copy to Don Allen
21 December, 2002
Dear Amiri Baraka,
Just to say that the ongoing political despair of many of us – certainly my own – now meets up with this appalling abuse and distortion of your admirable, political purpose. I went to the Net this morning to reread your poem and found your valuable statement [see below] as well. I’ve read your poem several times – there is no anti-Semitism there. In fact, such would never have come to mind before this attack. Your theme is who who who. This attack is big bushwhacking in response to your having uncovered, in a public poem, political horrors set aside by the common “media” (among these horrors, I note the attendant religious spirals.) I am sad that a questionable and manipulated presidency finds power in the manipulation of the grief of September 11, 2001 – grief for the thousands who died, grief for New York, grief for America – into worldwide wars, defining the abstraction of the word terrorism. It’s an oil spill over our hearts and minds.
Thank you for your tough art and mind.
The letter reproduced here was sent by Robin Blaser to Amiri Baraka shortly after controversy erupted regarding Baraka’s poem, “Who Blew Up America.” Baraka, who had recently been appointed Poet Laureate of New Jersey,was excoriated for being anti-Semitic and anti-American. Jelani Cobb, in an essay he wrote for The New Yorker (January 15, 2014) on the occasion of Baraka’s death contextualized the event
In 2002, Baraka was singed by the controversy over his poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” about the nearly three thousand Americans who died on September 11th. The poem was assailed as anti-Semitic for a stanza implying Israel had prior knowledge of the attack:
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?
After the publication of the poem, Baraka gave interviews suggesting that he did genuinely believe that the Israeli and the American governments had had forewarning of the attacks. But the outrage over these lines obscured the meaning of the poem: it’s a conspiracist’s view of history, placing September 11th, and its victims, in the context of a lineage of inhumanities that includes colonialism, the Armenian genocide, Irish subjugation, apartheid, the Holocaust, class exploitation, and enough other cruelties to fill a syllabus on human-rights abuses. Lesser discussed were the lines
Who killed Huey Newton, Fred Hampton,
Medgar Evers, Mikey Smith, Walter Rodney,
Was it the ones who tried to poison Fidel
Who tried to keep the Vietnamese Oppressed
Who put a price on Lenin’s head
Who put the Jews in ovens,
and who helped them do it
Who said “America First”
and ok’d the yellow stars
Who killed Rosa Luxembourg, Liebneckt
Who murdered the Rosenbergs
And all the good people iced,
tortured, assassinated, vanished
The broader point of the poem—that a vast diversity of people have been done in by the dark hand of malice—was overlooked in the ensuing controversy. The governor of New Jersey at the time, James McGreevey, demanded that Baraka apologize and resign from his position as the state’s Poet Laureate. Baraka refused, and later he gleefully noted that McGreevey ended up resigning before he did. (The state legislature eventually abolished the position entirely.)
Robin Blaser sent the letter to Baraka as the controversy raged and Baraka was subjected to a barrage of criticism.
For Amiri again, by Ammiel Alcalay
Reflecting on the short piece (see below) that I wrote for a public gathering of poets in support of Amiri Baraka, (some time after Robin Blaser wrote his unequivocal and heartfelt feelings of solidarity following the massive publicity gleaned from “Somebody Blew Up America”), I cannot help but think of the immensity of his presence and the equally immense loss of his presence.
The very presence of Amiri, and my relationship to him (like Edward Said, another departed friend), created a first line of defense, a buffer zone that shielded me, and so many others, from various forms of political erosion, undermining, and outright assault. While his funeral in Newark practically shut the city down, the memorial at the Poetry Project at St. Marks felt empty, sparsely attended, with too many participants bringing up uncertainties in their relationship to him.
I wondered then where the real undermining of his legacy might begin and it hasn’t surprised me that some of it has come from precisely those quarters one would have thought should be in solidarity with his work, thought, and life.
Two simple things strike me about the ensuing reactions to his poem and his statement about the poem: the first is that, as a master rhetorician, Baraka knew precisely which buttons needed to be pushed in order to elicit a response beyond usual readers of his work. By understanding this, he was able to engage in the public arena through the mass media precisely at a time when something so dismissively labeled “political” poetry, or the powerlessness of poetry in the face of the media, were simply assumptions, givens of the so-called “poetry world.” Thus, he amply demonstrated the lie about poetry having no power: it simply depends on what is actually in the poem.
The idea that other cultures (or even our own), for instance, might have poets whose work traveled immediately as news, as vital news, was something that had almost been surgically removed from the consciousness of North American poets. Perhaps even more importantly, the reaction to this poem showed that liberals and leftists were perhaps most indifferent to the actual power of cultural expression, since it has been the so-called right wing that actually pays much closer attention to the activities of poets working politically in and for the public.
The second thing is that too many poets and all the pundits got immeasurably more exercised over Baraka’s poem than over words issued or not issued by the US government and its elected or unelected representatives. In other words, the words in Baraka’s poem caused more consternation among many than words like “yellow-cake” or “weapons of mass destruction” or “torture” or “controlled demolition” or “evidence” or any number of other words that had the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Marines, various intelligence agencies, the senate, the congress, US policy, major corporations, the arms industry, private contractors, the Federal Reserve, the banking system, the mass media, and many other very powerful entities promoting or erasing these words.
These are the issues and gaps in understanding that cause death, starvation, misery, and suffering to untold millions, and it is this that ought to be the target of our ire, not the “content” of free speech.
John Sinclair, Amiri Baraka, and Ammiel Alcalay (2013)