Author’s Note: I wrote and published this essay in 2002 as the controversy surrounding Amiri Baraka, his poem “Somebody Blew Up America” and his position as Poet Laureate of the State of New Jersey, erupted. The following year, I invited Baraka to Rutgers – the State University of New Jersey in my capacity as the first Poet-in-Residence for the African American Studies Department on the Camden campus. This essay was read as a part of my introductory remarks. Amiri Baraka made transition on January 9, 2014. ~EXO
Who the biggest terrorist
Who change the bible
Who killed the most people
Who do the most evil
Who don’t worry about survival
Who have the colonies
Who stole the most land
Who rule the world
Who say they good but only do evil
Who the biggest executioner …
Who told you what you think that you later find out a lie
Who? Who? Who?
Amiri Baraka, “Somebody Blew Up America” (excerpt)
In Stephen Henderson’s 1973 work, Understanding the New Black Poetry, he states that the “great overarching movement of consciousness for Black people” is the “idea of Liberation.” In that movement poet and political activist Amiri Baraka, the person, his work, is exemplary. He not only represents that movement, he is the epitome of that movement. He is our liberation-consciousness personified. We can chart the state of our movement along the projectile of his development.
According to the late Great Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka’s “work works. Baraka is always news.” This latest controversy surrounding his poem, “Somebody Blew Up America” and post as Poet Laureate of New Jersey is testament to Brook’s insight on Baraka. But this is just the latest chapter in the life of a long-distance worker for the liberation and self-determination of African American people. Baraka been making news even when “the news” didn’t want to take notice. Already a well-established literary figure in the New York literary arts world in the early Sixties, Baraka — moved by the clarity and commitment of Malcolm X — would leave Greenwich Village and relocate uptown in Harlem and institute The Black Arts Repertory Theater in 1965. The key architect in the development of the Black Arts Movement, Baraka would help lay the cultural foundation for the burgeoning Black Power Movement. As he has said, “We wanted to make a popular revolutionary art. Art that would be as strong as Malcolm, as strong as the Panthers.” But his contribution didn’t stop there. He would return to Newark, NJ and organize a united front of Black folk to elect the city’s first Black mayor. Then spurred on by that major victory and similar victories being won for Black self-determination across the country, he sought to advance Black political power to the national level, and called for and mobilized Black people to gather at what would be the capstone of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, the National Black Assembly held in Gary, IN, 1972. That body would develop the Black Agenda. Since then and before, the Black community has attempted to advance our struggle to the international level. It is at this level where our community has been hit hardest by the brute force of the system of white supremacy and state-sanctioned repression. Witness the bulleted bodies of Malcolm and Martin. Both assassinated at the point when they were seeking to advance our struggle to the international level. Witness the continued exile of Assata Shakur in Cuba. The recent attempt to extradite her by the state of New Jersey in cahoots with the Congress is reminder that there is still work that needs to be done. As Gwen said, Amiri Baraka’s works works. And his work is ever addressing these issues and our oppressed reality as African Americans. Urging us on to fight, to write, and to fight some more. Amiri Baraka’s work represents the latest articulation of our struggle for freedom and self-determination. Benefiting from the work of his predecessors, Baraka’s aim is to advance the struggle. To connect our struggle with the world-wide struggle against global white supremacy/Western hegemony and its modus operandi, imperialism.
This latest controversy surrounding his poem, “Somebody Blew Up America” must be seen in the light of African American liberation struggle to be seen clearly. To speak of it as an issue of free speech is to belittle not just Baraka and his contribution to the African American struggle for liberation and self-determination, but is to belittle that movement itself.
This past July Amiri Baraka was named poet laureate of New Jersey, only the second person to sit in the position created in 1999. Two months later and a year after he wrote the poem in response to the attacks of 9/11, Baraka read “Somebody Blew Up America” at the Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival in Waterloo, NJ. The Anti-Defamation League then decried the poem as “anti-Semitic” and called on the governor of New Jersey, Democract McGreevey, to get rid of Baraka. McGreevey responded to the pressure by calling for his resignation and putting a freeze on Baraka’s honorarium for the post. He would later be informed that the governor doesn’t have any authority to fire poet laureates like Baraka. So now the Jersey legislature is coming together in good ol’ boy bipartisan fashion to create a law that would give McGreevey the power to oust Baraka.
This entire controversy centers around a few lines at the end of a 6 page poem that questions: “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?” Because these lines imply that the Israeli government had prior knowledge of the attacks, the ADL has charged Amiri Baraka with being anti-semitic. A charge that hardly has any validity when lined up against statements made throughout the poem in defense of the Jewish struggle against the very real anti-Semitic forces that the ADL claims to be against. Consider the following lines earlier in the same poem: “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/ Who? Who? Who?” And what about these: “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 …” Would the ADL consider these lines anti-Semitic too? Of course not. To label the poem and the poet anti-Semitic is done to demonize Baraka and cast a spell on the poem that will keep folk from the real message of resistance to imperialism that is the poem’s central theme.
This is why the ADL wants Baraka removed. He is exposing their hand in the imperialist aims of the U.S. and Israeli governments. The ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people in the name of fighting terrorism is Sharon’s final solution, and the ADL acts as shield to deflect charges of racism and genocide against the Israeli regime. So there is a clear vested interest in silencing all voices that would oppose America’s foreign policy in relationship to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
Furthermore, the ADL’s relationship to the Black community historically is highly suspect. In the past 30 years or so, just about every major Black leader from Jesse Jackson to Louis Farrakhan have been vilified by the ADL and called anti-Semitic. The ADL is on record as being in opposition to affirmative action. And as if that ain’t enough to see them as antagonistic to the self-determination of the African American community, the ADL has spied on a number of African American organizations as well as other groups that either have opposed the practices of apartheid South Africa or Israel, sharing their information with the FBI. Clearly, the ADL is no friend to the Black community. Their only interest in our people is for us to serve as their social subordinates. But we are not fooled. They exploit the history of the Jewish Holocaust to cover their true imperialist intentions. But we know that although Jews suffered terribly at the hands of Nazi Germany, they were not the only ones that suffered. The Nazis had no love for Black people or gypsies or homosexuals or Catholics or Communists. In essence, they were out to rid the world of anyone that didn’t fit their white bourgeois hetero-male dominant worldview. Jews were the first targeted. But they were by no means meant to be the last.
Does the ADL remember that it was an all-Black battalion, the 761st, that liberated Jews from concentration camps in Buchenwald, Dachau and Lambach? Black soldiers described as angels by European Jews, many of whom had never seen a Black person before. “I thought they had come down from heaven,” said David Yeager, a concentration camp survivor, in an interview published in the New York Newsday in 1992. These same Black soldiers that fought to defend the human rights of Jews, returned home to the U.S. and had their human rights trampled on. They returned not to ticker-tape parades or presidential serenades, but to lynch mobs and Jim Crow discrimination. The ADL needs to back off. African Americans have never been a threat to the Jewish people. Thankfully there are many Jews who acknowledge this truth and also oppose the bullying practices of the ADL and the slaughter of Palestinians by Sharon with the moneyed backing of Bush and Co. No, Baraka’s poem is not anti-Semitic. It is anti-imperialist and this is what has got lawmakers and right wing organizations in a tizzy. And the current attempt to get rid of the message and the messenger is their attempt to cover their bloody tracks that lead right back to the White House and the halls of their most trusted empire-driven allies.
Since this has become news, many have questioned Baraka’s inclusion of “questionable” material into an otherwise solid piece. They claim that he is relying on unwarranted information not backed by any credible source to justify his insinuations. Baraka’s questioning the Israeli government’s knowledge of the attacks of 9/11 is no more outlandish than the Democratic Party charging that the Bush administration along with higher-ups in the FBI and CIA had prior knowledge that the attacks were gonna occur. Come on. This has all been debated and hashed out on national television for the whole world to consider. Baraka’s mere questioning is no worse than any Democratic Senators or Representatives, yet I didn’t hear anyone calling for their resignations.
What these folk fail to realize or accept is that its not Baraka that is lacking a credible footing, but they themselves. The sad truth is that most of the folk condemning Baraka have no reference beyond the faulty information they get from the American media. Have we forgotten that while Bush was making promises of capturing Bin Laden and raining down bombs on Afghanistan, Ted Kopple and Peter Jennings were on ABC stating tongue-in-cheek: “the first casualty in war is the truth”? Now why would a news reporter make what amounts to a disclaimer for everything else they would report? And more importantly, why did America continue to listen? Sun Tzu said it succinctly in The Art of War, “All warfare is based on deception.”
These folk that challenge Baraka really have no basis. They are relying on a media that is not independent or free, but is controlled by and serves as the mouth-piece for American-based multi-national corporations that have a vested interest in the United States maintaining its position as the one and only super-power on the planet. So oppositional voices like Baraka’s get iced, censored, demonized and denounced to maintain the fraudulent face of objective fact-based reporting these corporate-controlled press outlets claim but fail to deliver.
No stranger to being censored for his unyielding critiques of white supremacy and capitalism, Amiri Baraka addressed this very issue in an earlier poem from his 1996 collection Funk Lore aptly titled, “Sin Soars.” In it he writes,
The American People’s Voice
is never heard well
is seldom heard
ABC CBS NBC Rocky Dupont Mellon Rich
Thieves & Murderers is
Pretend human real animals
is Animal’s that own network, newspaper
chains, IBM, & them. Krupp
& Dutch Phillips, the Japanese & German
corporations, Israeli Bankers &
the private collectors of the debt
of any nation
Not But Not
their voice is never
the corporations censor the American
people’s voice …
Rather than be disturbed by Baraka’s use of information unsubstantiated by the American corporate press, folk should be concerned about being spoon-fed a steady diet of fabrications by a desperate elite power structure rationing our info consumption with sites on rationing our food. We should be upset about being manipulated into believing that the American government’s interest and our interests, as Americans, are one and the same.
Malcolm X raised a similar critique of the American government and how it manipulates the American people in their attempt to execute their imperialist conquests. In his 1965 speech, “Prospects for Peace,” he states, “Now, in speaking like this, it doesn’t mean that I am anti-American. I am not. … And I’m not saying that to defend myself. Because if I was that, I’d have a right to be that — after what America has done to us. This government should feel lucky that our people aren’t anti-American. … And the whole world would side with us, if we became anti-American. You know, that’s something to think about. But we are not anti-American. We are anti or against what America is doing wrong in other parts of the world as well as here. It’s criminal, criminal. And what she did to the American public, to get the American public to go along with it, is criminal.”
For Baraka to raise a criticism of the Israeli government makes him no more an anti-Semite as Malcolm raising a criticism of the US government made him anti-American. Malcolm’s statement and Baraka’s poem both challenge two central concepts that lie at the heart of American society: 1) What is an American, and 2) What is in that American’s best interests. It challenges the popular notion that an American is someone that willingly and wholeheartedly backs the statements and actions of the United States government. This works to buttress the myth that this is a democracy – meaning that the U.S. government is a government of the people, by the people. That whatever the government says or does is inherently in the best interests of the American people, and thus as Americans, we should never question, challenge or – God forbid! – actually oppose our government. That would be unpatriotic. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., also vilified for his opposition to the Vietnam War, called this practice “smooth patriotism;” a patriotism that amounts to nothing more than a form of dictatorship and breeds the kind of fascism that ultimately renders all rights null and void.
The real question is, “Who is the Real Patriot?” The one that speaks honestly about the American experience or the one that keeps silent as those with the power and control misuse and abuse the authority invested in them by the American people? In “Somebody Blew Up America,” Baraka speaks to the full American experience. Not just the white, suburban, middle-class Wonder-bread one dimensional illusion that gets passed off as American. Baraka speaks to the whole America. He speaks to the mult-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-lingual America that is the real America – those that represent the true working class (when they can find work that is). No, this is not the America we see on television every night. It’s not the America propagandized as in support of Bush by pollsters who’ve never been to the hoods or the barrios or Chinatowns or Koreatowns across this country to ask us what we think about Bush going to war.
Amiri Baraka stands in the line of fire focused. Like Malcolm and Martin and many other African Americans before him, he speaks our truth in defiance to the powers that would shut him up for good. This is our legacy as African Americans of conscience and political clarity. We realize that because of our people’s historic experience of slavery in a country that proclaimed “liberty and justice for all,” we have a truth that whenever shared, exposes the American democratic process as the fraud it is. No other community has our vantage point and can speak our multi-layered, multi-faceted truths with multiple implications like we can due to our particular and peculiar position in this country. We trouble the meaning of American. Render it a question rather than a statement. That position puts us in the line of fire and if nobody else ever understands this, we, African Americans, should; if only for our own survival and sanity.
If we are going to be honest to our history and accountable to our ancestors who lived it, then we have no other choice but to speak our truth without apology. And when spoken honestly, it does not diminish other people’s experiences but illuminates all so that we can see each other clearly and see the cause and root of our suffering and pain to alleviate the same. We Black folk know terrorism intimately. And those that live in glass houses (or White Houses) shouldn’t throw stones (or drop bombs). This is the message that lies at the heart of Baraka’s poem.
As Baraka stated in his response statement to the press, “The poem’s underlying theme focuses on how Black Americans have suffered from domestic terrorism since being kidnapped into US chattel slavery, e.g., by Slave Owners, US & State Laws, Klan, Skin Heads, Domestic Nazis, Lynching, denial of rights, national oppression, racism, character assassination, historically, and at this very minute throughout the US. The relevance of this to Bush call for a “War on Terrorism”, is that Black people feel we have always been victims of terror, governmental and general, so we cannot get as frenzied and hysterical as the people who while asking us to dismiss our history and contemporary reality to join them, in the name of a shallow “patriotism” in attacking the majority of people in the world, especially people of color and in the third world.”
The main thrust and the perceived threat of the poem is that it speaks to the African American experience with domestic terrorism in these United States and connects that experience with the experience of terrorism visited upon other communities and individuals throughout history. And by so doing it undermines this unidentifiable, undefined terrorism that Bush and Co. is using to stigmatize and label anyone they decide they want to terrorize and attack. The poem is a series of questions, the wise old owl asking “who, who, who,” picking apart the government’s propaganda with each question.
With each name we feel our hearts and minds shift alignment from the fiction of this fascist time to the reality of our own experience. And that places us in the appropriate space from which to interrogate and struggle against the real enemy, the historic and contemporary terrorist. The terrorist that terrorizes without provocation cause its their self-defined vocation.
What gets played out as American is mainly white, and since we ain’t never gonna be that, that leaves us on the outs looking in. Since our prolonged sojourn here in the wilderness of the West we have developed this “second sight” (a fresh reading on DuBois’ notion?) – this ability to see from this marginalized distance. Our vision has been adjusted by our experience here, and when we look at America through the lens of our experience, we can see through the deception, through the deceit to the truth. Malcolm X-ray vision. A multi-faceted and magnified vision that can, not only see through, but also see from across the racial chasm that spans some three hundred years. So, yes, this enables us to differentiate what is in the best interests of the American people and what is in the interests of the corporations that run this country. Cause quite simply in order for it to be good for the whole of America, it got to be good for us. And when we raise our voices in opposition to what the U.S. government seeks to do, we have the advantage of perspective and experience that gives us the moral authority to proclaim America a contradiction in principle and practice. This government has no moral authority to call anyone terrorist. That before you seek revenge, you gotta settle the score with us first. We are the moral vanguard, the African American people.
Baraka is being attacked for the same reasons that Representative Barbara Lee was attacked when she voted against giving Bush the power to go to bomb Afghanistan. For the same reasons that Cynthia McKinney is no longer a Congressional representative – given her stance and opposition to the wholesale slaughter of the Palestinian people in the name of Israeli imperialism. They stand as Baraka is standing, as Malcolm X and Martin King stood before them – as the Black moral vanguard.
To approach this struggle as though it is just an issue of free speech doesn’t do it justice. What we are dealing with here is larger than free speech. We are not dealing with one solitary individual’s right to speak being violated. This is an issue of the repression of the collective speech, the collective history, the collective struggle of a people that has not just been censored but repressed. Truth is that for Black folks in this country, speech ain’t free anyway. It is costly. We pay a high price to speak — all too often our livelihood if not our very lives. Baraka has not received his honorarium. As he’s said, this struggle is not about that, even though he is the one that’s been targeted, isolated and attacked.
Now they want to outlaw Baraka and ban his poem. When Jersey legislators realized that Gov. McGreevey had no authority to remove the poet laureate, their response was essentially, “well, let’s just make one up.” American democracy – white boy style. Not only is it the case that Black folk “have no rights that white men are bound to respect” (see the 1854 Supreme Court ruling in Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sanford), but white men can create new rights whenever they please. This is the pernicious legacy of the government’s role in repressing dissent and resistance within the Black community. When Black abolitionist David Walker had copies of his Appeal smuggled into the slave-holding South, Southern legislators, afraid that this would cause more and better orchestrated slave uprisings, immediately banned the book and put a price on Walker’s head. Further, they even put tighter restrictions on African American’s travel, particularly along the coastline. In like manner today, we can expect that this new legislation being created will have some clause that will put greater restrictions on all forms of speech and dissent. And if that will not be present in the legislation, it certainly will serve as precedent for future application upon others in the state. So again, this is not just about the right’s of one, but the rights of us all for the ramifications of this racism will be felt across the board. Expect greater restrictions on your job. Already professors are being monitored on campuses to ensure they do not promote conversation in class that critiques the role of the Israeli government.
This is not a case of fascism creeping into American life. Fascism is here. Been here. Always been here for some of us. But clearly in these times, it is now the law of the land. Consider the words of a writer that actually suffered at the hands of the fascist regimes of Italy and Germany. From his prison cell, M. N. Roy wrote the following words, “It has been correctly stated that Fascism means war. … In 1926, speaking in the Chamber of Deputies [Mussolini] declared “the Italian nation to be in a permanent state of war”. Later in that essay he discusses how fascism deals with dissent, “The echo of their [the Italian masses] suffering and the voices of their protest have been ruthlessly suppressed so that nothing but the beating of the war-drums can be heard on the peninsula of Italy.” He could have been sitting in an American prison cell writing those very words today. As one spokesperson for Republican Jersey Senator Peter Inverso stated in the Star-Ledger, that he “plans to introduce a bill that would make the poet laureate serve at the pleasure of the governor.” What is this, New Jersey or Nazi Germany?
And finally, one is compelled to ask, what were the folk who decided to name Baraka state laureate thinking in the first place? Every poem Baraka pens is a thorn in the side of the system. Were they thinking that he would be grateful that a state that has bashed in his head, knocked out his teeth, imprisoned him, killed and locked up many of his comrades, colleagues and friends would become all-of-a-sudden grateful and change? What were they expecting? Him to pull out the minstrel closet his Tom Ass Clarence makeup and produce the kind of doo doo poetry that comes out the Colin’s mouth? Baraka’s commitment to the liberation and self-determination of African American people in the context of socialist revolution is a consistent, persistent path. His is the people’s voice, because he lives our reality, breathes our air. Baraka’s allegiance has been with the people and will remain there. Thus our allegiance should be with him.
Amiri Baraka is our Paul Robeson. And as Robeson said, Baraka understands that “The artist must take sides. He [or she] must elect to fight for freedom or slavery.” Baraka made his choice. Given his history of struggle on the behalf of Black and Third World liberation and self-determination, he “had no alternative.” The choice is now ours to make.
Who own the airplanes
Who own the malls
Who own television
Who own radio
Who own what ain’t even known to be owned
Who own the owners that ain’t the real owners
Who own the suburbs
Who suck the cities
Who make the laws
Who made Bush president …
(more from Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America”)
Ewuare X. Osayande is an activist, poet and publisher. He is the author of Blood Luxury with an introduction by Amiri Baraka (Africa World Press, 2005). His current books of poetry include Whose America? and the global anthology Stand Our Ground: Poems for Trayvon Martin and Marissa Alexander.