Marking the first day of the last week of Black History Month, poet and activist Amiri Baraka will speak this afternoon on an invitation that never should have been extended. But now that he is coming, the invective-spouting polemicist has as much right as any to free speech — even if his is hate speech.
Baraka is not just a controversial man. If he were merely a talented poet or a significant black figure who ruffled feathers, that would be one thing. But this is a man who has made a career of hating, in his words, “whitey,” “jewboy,” and the “eternal faggot,” among others. This is a man who, when asked by a white woman what white people could do to help the black civil rights movement, responded: “You can help by dying.”
There is an important distinction between being controversial and being hateful. The African American Cultural Center, under the supervision of Assistant Dean of Yale College Pamela George, and the Black Student Alliance at Yale have chosen to ignore that distinction. By co-sponsoring Baraka’s hourlong speech this afternoon, they have given a platform and an audience to a man whose abject hatred of others warrants him neither.
That this event comes at the end of Black History Month makes his invitation only more unfortunate. Baraka does not come to Yale just in his capacity as a prominent black man at a time when we commemorate prominent black men. Those who invited him here failed to adequately recognize that Baraka won his soapbox through his ability to shock and appall. And even if he makes no mention in this afternoon’s speech of his homophobic verses, his poetic advocacy of genocide, or the racist theory he spouts with refrain-like regularity, they are inseparable from his more tempered cultural criticism and his efforts as an activist.
None of this means Baraka’s beliefs are BSAY’s or that the Cultural Center endorses his theory of Israeli complicity in the World Trade Center attacks. But good intentions and intellectual independence do not change the fact that today’s tea will effectively alienate most of the campus from the small group of students and faculty who welcome Baraka. It is regrettable that whatever discussion of race there is on campus will be obscured by his vitriol.
Baraka is not the first hate-speaking poet to be welcomed in the Ivy League this year; in the fall, the Harvard English Department invited apologizing anti-Semite Tom Paulin to read his poetry, then cancelled the engagement, then re-invited him. While not an isolated incident and certainly another unwise invitation, Baraka’s visit now cannot be ignored. Whether students and professors choose to respond with intelligent engagement, vocal protest or utter disregard, we hope something productive comes from this tea — if not a more enlightened discussion of race at Yale, at least a recognition that hate speech has no place here.