In a voice hoarse from repeated readings, New Jersey poet laureate Amiri Baraka read his controversial poem “Somebody Blew Up America” and responded to criticism about his political views during a Yale appearance Monday afternoon.
Baraka spoke to a crowd of about 100 people at the Afro-American Cultural Center in honor of Black History Month. He has been criticized for “Somebody Blew Up America,” written in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, for its implication that Israelis knew about the attacks in advance. After its publication, Baraka was asked to step down as poet laureate of New Jersey. Prior to his visit to campus, several campus groups as well as University Chaplain Frederick Streets and Rabbi James Ponet expressed concern about the nature of Baraka’s poetry.
Baraka defended himself Monday afternoon, saying critics did not understand or investigate his claims.
“I’m the poet laureate of New Jersey, and there’s nothing they can do about it,” Baraka said. “I was in the Air Force for two years, until they kicked me out. They kicked me out of college, they kicked me out of the Air Force, now they’re trying to kick me out of the poet laureate.”
Baraka apologized for being hoarse, saying that February’s real name should be “African-American Artists Employment month,” the only time “they let us work.”
Baraka warned students not to judge him too quickly, quoting Mao’s proverb, “No investigation, no right to speak.”
“Just because you don’t like what I say, don’t call me names. Prove it. Argue with me,” Baraka said. “I just hate people who are constipated in the face and won’t ask questions.”
Reading “Somebody Blew Up America,” Baraka ad-libbed many parts. When he said “it wasn’t Trent Lott,” he quickly added, with a raised eyebrow, “Maybe it was. Who knows?”
When asked if he really believed Israelis were complicit in the Sept. 11 attacks, Baraka said he did. He said he used information reported in American newsapers such as The New York Times and the Newark, N.J., Star-Ledger, as well as Israeli newspapers and Jordanian television.
Baraka also argued against beliefs that he is an anti-Semite. He said the stanza in his poem only questioned Israelis, not American Jews, and he believed Israel was no more monolithic than America.
After listing anti-Semitic writers such as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, he said the Yale English Department was more anti-Semitic than he was.
“You want to know anti-Semitism, Yale is the place,” Baraka said.
Baraka also urged black students and those from underprivileged backgrounds to make the most of their time at Yale and apply what they learn to their communities.
“Think! Y’all are in Yale. This is not reform school,” Baraka said. “This is the last time you’ve got to sit and relax and think. What a pitiful thing to live in a world you don’t know.”
Afro-American Cultural Center staffer Valerie Idehen ’04 said she was glad Baraka came and was pleased with the event. Baraka’s main message, she said, dealt with students’ responsibilities to their communities after graduation — a message she said is often obstructed by the debate over his political statements.
“After he read the poem, he showed how the stanza has been taken out of context. It seems to me any misunderstanding should have been cleared,” Idehen said. “That’s not a man with hate in his heart.”
As a poet herself, staffer Rashayla Brown ’04 said she counts Amiri Baraka among her favorite poets.
“He’s pushed forward the whole [spoken word] genre,” Brown said. “The main thing I like is he doesn’t hold anything back. He gets a lot of criticism for saying certain things, but he doesn’t let that take away from his message.”
Some students said they found Baraka’s theories unsettling.
Hillel member Sharon Goott ’06 said she hoped students could “look past a charismatic speaker and find out the truth for themselves.”
“It’s sad to look at the world as a conspiracy theory. It doesn’t uplift anyone,” Goott said. “I have no problems with him criticizing the government, but I think his level of rhetoric rose to not only an unproductive level, but almost to an offensive one. I hope people will take it upon themselves to read his other poems — and decide if his hate speech has a place at Yale or if he’s anti-Semitic or not.”
Jesus Chapa-Malacara ’04, treasurer of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Cooperative at Yale, said he hoped Baraka’s visit could elicit broader campus debate.
“The important thing is that Baraka’s visit could be a bouncing-off point for dialogue on campus for everything from anti-Semitism to homophobia to racism,” Chapa-Malacara said.