As you know by now, the great poet Amiri Baraka has joined the ancestors. In A Nation within a Nation, author Komozi Woodard eloquently wrote in the preface, "Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) - author of over twenty plays, three jazz operas, seven books of nonfiction, a novel, and thirteen volumes of poetry - is best known as a major cultural leader, one of the African American writers who galvanized a second Black Renaissance, the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, making an indelible contribution to modern African American culture and consciousness."
My personal connection to Mr. Baraka started when I met him at a reparations rally in Washington DC in 2002, I believe. Then I interviewed him for a story for the New York Amsterdam News a couple months later. The backstory is that I was given the assigned the story on October 7th - on his birthday. My editor managed to track him down at a birthday luncheon taking place at a New Jersey restaurant, I believe. So I call him and he had to remove himself from his birthday celebration to talk to me on the phone - and it was not a cell phone - about the controversy swirling around his poem, "Somebody blew up America". Despite being his birthday, he was very gracious and eager to talk to me about the poem and the controversy that started when the poem was criticized by a Jewish group, who then described Mr. Baraka as an anti-semite.
See the article below as it was published in the New York Amsterdam News and available here online
By Charles A. Brooks, Amsterdam News, 9 October 2002.
Social activist and prolific poet/writer Amiri Baraka recently became the center of controversy since New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey asked Baraka to resign his position as poet laureate of New Jersey because of Baraka’s poem “Somebody Blew Up America.”
The flare-up began after Baraka read the poem at the 2002 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival at Waterloo Village in Stanhope on Sept. 19.
The controversial portion reads: “Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed/Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers/To stay home that day/Why did Sharon stay away?”
After speaking at a press conference yesterday at the Newark Library in New Jersey, Baraka spoke with the Amsterdam News. “They singled out a few lines, and for them to say that it’s anti-Semitic is incorrect. First-of-all, coming from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), it’s slander. It’s a cover. They use the religion to cover their political ideology. Anytime you have an opinion that is independent of the ADL, you’re cast as an anti-Semite. It’s absurd,” Baraka said.
The governor’s spokesman, Kevin Davitt, said that the language used in Baraka’s poem could be interpreted as stating that Israelis were forewarned of the September 11th terrorist attacks. “Mr. Baraka should clarify the intent of his language, apologize for any potential misinterpretation of his language and resign,” Davitt said.
The Anti-Defamation League immediately characterized Baraka’s “criticism” of Israel as anti-Semitic. ADL also maintains that Baraka’s poem suggests that Israel knew of the pending terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and warned 4,000 Israeli World Trade Center workers not to come to work that day, implying that Israel was somehow involved in the September 11th terrorist plot.
The ADL characterized Baraka’s poem as a “big lie.”
“It’s a great hypocrisy, and people know this, especially those in high places, because they don’t want to be hounded in the same way that I’m hounded now,” Baraka said.
In a letter written by William Davidson, ADL-New Jersey state chairman, and Charles Goldstein, ADL’s regional director, to the governor, they said how pleased they were that the governor “condemned” Baraka’s remarks and “urged” him to resign.
“While typically ADL does not take the issue with the content of poetry or other forms of expression, no matter how repugnant, the fact that Mr. Baraka is the poet laureate of New Jersey and was introduced as such at a major New Jersey poetry festival attracting a large audience, brings his performance to a higher level of concern and spurs us to write you.” The letter goes on to say: “It may be that as a poet, Mr. Baraka may say what he chooses, no matter how ugly, irresponsible or deceptive. However, we don’t believe that the residents of New Jersey, nor their representatives, should have such venom spewed in their name. Therefore, we are pleased that as governor of the state of New Jersey you condemn Amiri Baraka’s remarks and will urge him to consider resigning from his post as poet laureate of the state of New Jersey.”
However, the poem—in its entirety—seems to suggest something different altogether. For example, throughout the poem, Baraka appears to contradict the American ideal by exposing several episodes, such as slavery, Jim Crow, assassinations, manifest destiny, racism, global oppression and genocide, through cynical yet engaging poetic verses. Baraka highlights these events by asking questions throughout the poem that begin with the word “who.” Baraka explained: “The message of the poem was to show how Blacks were affected by terrorism. I mean, Blacks have been under terrorism since we’ve been here.” Baraka continued, “I also wanted to show the people who also suffered from terrorism all over the world.”
Kalamu ya Salaam, who is a poet, dramatist and music critic, told the AmNews he doesn’t agree with the implication that Baraka’s poem is anti-Semitic. “First of all, I don’t accept the general catchphrase of anti-Semitism as a criticism of Israel. You can criticize Israel but not be anti-Semitic. Secondly, the poem is just that—a poem. It’s not a statement by a head of government. The poem only asks a questions. And if we’re afraid of questions, then we’re really in trouble,” Salaam explained.
A committee convened by the New Jersey Council for the Humanities and the State Council on the Arts selected Baraka as poet laureate last month. He was given a proclamation and a two-year, $10,000 appointment to promote and encourage poetry. But Baraka’s title of poet laureate and the grant money cannot be withdrawn, and he cannot be removed from the position unless he decides to resign, which he steadfastly refuses to do. The governor does not have the power to remove Baraka because he did not appoint him to the post.