By CAGJ Co-Chair, Reid Mukai
Amiri Baraka, longtime activist and one of the great American poets, passed away on January 9 at age 79. The cause of his death, at Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey, was not immediately released, but he was hospitalized in the facility’s intensive care unit since Dec. 21 and had a long struggle with diabetes.
Reflecting the exploratory and always-evolving nature of his mind, Amiri’s career path connected him to the Greenwich Village Beat community, the Black Nationalists, the Black Arts Movement (which he founded in 1964), and Marxist-Leninists. Though his beliefs during different stages of life may have different labels, he was consistently committed to justice, unity, social change and the struggle against oppression. As a revolutionary organizer, cultural critic, poet, novelist, essayist, historian, playwright, publisher and orator, Amiri Baraka’s words and ideas have influenced and inspired untold numbers of people around the world. His works have also been the source of much controversy, outrage and condemnation, at least during the initial time of their release.
One of Baraka’s last great acts as a rabble-rouser was his recitation of his poem “Somebody Blew Up America” before 2,000 people at the September 2002 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival held in Stanhope, New Jersey. This was incredibly courageous because throughout the country (especially on the East Coast) just one year after the attacks, questioning the official 9/11 story was enough to make one viewed as a conspiracy theorist, an apologist for terrorists, possibly traitorous, and/or insensitive to victims and their families. To do so and implicate the Israeli government, as Amiri Baraka did in his poem, led to accusations of antisemitism from the Anti-Defamation League.
Many at the time believed the accusations even though under closer scrutiny they don’t hold up. The first line in question is: “Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion And cracking they sides at the notion?” This is a reference to an actual incident widely reported by mainstream news outlets such as ABC, NBC, and the New York Times. The second questionable line reads: “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?” For this, there’s less documented evidence that can be easily found, though there seems to have been lots of rumors going around at the time. The closest documentarion I could find was a Haaretz article about two employees of an Israeli instant messaging company called Odigo who reported to the FBI that they had received messages warning of the attack two hours before it happened. It seems an unfair stretch to say that referencing Israelis who possibly had foreknowledge of the attacks means that Amiri Baraka is racist. The use of the word Israelis instead of Jews indicates he was more concerned with the power of governments. This interpretation is reinforced by other lines of the poem such as: “Who killed the most niggers Who killed the most Jews Who killed the most Italians Who killed the most Irish Who killed the most Africans Who killed the most Japanese Who killed the most Latinos” and “Who blew up the Maine & started the Spanish American War Who got Sharon back in Power Who backed Batista, Hitler, Bilbo, Chiang kai Chek”.
Amiri Baraka was appointed Poet Laureate of New Jersey just one month before delivering “Somebody Blew Up America” to the public. Despite immense pressure from the powers that be to resign immediately, he steadfastly refused. In his own words, from an October 2, 2002 post on his website: “I WILL NOT ‘APOLOGIZE’, I WILL NOT ‘RESIGN!'” Governor Jim McGreevey and state legislators discovered there was no legal way to remove Poet Laureate appointees so in an act revealing their fear, hatred and desperation, they abolished the post in July 2003. This is just one chapter of many from Baraka’s often history-making career, but it’s emblematic of his courage, integrity, dedication to truth, and stubborn stance against injustice. This isn’t to say he was a saint or superhero. None of us are without fault, but what we can learn from Amiri is that development of political thought and civic engagement can and should be lifelong processes, and one can remain true to oneself yet open to new ideas and experiences. Above all, his life is a reminder that simple words (especially when composed and unleashed with skill at the right place and time) contain immense power; sometimes enough to change the world.