In his infamous Dutchman (1964), Amiri Baraka evokes Baudelaire, the famed forefather of French Symbolism: building upon Véronique Lane’s 2017 monograph, Baraka, a member of the Beat Generation, has a French Genealogy, a practiced knowledge of French Symbolism which begs the application of a Symbolist paradigm to Baraka’s theory, works, and lived experience. In this essay, I justify this Baraka-Symbolist connection before undertaking a structuralist close-reading of both Dutchman and A Black Mass to suggest one understanding of Baraka’s mid-1960s transition from “[B]lack Baudelaire” to Black Muslim. This developmental narrative is founded within the contemporaneous scholarship of Franz Fanon and Baraka’s written take on the Civil Rights Movement. I unpack Baraka’s lived experience through a semiotic rereading of his autobiography alongside Pierre Quillard’s Symbolist play, The Girl With Cut-Off Hands (1891), applying James Harding’s notion of “linguistic panic” to these case studies to narrate Baraka’s development: like the Girl in Quillard’s play, Baraka’s self-genesis is a tale of cutting off (white) extremities, necessarily enacted in both the dramatic and the domestic. Lastly, I accept Baraka’s invitation to interrogate the racial politics of French Symbolism, informed by Mike Sell’s scholarship on the avant-garde, highlighting the Symbolists’ lack of racial sensitivity and the ways in which Baraka’s work draws our eyes to these shortcomings. I conclude that Baraka’s understanding of Symbolism offers us further insight into his radical artistic practices and personal transformation, while demonstrating how Baraka’s use and usurpation of French Symbolism lay bare the racial aporias of the historical avant-garde.
Keywords: Amiri Baraka, French Symbolism, Symbolism, Dutchman, A Black Mass, Linguistic Panic, The Girl With Cut-Off Hands, LeRoi Jones
How to Cite:
Zimmerman, S. D., (2022) ““A [B]lack Baudelaire”: Linguistic Panic and Symbolism in Amiri Baraka’s 1960s Life and Work”, the Black Theatre Review 1(1), 27-42. doi: https://doi.org/10.2458/tbtr.4770