When New Jersey’s controversial poet laureate, Amiri Baraka, spoke at Yale University February 24, many members of the Jewish campus community were appalled. Why, they wondered, would the university’s Afro-American Cultural Center and black student group host someone who had sparked a national uproar only five months earlier with a poem suggesting Israel had prior knowledge of the World Trade Center attacks?
But the event at Yale was not the first time that Baraka received a warm welcome since September, when the national media first began reporting on “Who Blew Up America.” Baraka has since received standing ovations at several college campuses following readings of his poem, in which he asks: “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?”
When the controversy erupted, Baraka was lambasted in national media outlets and urged to resign by the New Jersey governor who appointed him in the first place, James McGreevey. Baraka, in turn, has been defiant, refusing to apologize, standing by his assertions about the 4,000 Israeli workers and calling charges of antisemitism against him a “slander.”
But while Baraka has become a target of Jewish ire — and legislative efforts to strip him of his poet laureate position — many in the black community have rallied around the fiery radical and founder of the 1960s’ Black Arts Movement.
“This poem is meant to incite, provoke, challenge, and offend the sensibilities of the status quo. It is the role that art has historically played in our society,” wrote Walter Fields, former political director of the New Jersey NAACP, in an October opinion article in New Jersey’s Bergen Record.
“Baraka is an equal opportunity offender; there are choice passages in his poem that confront just about every group imaginable, including blacks. And that is a healthy expression of art,” Fields wrote of the poem, which also attacks prominent black Republicans, calling National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice a “Skeeza,” slang for prostitute.
The initial calls for Baraka to resign came under fire in black newspapers, such as The Philadelphia Tribune and New York’s Amsterdam News. Known for his periodic rants about Jewish influence, Amsterdam News emeritus publisher Wilbert Tatum praised Baraka’s “epic poem about 9/11 that will live for as long as there is value attached to poetry in our time.” Meanwhile, in November, the embattled bard was named poet laureate of the school district in his largely black hometown of Newark, N.J.
Observers offer various explanations for why many blacks have rushed to Baraka’s defense — including the suggestion that his warm reception in certain segments of the black community actually has little to do with his theories.
Julius Lester, a professor of Judaic studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and an African-American convert to Judaism, said that when a prominent black, such as Baraka, finds himself under attack, “the black community tends to rally around the person.” He suggested, however, that support for Baraka has little to do with any support for the content of his ideas. Lester said that for these reasons the Jewish community’s vocal response to Baraka may have been counterproductive.
Linn Washington, a columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune and an associate professor of journalism at Temple University, objected to what he said was “an inordinate amount of attention” that was focused on the poem “when the wheels of state government have never turned with such fury on the issue of racial profiling.” In truth, Washington said, Baraka’s poem has not really been that “big of a controversy or an issue in the African-American community.”
McGreevey has maintained that under New Jersey law he cannot fire the poet laureate, who serves a two-year term. But the New Jersey chapter of the Anti-Defamation League is supporting legislation that would abolish the position. The proposed bill passed in the state senate without any “no” votes, but barely garnered enough support to pass. All of the state senate’s black members abstained, the functional equivalent of a “no” vote. The legislation’s prospects in the state assembly are unclear.
The ADL’s New Jersey regional director, Shai Goldstein, however, said that many prominent black New Jerseyans have been quite critical of Baraka. For example, he said, the head of the state’s Black Ministers Council, Reverend Reginald Jackson, has publicly suggested that Baraka should resign. Goldstein also pointed to four black assembly members who are co-sponsors of the bill to abolish the poet laureate position.
“The African-American community is as diverse as the Jewish community,” Goldstein said. “To say there’s a monolithic response by the African-American community to any issue is absurd.”
One outspoken black critic of Baraka, New York Daily News columnist and jazz scholar Stanley Crouch, said that Baraka’s rhetoric should not have surprised anyone in the first place. Baraka “should not be asked to resign,” Crouch wrote in an October column. “Those who appointed him should resign — if they have read his work over the last 35 years. It is an incoherent mix of racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, black nationalism, anarchy and ad hominem attacks relying on comic book and horror film characters and images that he has used over and over and over.”
The decision of the Newark school district to honor Baraka was panned on a segment of Fox News Channel’s “O’Reilly Factor” last month by John McWhorter, a University of California at Berkeley linguist and author of the newly released “Authentically Black: Essays for the Black Silent Majority” (Gotham Books). McWhorter argued that the embrace of Baraka was “a symptom of a much larger problem” in the black community.
“There has reigned a sense, since especially in the late 1960s, that the essence of being an engaged forward-thinking black person is to be alienated, to be alienated often beyond what empirical evidence would suggest,” McWhorter said. “That is what Amiri Baraka’s career has always been about, and, unfortunately, he and the people who sparked that movement have passed that on to a lot of ordinary citizens.”
But Baraka has also been well received by some white audiences. Both Baraka’s controversial poem and his rambling statement responding to its critics have been posted on the far-left Counterpunch Web site, co-edited by journalist Alexander Cockburn, a bitter critic of Israel. And, The Charlotte Observer reported, Baraka received a standing ovation after reading “Somebody Blew Up America” at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event at Lenoir-Rhyne College, a small Lutheran institution in Hickory, N.C. The reporter who covered the event, Kathryn Wellin, told the Forward that she felt that the largely white audience was responding to the poet’s “anti-Bush stance.”