Outspoken wordsmith and embattled New Jersey Poet Laureate Amiri Baraka visited Southeast San Diego's Malcolm X Library over the weekend, bringing a bevy of "lowcoup"-an African American form of verse he has derived from the Japanese poetry, Haiku. Of the many lowcoup Baraka shared with the ethnically diverse audience, there was one in particular with which they couldn't agree more: "In Mandarin, the word "Bush' means dumb mother-fucker."
That was only one of many verbal darts Baraka, 68, threw at President Bush during the controversial poet's speech at the library, where he shared the stage with longtime friend and equally controversial poet Quincy Troupe. Troupe resigned as California's poet laureate last year after questions were raised about his academic credentials.
Like Troupe, Baraka's role as poet laureate has been tangled in a web of controversy. His poem Somebody Blew Up America, a response to the events of 9/11, led New Jersey legislators to attempt unsuccessfully to oust Baraka from his position, raising questions of First Amendment rights and government censorship in post-9/11 America.
In Somebody Blew Up America, Baraka claims that the Israelis and President Bush knew about the attacks on the World Trade Center before they happened. Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), called the poem anti-Semitic, and several Jersey lawmakers called it un-American, prompting a call for his removal. Baraka has refused to resign.
The lines from the poem, which particularly angered the ADL and Jersey lawmakers, were these:
Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion/ and cracking they sides at the notion....
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....
Baraka, who says he referenced the information for his poem from a variety of news media, including Israeli newspapers, continues to stand behind the issues and claims raised in Somebody Blew Up America.
"What's so bizarre is that every week, more and more information is coming out about it, but people come to me as if I'm the only person who has said this," Baraka said. "Why didn't they say anything? Do you think this thing that's going on now could be going on without 9/11?"
Baraka said he has been unfairly targeted by the ADL, which in no way represents the views of all Jews, either in America or Israel, he said.
"The ADL is a rightwing, narrow-minded organization that is really a lobbyist for Israel that hides underneath this battery of calling everybody anti-Semitic.... They do not represent the mainstream of Jewish thought in America," said Baraka, who has children of Jewish descent from a previous marriage. One of those children is Village Voice writer and author of Bulletproof Diva, Lisa Jones.
"Israel does not want American Jews to understand that Israel regards them as Americans. They let them die in 9/11," Baraka added. "American Jews were not warned. Israelis were warned by Israel. Israel knew about it, Bush knew about it, Russia knew about it."
In response to Baraka's inflammatory poetry, New Jersey's state Senate approved a measure to abolish the poet laureate chair altogether. Shai Goldstein, the ADL's New Jersey regional director told The New York Times that Baraka was "a wordsmith, but people have to see through his lines." Goldstein added in the article, "[Baraka] has used his position to create a Big Lie of bigotry and racism."
A self-described Marxist, Baraka's literary credentials span four decades. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, where he still resides, Baraka (known as LeRoi Jones early in his writing career, before changing his name) rose to prominence in 1964 with the New York production of his play The Dutchman, which went on to earn an Obie Award. To many, he is known as the father of the '60s-era Black Arts Movement in Harlem, N.Y., and his book Blues People is regarded as a must-read by jazz and blues musicologists.
Over the years, Baraka has subscribed to various ideologies, Black Nationalism among them. "I used to have no problem getting my books published when I was a Black Nationalist, when I was saying, "Kill all of the white people-because it was silly.' But when I stopped saying that and started saying, "Unite and fight,' then I couldn't get published."
Tchiako Kwayana, founder of The Sankofa Bird Inc., the organization that brought Baraka to San Diego for his appearance, views Baraka's works as relevant to the current state of affairs in America. Baraka's situation, said Kwayana, is similar to that of the late vocalist Paul Robeson, who was labeled a communist during the McCarthy era and banned from performing in the U.S. because of his civil-rights-movement activities.
"We cannot have our people abused like that just because somebody doesn't like [them]," Kwayana said. "I think we can't allow censorship, or the people in power to silence our leaders."
Baraka added that he is also seeking legal means to collect the $10,000 stipend that comes with the job but he has not yet received. In the meantime, he said he would defiantly remain the New Jersey poet laureate.
"I am the New Jersey poet laureate until April 2004. There's nothing they can do about it," he said. "They are jumping up and down, making noise and making faces because they can't do anything about it. I was appointed by the Humanities Commission in New Jersey. I was given the doggone resolution signed by the Governor.
"There's nothing they can do about it."
(The entire text of Somebody Blew Up America can be found at www.amiribaraka.com/blew.html)