In Newark, Amiri Baraka recites infamous poem again, this time to applause

Amiri Baraka. (Photo via T. Carrigan's flickr stream.)
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In September 2002, at the Dodge Poetry Festival in Waterloo, N.J., Amiri Baraka stood up on stage and read his recently published poem on the 9/11 attacks, “Somebody Blew Up America.”

The crowd reacted with stunned silence, and several people booed. A few days later, Gov. Jim McGreevey asked Baraka to resign his post as Poet Laureate of New Jersey. This year, Baraka returned to the festival, and read the poem again.

About half the audience stood to cheer when he was finished, while the other half was either clapping quietly, or sitting with arms crossed, scowling. Baraka hadn’t changed the poem, and the line that outraged so many people in 2002 was still there: “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?”

“What a difference eight years makes, huh?” Dr. Clement Price, Director of the Rutgers Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience, said to him after the reading.

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“Well if you dribble long enough, you eventually make a basket,” Baraka said.

The stark difference in the audience’s reaction between 2002 and 2010 may reflect the cooling of tempers since the post-9/11 era, but it may also reflect the difference between the festival’s former location at the idyllic Waterloo Village, and its current one in downtown Newark, Baraka’s hometown.

Newark has been receiving a lot of press lately, with Mark Zuckerberg’s mysterious donation of $100 million to Newark schools, and The Sundance Channel’s Brick City documentary series. It is a city anxious to reinvent itself, to shed its past of crime and poverty, and foster education and the arts. This was the reason the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation chose Newark to host its 13th biennial Poetry Festival, the first ever in an urban setting.

Not surprisingly, the festival drew a more diverse crowd than in years past, with more Newark natives, who may have been more supportive of Baraka. People may also have remembered that after the incident in 2002, Baraka had refused to vacate the role of Poet Laureate, and had fought McGreevey all the way to the Supreme Court, challenging what it meant to be a poet in the public sphere. At that point, there was no legal provision for firing a Poet Laureate, so in 2003 the state legislature passed a law allowing him to be fired, and there hasn’t been a Poet Laureate of New Jersey since.

“I am the last Poet Laureate of New Jersey,” he told the crowd, moments before reading the poem. “Governor McGreevey asked me to apologize and resign, and then a year later he had to apologize and resign.”

The crowd cheered, this time more unanimously.

Laura McCullough, a New Jersey poet, said she supported him the first time, but was angry that he read it again.

“My husband and I wrote an article in the <i>Star-Ledger</i> in 2002, defending Amiri. People called for us to be fired. Friends and family stopped speaking to us. I put my name on the line to support him.” This time, though, he should have at least amended it. “He did it to be incendiary. It’s a didactic poem, and not a particularly good poem."

Later in the weekend, he tried to stir up more controversy by attacking Newark mayor Cory Booker. On Saturday afternoon, he sat down with poet Baraka Sele (a protege and namesake) to speak on “Legacies and Legends.” In a small theater adjoining the concert hall, they spoke to a relatively diverse crowd of about 200 listeners, about half of whom were African American, and many were under 30.

“I guarantee, we’re going to be paid back for Obama, just like we were paid back after Emancipation by the Klan," he told the crowd. "They won’t let us get away with it. The Tea Party is just the Klan without the white sheets.”

After the event, we caught up with Baraka and asked him why this festival mattered.

“Poetry is a language that appeals to the imagination, especially of the youth,” he said.

But locating it in Newark hadn't done all that he'd hoped it might.

“I wish there had been more students from Newark here," he said. "Most were from other places.”

“We invite all these poets here, but the libraries are closed,” he said. “What kind of mixed message does that send to our students? We have to tell Cory Booker to open the libraries.”

And the Zuckerberg donation is not an answer, to Baraka.

“I look at it with a jaundiced eye," he said. "It’s being given to the mayor, not to the schools. It’s going to charter schools, we won’t see any of it. They shouldn’t be building private schools with public money.”

Dr. Price had a more measured response.

“It is too soon to tell what Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million will do for the Newark schools," he told Capital. "In Newark, one must learn to be observant of the slow passage of time.”

Responding to a direct message to his Twitter account requesting an interview, Booker responded in under 140 characters, in which he reversed the critique onto Baraka's son, Newark South Ward councilman Ras Baraka: “Ironic that budget is controled by the council & Amiri's Councilman son Ras has done nothing 2 restore. Y? Cause we have a budget crisis.”