Imamu Amiri Baraka vows to "go to the Supreme Court" if the New Jersey Legislature and Governor James McGreevey carry out their threat to revoke his appointment as the Garden State's poet laureate or block the $10,000 stipend that goes with the title. It isn't the money, he says. "Right now the most important thing to me is to disprove this lie that I'm anti-Semitic."
Now why would anyone think a cold thing like that about Amiri Baraka? And yet a lot of people do think it, especially since his recent appearance at the Dodge Poetry Festival, where he read a screed titled "Somebody Blew Up America." Its theme -- I think -- is that Baraka hates white Republicans (he compares Rudy Giuliani to David Duke) and black Republicans ("Who do Tom Ass Clarence Work for / Who doo doo come out the Colon's mouth"). But the people he really can't stand are -- well, Jews:
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?
That wasn't the poem's only reference to Jews. An earlier stich asks,
Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion
And cracking they sides at the notion.
Baraka is offended that anyone could interpret that as anti-Jewish. For one thing, he avers, "everything said about Israel in the poem is easily researched." Which is true, if "research" means trolling through Islamist or neo-Nazi web sites.
("Israelis at the Trade Center had been warned before the attack. . . . There could be no doubt that there had been a prior warning for many Israelis" -- David Duke, at www.davidduke.com/writings/howisraeliterror.shtml).
Second, complains Baraka, "if you criticize Israel, they . . . call you anti-Semitic." See, if he'd said 4,000 Jews were tipped off, that would have been an anti-Semitic canard. But why should he be labeled a Jew-hater just because he claimed that 4,000 Israelis were in on the plot?
Nobody was fooled by this sophistry. Among those who condemned Baraka was his predecessor as New Jersey's poet laureate, who was on the four-person committee that selected the new laureate in May and acknowledges pushing hard for Baraka to get the nod. "I was shocked at the stupidity" of Baraka's poem, Gerald Stern told The New York Times. "Lies never serve good and there was hate in it." Yes, there was, but should that really have come as a shock? "Somebody Blew Up America," after all, was published in October 2001, seven months before Stern was lobbying for Baraka to succeed him. The stupidity, lies, and hate were there for all to see long before the Dodge Poetry Festival. Hadn't Stern bothered to read Baraka's big post-9/11 opus before recommending him?
In fact, forget post-9/11 -- hadn't Stern or anyone else on the committee bothered to read any of Baraka's outpourings over the past 35 years? It isn't exactly a secret that the man's oeuvre is chock-full of racism, violence, and anti-semitism:
Smile, jew. Dance, jew. Tell me you
love me, jew. . . .
I got the
extermination blues, jewboys. I got
the hitler syndrome figured.
-- from "For Tom Postell, Dead Black Poet"
We want poems
like fists beating niggers out of Jocks
or dagger poems in the slimy bellies
of the owner-jews. . . .
Poems that wrestle cops into alleys
and take their weapons leaving them dead
with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland. . . .
Look at the Liberal
Spokesman for the jews clutch his throat
& puke himself into eternity. . .
Put it on him, poem. Strip him naked
to the world! Another bad poem cracking
steel knuckles in a jewlady's mouth.
-- from "Black Art"
Atheist Jews double crossers stole our secrets. . . . They give us to worship a dead Jew and not ourselves . . . . Selling fried potatoes and people, the little arty bastards talking arithmetic they sucked from the arab's head.
-- from "Black People"
In 1980, Baraka claimed to have overcome his hostility to Jews. Rather, he wrote in "Confessions of a former Anti-Semite," he should be understood as anti-Zionist. "Zionism is a form of racism. It is a political ideology that hides behind the Jewish religion and the Jewish people, while performing its negative tasks for imperialism." As for Jews, he made it clear that the ones he approved of were those who weren't too Jewish. He praised "the movement among middle-class Jews to become straightup Americans," and said that "shedding their 'Jewishness' represents a progressive trend."
To be sure, it isn't only Jews (or "Zionists") who draw Baraka's bile. When Rutgers University denied him tenure in 1990, he spat poison at the tenure committee, denouncing its members as "Ivy League Goebbels," "white supremacists," and "powerful Klansmen," whose "intellectual presence makes a stink across the campus like the corpses of rotting Nazis."
Then as now, Baraka threatened to go to court. Within months, however, he had left Rutgers for good. Alas, New Jersey won't be as lucky this time around.