Noted author clashes with N.J. gov., Jewish groups over poem

NEWARK (—Amiri Baraka, 68, internationally renowned poet, playwright, literary critic and poet laureate of New Jersey is again the center of controversy. Jewish groups and the governor of New Jersey are demanding his resignation as the state’s poet laureate because of a poem he wrote last October.

Mr. Baraka told a packed house during an Oct. 2 ceremony commemorating the Newark Public Library as a landmark, that he would not resign or apologize for a poem critics said implied that Israel knew in advance of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks on America.


New Jersey Governor James E. McGreevey demanded Sept. 26 that Mr. Baraka step down because of pressure from Jewish groups. In response to the criticism, Mr. Baraka said his poem “Somebody Blew Up America” focused on many issues: Iraq, the treatment of Palestinians and American racism.

The poem was meant as an attack on imperialism, fascism and anti-Semitism, not a “bigoted” attack as his critics have alleged, he added.

“What is interesting is, this is the first time people realized I was poet laureate. Before this, I was the secret poet laureate,” Mr. Baraka said. The poet laureate position was created in 1999, and pays $10,000 per two-year term. The grant money and the title cannot be rescinded, according to Kevin Davitt, spokesman for the governor. The recommendation for Mr. Baraka came from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, in consultation with the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

Mr. Baraka said he has yet to receive a check, in the first place.

Mr. Davitt said the decision to resign is “entirely” up to Mr. Baraka. But calls for his resignation from some groups have grown.

Gov. McGreevey told members of the Anti-Defamation League of New Jersey Oct. 2 that he was working “to ensure that Mr. Baraka would no longer be the state’s poet laureate.” He said he asked Attorney General David Samson to review possible procedures for removing Mr. Baraka, while he acknowledged state law includes no mechanism for removing anyone from the position.

Media reports say plans are afoot to soon introduce a bill in the New Jersey Senate that would have the poet laureate serve at the pleasure of the governor. Observers say that there would also be an attempt to introduce a bill that would give the Council on the Humanities power to remove Mr. Baraka.

As opponents gather, supporters of Mr. Baraka and are pulling themselves together as well. “The Peoples Organization for Progress oppose any attempt to remove Amiri Baraka. We also oppose any attempt to censure Mr. Baraka,” Larry Hamm, the group’s president told The Final Call. Mr. Baraka, an important figure in the Black arts movement of the 1960s, has a right to free speech and that right must be respected, Mr. Hamm said.