RIP Amiri Baraka, Who Was Once at the Center of a New Jersey Scandal

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Jan. 9 2014 3:59 PM

RIP Amiri Baraka, Who Was Once at the Center of a New Jersey Scandal

The Newark Star-Ledger's short obituary of Amiri Baraka, a homegrown poet, hits all the highlights. Baraka wrote Blues People, one of the best (if not the best) books on the early history of black popular music. Baraka was a radical poet whose most famous line—"Up against the wall, motherfucker"—has been adopted by people who don't even know who he was. The obituary ends with a glancing mention of Baraka's moment of political stardom.

Baraka was also the state's poet laureate for a short time in 2002 and 2003.
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It was short for a reason. In January 2002, Democrat Jim McGreevey became governor of New Jersey. Giving Baraka the poet laureate job was a no-brainer—he was a sort of icon, and a major figure within a constituency McGreevey counted on. But then came the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. On Sept. 20, Baraka read a poem that, for obvious reasons, is mirrored at the Anti-Defamation League website.

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? 

and

Who knew the bomb was gonna blow 
Who know why the terrorists 
Learned to fly in Florida, San Diego 
Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion 
And cracking they sides at the notion 

The poem, "Somebody Blew Up America," was a sort of paranoiac grand tour of atrocities throughout history, with special contempt reserved for Israel and for black conservatives. It became famous in the run-up to the midterm elections and the Iraq war, when Fox News outrage politics was really being born. Like David Orr reported at the time, in Slate, the generally liberal worlds of media and poetry refused to condemn Baraka or entertain the idea of sacking him. McGreevey, who (he thought) would one day have to be re-elected, scrambled and asked fellow Democrats in the state legislature to help him remove the poet.

The critics won. Baraka was gone. Three years later I briefly met him as he campaigned at a Newark street fair against Cory Booker, who was on his way to his first landslide mayoral election. Baraka never could defeat Booker, whom he called a "virtual mayor" too weak to oppose Klan-like Republicans.

Later this year, Newark will elect a new mayor to replace the vacant Booker. The front runner is a proudly radical city councilman named Ras Baraka. Amiri Baraka was his father.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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