Metamorphosing DanteAppropriations, Manipulations, and Rewritings in the Twentieth and Twenty-First CenturiesVienna: Turia + Kant, 2010
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Cite as: Dennis Looney, ‘Literary Heresy: The Dantesque Metamorphosis of LeRoi Jones into Amiri Baraka’, in Metamorphosing Dante: Appropriations, Manipulations, and Rewritings in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, ed. by Manuele Gragnolati, Fabio Camilletti, and Fabian Lampart, Cultural Inquiry, 2 (Vienna: Turia + Kant, 2010), pp. 305–22 <>

Literary HeresyThe Dantesque Metamorphosis of LeRoi Jones into Amiri BarakaDennis Looney ORCID

Keywords: Alighieri, Dante – Divina Commedia – Inferno; productive reception; African American literature; Black Arts movement; Jones, LeRoi; Baraka, Imamu Amiri – The System of Dante’s Hell

During the Black Revolution, LeRoi Jones used a radical adaptation of Dante to express a new militant identity, turning him into a new man with a new name, Amiri Baraka, whose experimental literary project culminated in The System of Dante’s Hell in 1965. Dante’s poem (specifically, John Sinclair’s translation) provides a grid for the narrative of Baraka’s autobiographical novel; at the same time, the Italian poet’s description of hell functions for Baraka as a gloss on many of his own experiences. Whereas for Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, Dante marks a way into the world of European culture, Baraka uses Dante first to measure the growing distance between himself and European literature and then, paradoxically, to separate himself totally from it. Baraka’s response to the poet at once confirms and belies Edward Said’s claim that Dante’s Divine Comedy is essentially an imperial text that is foundational to the imperial discipline of comparative literature. That Baraka can found his struggle against imperialist culture, as he sees it, on none other than this specific poem suggests the extent to which it is a richer and more complex text than even Said imagined. To see exactly how Baraka does this, I propose to read several extended passages from The System of Dante’s Hell to take stock of its allusiveness to the Italian model. For all the critical attention to Baraka, surprisingly no one has undertaken the necessary work of sorting out his allusions to Dante in any systematic way.


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