Sept. 30--Governor McGreevey called for the resignation Friday of New Jersey's poet laureate, Amiri Baraka of Newark, after several prominent Jewish groups took offense at a poem he read at a festival.

The poem, which Baraka read Sept. 19 at the 2002 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival at Waterloo Village in Stanhope, is titled "Somebody Blew Up America." In it, he asks who is responsible for a wide variety of current and historical atrocities, including the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

In one part of the poem, Baraka says:

"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."

In another section, he writes: "Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion "And cracking they sides at the notion."

In a prepared statement, McGreevey said he condemns any racist or anti-Semitic remarks. "The language used in Mr. Baraka's recent poem could be interpreted as stating that Israelis were forewarned of the Sept. 11 attacks," McGreevey said. "Mr. Baraka should clarify the intent of his language and apologize for any misinterpretation of that language and resign."

Baraka, 67, who has run afoul of Jewish groups in the past for his remarks, said Friday that the poem meant what it said and maintained that Israel knew of and had a role in planning the attacks on the World Trade Center.

He brushed aside calls for his resignation. "I think it's absurd," Baraka said of the governor's request. He said he won't change his mind despite pressure from Jewish groups and doesn't consider his remarks anti-Semitic. "Every time you want to criticize Israel you are called an anti- Semite," Baraka said. "If these people want to persist and make me willingly withdraw, I'm not going to do it."

The poem, which was written last fall, takes aim at many others. Over the course of its six pages, Baraka lashes out at everyone from President Bush and his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, to former Mayors Rudy Giuliani of New York and Bret Schundler of Jersey City.

Baraka was appointed in September 2001 by a five-member committee--four distinguished poets and the previous poet laureate. The committee is selected by the New Jersey Council for the Humanities and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. Because he is selected by the committee, Baraka cannot be fired by McGreevey, an administration source said.

Baraka is only the state's second formal poet laureate under legislation signed by former Gov. Christie Whitman in 2000, authorizing the creation of the New Jersey William Carlos Williams Citation of Merit for a distinguished New Jersey poet. The term is two years and the recipient receives $10,000. The poet laureate is required to give at least two public readings a year and promote poetry throughout the state. Baraka's predecessor was Gerald Stern of Lambertville.

Jewish leaders sharply criticized Baraka on Friday, calling him a persistent anti-Semite and racist who is the wrong person to be the state's poet laureate. "We applaud Governor McGreevey's request to have Baraka resign," said Shai Goldstein, New Jersey director of the Anti-Defamation League. "What he did is insulting to the residents of New Jersey. He has insulted the memory of everyone who died 9/11 by making the outrageous claim that it was not al-Qaeda but Israel [who attacked the United States]. The best way for him to apologize is to resign."

Goldstein called on the poets who selected Baraka and political and religious leaders to call for Baraka's ouster as well. "Anybody who had anything to do with making him poet laureate, they have to condemn him. If not, they have repeated the mistake of the Holocaust," Goldstein said.

He added that the myth that Israel destroyed the World Trade Center is one that has spread throughout the Arab world. "Unfortunately, this lie, like so many others, has been reported on '60 Minutes' as being viewed as the truth in much of the Arab world. [Baraka's] statement goes to reinforce that lie and I'm sure it will be published out there," Goldstein said.

Attempts to identify and reach members of the committee were unsuccessful Friday.

Baraka said he would welcome a debate on his ideas. "It's all over the Internet," Baraka said of his poem, which can be found under his title. "I don't feel any kind of threat to my integrity."

A Newark native, Baraka was born Everett Leroy Jones and originally went by the name LeRoi Jones. He first burst onto the literary stage in the 1950s as part of a multiracial bohemian poetry scene called the New American movement and was a member of the Beat generation of poets.

But as the 1960s wore on, Baraka distanced himself from his multiracial past and became one of the founding voices of the Black Arts poetry movement, which took its literary inspiration from the growing Black Power crusade of the period that promoted black nationalism and rejected integration. It was during that time he changed his name to Amiri Baraka.

In 1990, the English Department at Rutgers University denied Baraka tenure and the poet lashed out at the decision, calling the professors who voted against him "klansmen." His son Ras Baraka recently ran unsuccessfully for the Newark City Council.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad