The System of Dante’s Hell

I highly recommend Amiri Baraka’s experimental novel from the ’60s, The System of Dante’s Hell. Written under the poet’s name at that time, LeRoi Jones, Baraka gives a highly personal, somewhat autobiographical, account of how the experience of being a black man can be related in terms suggestive of Hell as developed by Dante in the Inferno.

In fact, a modified version of Dante’s system is provided at the beginning of the book. But don’t get trapped into attempting to marry each section of Baraka’s narrative to Dante’s map of Hell.


Most of the imagery and narrative expressed in this novel is is highly personal and vividly representative of the black experience, whether in Newark, New Jersey, or in some mythical representation of a southern outpost defined by segregation and racism. There’s a lot of feelings and experiences in this text that are probably new and often jarring, even after fifty years … but read carefully, they’re worth it.

My first experience with Amiri Baraka was the play/film Dutchman with the alluring and beautiful temptress, Shirley Knight. It’s an old film but very powerful. Since then I have read some of Baraka’s poetry and personally lived in Newark, New Jersey. As with reading Philip Roth, a knowledge of Newark tends to make the fiction even more immediate and personal.


Two things that struck me while reading The System of Dante’s Hell: first, and somewhat frivolous, is what appears to be a summary on Wikipedia of a different book. No, it is not the story of a black man roaming around the south experiencing racism and segregation in various cities. The Wikipedia entry suggests to me that it was written by a reviewer who hadn’t read the book:

The novel follows a young black man living nomadically in big cities and small towns in the Southern United States, and his struggles with segregation and racism. The book correlates the man’s experience with Dante’s Inferno, and includes a diagram of the fictional hell described by Dante Alighieri.

The other, which is possibly even more frivolous, is that Baraka foresees the rise of text abbreviations much like used today on the internet to save keystrokes. No, he never writes LOL or ROTFLMAO but you have to lookout for THOT and WD and CD … not too much but just enough to tweak my personal dislike of dialect and misplaced argot.


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