beautifully in his book BLUES PEOPLE the music of the black man in america has always been a thermometer of the black man’s psychological, sociological, cultural and political relationship to the american society. My concern was to show that the black man (me and all the other me’s) must take pride in his artistic heritage and use it as an unlimited source of strength and beauty.”

By 1968, however, Jones had changed his name to the Bantuized Muslim name Imamu Baraka, later changed again to Amiri Baraka (“blessed Prince”), years after having declared himself a Black cultural nationalist in the wake of a visit to Cuba in 1960 and the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965. In 1965, Baraka founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BART/S) in Harlem and thus inaugurated the influential Black Arts Movement, advocating a revolutionary art that is political, didactic, and polemic, and aiming at informing politics and culture. In 1967, he published Black Music, a collection of his 1960s music criticism and a follow-up to Blues People. The leader of the Committee for Unified Newark (CFUN), a branch of the Congress of African People (CAP), committed to a Marxist (and, from 1974, increasingly Maoist) Third World politics, Baraka co-organized important events such as the summit meeting in Atlanta in 1970, where CAP was founded, and the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, in 1972. Remaining highly productive on all fronts until the end of his life, Baraka died in 2014.


LeRoi Jones, Blues People, quoted from Harris, ed., The Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, p. 40.

Walter Dyson, Howard University—The Capstone of Negro Education. A History 1867–1940, Washington, 1941.

Amiri Baraka, The Autobiography of Leroi Jones, New York, 1984.

William J. Harris, [introductory note to excerpts from Blues People], in Harris, ed., The Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, New York, 1991, p. 21.

Amiri Baraka, Black Music: Essays by LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), New York, 1967.

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December 23rd, 2021 — Rosa Mercedes / 03 / Contexts