Literary warrior uses poetry as a weapon

`Write Now 4' conference at Coppin includes N.J. poet laureate under fire

March 15, 2003|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Amiri Baraka refuses to go gently into the gray twilight of retirement.

A major literary provocateur for more than four decades, Baraka, now 68, has written what is currently the hottest poem in the United States, Somebody Blew up America, which is famous - or infamous - largely because the Jewish Anti-Defamation League has branded it anti-Semitic.

Baraka, who defends himself vigorously against that charge, will be keynote speaker today at the "Write Now 4" African-American literary conference at Coppin State College.

His 227-line poem, prompted by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, is mostly a series of questions:

Who got the money

Who think you funny

Who locked you up

Who own the papers

Who owned the slave ship

Who run the army

Who the fake president

Who the ruler

Who the banker

Who? Who? Who?

The lines that inspired the ADL condemnation suggest that Israel knew beforehand the attack was coming.

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?

That accusation is apparently widely believed in the Arab Middle East, but widely dismissed in America. At least five Israelis died in the 9/11 attacks, four on airliners and one in the collapse of the buildings. It's been estimated that 200 Jews were killed.

Because Baraka is poet laureate of New Jersey and read the poem at a New Jersey poetry festival, the New Jersey branch of the ADL fired off a letter to Gov. James E. McGreevey:

"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."

After Baraka read his poem again in February at Yale University, where he once taught, Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the ADL, wrote in the Yale Daily News: "Plain and simple he is an anti-Semite who spreads hatred."

During a telephone interview this week, Baraka flatly denied being anti-Semitic.

"Anybody who knows me knows that's not true," he says. "If they read the poem, they would see there's nothing in that poem. As a matter of fact, the poem talks bad about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. It attacks the creators of the Holocaust. It links the creators of the Holocaust to the America First movement."

Those lines ask:

Who put Jews in ovens

and helped them do it

Who said "America First"

and ok'd the yellow stars

Who killed Rosa Luxemburg, Liebknecht

Who murdered the Rosenbergs

And all the good people iced,

Tortured, assassinated, vanished

Baraka posted a long defense on his Web site after a news conference last October where he responded to his critics. The title sums up his statement: "I will not apologize. I will not resign."

He had been poet laureate of New Jersey a little more than a month. When McGreevey sought to fire Baraka, he found that legally he could not. So he urged him to resign. The state Senate voted to abolish the post of poet laureate. The legislation awaits final action.

"I don't think they'll be able to do that. I think when it gets to the Assembly, it's gonna flunk," Baraka says. "Why should New Jersey get the reputation as being too vulgar, too illiterate, too backward to have a poet laureate. And why? Simply because I made remarks about Israel. And then get attacked by the ADL."

Baraka has been a fiery poet-warrior, as The New York Times called him, for nearly 50 years.

"My intention always is to use poetry as a weapon," he says. "They say a weapon mightier than the sword. Heh. Heh. I think you have to keep a sword nearby just in case.

"But I think that's correct generally. Nobody knows who the generals were during Shakespeare's time. You know what I mean? Nobody knows who ran the big businesses, the movers and shakers.

"Who do we remember? We remember Shakespeare. Why? His words, what he said, ideas that still relate to human need. And that I think has not changed."

Baraka lives in Newark, not far from where he grew up as Everett LeRoy Jones, the son of a Post Office superintendent and a social worker. He went to Howard University in the early 1950s, spent two years in the Air Force, then did graduate work at Columbia University.

As LeRoi Jones, he burst on the literary scene with the Beat Generation, when he was a friend of Allen Ginsberg's and Jack Kerouac's. He published his first book of poetry, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, in 1961. His play Dutchman, about a fatal confrontation between a Bohemian white woman and an intellectual black man, won an Obie award as the best American play of 1964. His 1963 book on jazz, Blues People: Negro Music in White America, remains a classic. He assumed a rigorous black nationalist stance - and the name Amiri Baraka - after Malcolm X was killed in 1965. He adopted "Third World Marxist-Leninist" politics in the '70s.

"I am a Marxist," he told Bill O'Reilly, during a January TV interview that rapidly descended into farce.

"I think you're a lunatic," O'Reilly said.

"Well," Baraka replied, "I think you're a lunatic who's more dangerous because you're on television."

Along with Yale, Baraka has taught at Rutgers, San Francisco State and the State University of New York, where he taught for 20 years in the African studies department. He retired in 1999. He remains as radically intransigent as ever in retirement.

"We have been under terrorism since we got here, the African-American people, in the bottom of boats." he says. "That's where that poem comes from.

"I'm not apologizing and I'm not resigning," he says. "Because I'm telling the truth. Why should I submit to fools and liars? I stand by what I said."


Who: Amiri Baraka

What: "Write Now 4! An African-American Literary experience"

When: 1 p.m. today

Where: Coppin State College, 2500 W. North Ave.

Call: 410-318-8604

Admission: Free for Coppin students; $15 others

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