Dead at age 79, poet and activist Amiri Baraka is being remembered for groundbreaking plays like Dutchman and The Slave, his unwavering commitment to Newark, and his advocacy for African-American political power.
But the Jewish community will never forget his late-life chapter as a purveyor of an anti-Jewish conspiracy theory.
In September 2002, appearing as the state’s poet laureate at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Stanhope, Baraka read a lengthy work called “Somebody Blew Up America,” which included the following lines:
“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 [Israel’s late Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon stay away?”
When word reached New Jersey’s organized Jewish community that the poem suggested that thousands of Jews had advance notice of the attacks on the World Trade Center, its leaders demanded that Baraka be removed from his post.
“The poem is offensive to all Americans,” said Roger Jacobs, a West Orange attorney who was then vice president of the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations. “The poet laureate is a role model for students and should not be permitted to be a platform for bigotry.”
Within weeks, then Gov. James McGreevey called on Baraka to resign. The poet resisted, and courts ruled there was no legal way to remove him from his $10,000-a-year post. Baraka never repudiated the implication that thousands of Jews conspired to flee the Twin Towers.
David Mallach, then director of what became the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, led a successful lobbying effort at the State Legislature to abolish the post. It did so in July of 2003.
“If Baraka wants to be an anti-Semite, I can’t stop him,” Mallach told NJ Jewish News in May 2003. “I just have a problem with the fact he has official standing as the poet laureate of the State of New Jersey.”
Mallach, who is now managing director of the Commission on the Jewish People at UJA-Federation of New York, said Jan. 14 that Baraka “could never separate a commitment to a black nationalist vision from hating other people, in particular, Jews.”
“Somebody Blew Up America” was not Baraka’s first anti-Semitic utterance. In a poem published in 1969, the poet, then known as LeRoi Jones, angrily addressed his first wife, Hettie Cohen, as a “Fat jew girl,” and went on to declare, “I got the extermination blues, jewboys” before listing his grievances against Jewish landlords, publishers, and lawyers.
He was born in Newark as Everett Leroy Jones in 1934, graduated from Barringer High School, attended Rutgers and Howard universities, and was a veteran of the United States Air Force.
His perspective evolved from writing beatnik poetry and jazz criticism to black nationalism, then Marxism. He was an active force in black political movements in and outside Newark.
He died Jan. 9 at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center.
Among his best known works are The Dead Lecturer and Transbluesency: The Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, 1961-1995; the play Dutchman; and a 1963 study of jazz entitled Blues People: Negro Music in White America.
In 1958 he married Cohen, who was his colleague at a literary magazine. They divorced in 1964. Reviewing her 1990 autobiography, How I Became Hettie Jones, in The New York Times, feminist writer Susan Brownmiller called her “an adventurous Jewish girl with literary ambitions in the lonely conformity of the 1950s.”
“She writes utterly without rancor about the man who left her, communicating nothing short of wistfulness for the colorblind marriage they were able to achieve for a few short years before the march of events made it impossible,” Brownmiller wrote.
Baraka is survived by his second wife, Amina, four daughters, and four sons, including Ras Baraka, a member of the Newark City Council, as well as several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.