Amiri Baraka 1 Year as Poet Laureate

Amiri Baraka 1 Year as Poet Laureate, New Jersey has an image problem. The politicians keep trying to improve New Jersey’s image with slogans. Governor Kean replaced the slogan “New Jersey’s Got It!” with “New Jersey and You, Perfect Together.” Then, one-term Governor Jim Florio gave us “New Jersey Works,” which was followed by “New Jersey: What a Difference a State Makes.” Currently the state is pushing the back-from-retirement “New Jersey and You: Perfect Together.”

When asked to contribute possible state slogans, New Jersey’s blue-collar realists suggested:

New Jersey: We Kick Delaware’s Butt
New Jersey: A 55-Gallon Drum of Fun
New Jersey: Gateway to Everywhere Else
New Jersey: Landfill of Enchantment
New Jersey: Don’t Laugh, It’s Paid For.

Other contributions included such random ruminations as:
“I like New Jersey because my mother-in-law from Pennsylvania is afraid to come here.”
“I like New Jersey because this is where I learned to swear in Italian.”
“I like New Jersey because a total stranger in Teaneck once flagged down my car to bum a light, and that couldn’t happen just anywhere.”

So when Governor McGreevey gave the green light for the appointment of New Jersey’s second-ever poet laureate, it was with the intention of improving New Jersey’s image. No such luck. The only part of the ensuing mess that surprised Manhattan’s coffeehouse sophisticates was the discovery that New Jersey had a poet laureate. Their ignorance is forgivable.

Twenty-two states have poets laureate. The post of American national poet laureate was created in 1937 and was originally called Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. It was changed to “poet laureate” in 1985. The title was a way for poets to commemorate national occasions. The post of New Jersey poet laureate was established by law in 1999. Then-Governor Christine Todd Whitman named Gerald Stern the state’s first poet laureate in 2000. The tenure is two years and includes a ten-thousand-dollar stipend. The honoree is expected to perform at least two public readings annually and to promote poetry in the schools and throughout the state.

New Jersey’s second poet laureate was chosen by a selection committee appointed by the New Jersey Council for the Humanities and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. Governor James McGreevey then issued a proclamation naming Amiri Baraka as New Jersey’s reigning poet laureate. It was all downhill from there.

Amiri Baraka has been a vocal exponent of what he calls “Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong thought” since the 1970s. In October 2001 he wrote a 226-line poem titled Somebody Blew Up America, which was his response to the flying fuel-bomb mass murders of September 11th, 2001. On Saturday September 21, 2002 he read this poem before an audience at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival at Waterloo Village in Stanhope, New Jersey. Folks in the audience began booing the poet laureate. To this day it isn’t clear whether people were offended by the poem’s message or by its plodding lock-step monotonous drum-beat construction. It had all the poetic qualities of a 1950s Soviet “boy-meets-tractor” propaganda film.

What caught the ears of Jews in the audience were lines such as:
Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion
And cracking they sides at the notion

Who set the Reichstag Fire
Who knew the World Trade Center
was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the
Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?

Jews and Jewish organizations cried foul and called for Baraka’s resignation. Baraka told them to stuff it. Soon Governor McGreevey was feeling the heat. He requested Baraka’s resignation. Baraka told the governor to stuff it.

To his dismay, the governor discovered that while some poets laureate serve “at the pleasure” of government officials, New Jersey’s lawmakers had not provided any legal mechanism for removing New Jersey’s top poet. The old rage-against-the-machine politics of the 1960s may no longer resonate, especially at poetry festivals, but Baraka was still raging. Baraka observed: “If they’re gonna name a poet laureate they ought to have some familiarity with his work.” Good point. Baraka can be called many things, but “secretive” isn’t one of them. He has been shooting off his mouth for decades.

Meet the Poet

Amiri Baraka was born in Newark, New Jersey on October 7, 1934. From his birth until 1968 he was Everett LeRoy Jones, the son of postal supervisor Colt LeRoy Jones and Anna Lois Jones, a social worker. He did a stint at Rutgers, then transferred to Howard University and flunked out in 1954. He disparaged Howard University as “an employment agency.” Then he volunteered for the Air Force and disparaged the Air Force as the “Error Farce.” In 1957 the Air Force bounced his ass “under undesirable circumstances.” Later that year he moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan and attached himself to a loose circle of Greenwich Village artists. He promptly “Frenchified” his name to “LeRoi.” The French communist theorists were all the rage just then, don’t ‘cha know.

A year later this restless middle-class black man married a middle-class Jewish woman, Hettie Cohen, and they began to co-edit an avant-garde magazine called Yugen. It was about then that he began to write poetry and prose; he was now a black bohemian with a Jewish wife and two daughters.

In 1965 Jones made the decision to dump his Jewish wife and two kids and reinvent himself as a righteous black supremacist. He moved to Harlem and married a black woman named Sylvia Robinson. That same year he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School in Harlem which presented Jones’ anti-white plays before black-only audiences. This little hatefest fell apart within months.

Near the end of 1965, when it finally dawned on LeRoi Jones that he would never be accepted as the successor of the slain Malcolm X, he returned to Newark and underwent yet another fashion-name make over. First he began calling himself by the Bantuized Muslim name Ameer Barakat, which means “Blessed Prince,” which is a revealing thing to name oneself. Soon afterward he changed his name again, this time at the suggestion of fellow black nationalist Maulana Karenga, formerly Ron Karenga, the fabricator of Kwanzaa. Now LeRoi Jones was calling himself by the Swahilized name Imamu Amiri Baraka. The Imamu part is actually a religious title with which Baraka anointed himself; it means “Spiritual Leader.” Baraka dumped the Imamu part when, on a trip to Africa, people kept asking him to bless them. Sylvia changed her name to Amina. Fashion makeovers are very big with the leftist avant-garde, even as everything else about them remains utterly predictable.

During the 1965 New York City blackout, Baraka (then Jones) drove around Harlem in a sound truck urging black looters to “rip these stores off. Take everything. Come out and get it.” Baraka was also out and about on the streets of Newark during the 1967 six-day race riot that hurried that city’s decline and cemented its reputation as a place to steer clear of. Before the rise of Black Power, Newark had a population of 405,000 souls; by the year 2000 the population had plunged to 273,546. The smart money left Newark in a hurry, leaving Jones and his fellow Marxist theorists to ponder the future of a city with a vanishing tax base. After the looting festival of 1967 and the rioting that racked the city a year later after the death of Martin Luther King, no business in Newark could get insurance. Newark survives today by sponging the earnings of healthier neighboring communities. The riot that spawned 300 fires, left 26 people dead and cleaned out countless food, liquor, clothing, jewelry, appliance and hardware stores is Newark’s enduring monument to the destructive romanticism of shallow and short-sighted intellects like that of Amiri Baraka.

Baraka chanted the mindless mantra of Black Power over and over again. He later admitted that he had no idea what the term meant. “We had not completely focused on the meaning of the term, but we knew it was correct and ours.” By “correct” he doesn’t mean politically correct, he means “racially correct.” Whatever it was, they knew it was black. Baraka went around spray painting the words “Black Power” on Newark’s walls because it felt good. Rioting soon spread to Englewood, Plainfield and Jersey City. Angry Black Power advocates like Baraka had made rioting fashionable. People who could barely read were convinced that somehow black intellectuals had discovered a justification for looting stores. That was good enough to silence any scruple they may have had that stealing was wrong. A week after Newark burst into flames, Detroit exploded. Forty-three people were killed. Army paratroopers and National Guardsmen were called in to reestablish civilized order.

In 1968, Baraka helped organize the Committee for a Unified Newark, which was dedicated to running non-white candidates for the city council. In 1970, a black alliance ran the Community Choice slate with a city engineer named Ken Gibson for mayor. Among the seven council candidates was a gym teacher from Florida named Sharpe James. Celebrities flocked to Newark to promote the black alliance: James Brown, Bill Cosby, Stevie Wonder, Dustin Hoffman, Beau Bridges and The Supremes were pushing the slate. Jesse Jackson flew in the day before the election to share the spotlight. Gibson won by a slim margin. Sharpe James and two other black alliance candidates also won.

Baraka began spouting Marxist nonsense in 1974. He implored the working class to revolt against the bourgeoisie. White folks ignored him; the black working class was much too busy becoming the bourgeoisie to listen. By this time Baraka’s intellect had exhausted its originality. Henceforth, he would only repeat himself with variations. Baraka wrote his last good book in 1965. His poetry since then has been clumsy agitprop. Nothing will corrode a poetic soul faster than fretting about whether a poem comports with the thinking of the ruling commissariat, even if that commissariat is inside the poet’s own head.

Showdown at the Poetry Festival

Amiri Baraka had been shopping his poem around for almost a year before he was booed at Waterloo. Until then he got the benefit of liberal condescension; he was, after all, “oppressed” and had to be praised for even mediocre efforts. If the things he said sounded stupid or immoral it was because he had made some soulful connection to a black experience that the white bourgeoisie couldn’t hope to fathom. Just ask the gangsta rappers. They’re hip.

But on Saturday, something snapped. Baraka just sounded like a tone-deaf, morally obtuse jerk. The game was finally up. From the beginning, hatred had been Baraka’s specialty. Four decades ago he was pounding out such lines as:

Rape the white girls.
Rape their fathers.
Cut the mothers’ throats.
Black dada nihilismus,
choke my friends.

About the time he dumped his Jewish wife and daughters he began cranking out junk like this:

Smile, jew. Dance, jew. Tell me you
love me, jew. I got
something for you, like you dig,
I got. I got this thing, goes pulsating
through black everything
universal meaning. I got the
extermination blues, jewboys. I got
the hitler syndrome figured.

The New York Times must have had this little toe-tapper in mind when its editorial praised Baraka as “a powerful and respected poet.”

Baraka’s bloated opus Somebody Blew Up America doesn’t rhyme or scan. It’s just Baraka pumping out The World According to Baraka. It’s an X-ray photo of his soul and a test of his intellectual worth. That’s the problem: the poem is rubbish on every level. It’s false history in the service of a hateful ideology.
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?

What 4000 Israelis? They never existed. Five hundred Jews perished when the towers collapsed. As for Sharon, he was home on business. Baraka says that five Israelis “was filming the explosion and cracking they sides at the notion,” but he has no evidence. Baraka says he believes the story that Israeli, American and some European governments knew of the impending attacks on America but let the attacks happen in order to justify an invasion of Arab nations. A week after his poetry reading at Waterloo, Baraka disclosed his pet theory to the Newark Star Ledger (9/28/02): “The Israelis knew about it just like Bush knew about it, just like the Germans knew about it, just like the French knew about it. Bush couldn’t hope for a better legitimization of his trying to make the Middle East a gas station.”

When pressed for evidence, all Baraka could manage was a feeble “This is all on the Internet.” Who could ask for more proof than that? It’s on the Internet. This is what Marxist poets produce when they search for inspiration with a search engine. Baraka’s poem would also have us believe that whitey created AIDS and assassinated Malcolm X.
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