I was present at the Amiri Baraka affair at the Afro-American Cultural Center on Monday and I must say that it was one of the most disturbing events in my entire life.
It was not Baraka’s ranting which upset me most. Having read his work, I was thoroughly prepared for whatever was bound to come out of his mouth. It was the response he received from my fellow Yalies that shocked me. Following a reading of his notorious poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” the puerile verses of which are now well known to the Yale community, Baraka launched into a paranoid tirade. As he cited “evidence” of Israeli complicity in the World Trade Center attacks, many Yale students vigorously nodded their heads in approval and erupted into cheering. At the end of the event, the crowd leapt to its feet to give the former poet laureate of New Jersey a rousing standing ovation.
While Dean George wrote yesterday that “we do not endorse the extreme statements by Amiri Baraka that have occasioned concern in the Yale community” (“In defense of inviting Amiri Baraka,” 2/25), nearly everyone at the event that day seemed to agree with Baraka’s theories. His recent favorite is that on Sept. 11, 2001, the Jewish state warned its citizens working in New York to stay home.
Midway through his diatribe he singled me out upon viewing my skeptical expression, loudly announcing that I had “constipation of the face,” and thus required a “brain enema.” Baraka, an avowed Communist, got a laugh from the crowd when he affectionately quoted Mao Zedong on the topic of public integrity, chanting “No investigation, no right to speak.” The audience loudly joined him in unison, repeating the words of a Chinese dictator responsible for the death of millions of his own people.
Baraka told the audience that it is “a pitiful thing to live in the world and not understand it,” strange words from a man who is so hopelessly deluded about reality. After Baraka’s talk, a Yale professor, who is also a Yale graduate, lamented the fact that so many students from his alma mater had just been “applauding falsehoods at a university.” He said the Afro-American Cultural Center’s encouragement of Baraka “reinforces bias and prejudice. It is confining rather than liberating for students. It is anti-educational.”
The Afro-American Cultural Center and the Black Student Alliance at Yale have demonstrated that they have scant regard for civil discourse on campus. Baraka is little more than a racial huckster, a man who has excreted so much hatred over his 50-year career that his views have no place on this campus. While I agree with Michael Anastasio ’04 that Baraka is “a man who deserves no attention at all” (2/24), what does deserve attention is that Baraka was invited here and received an overwhelmingly positive response from his audience.
Many have labeled critics of the Black Student Alliance’s decision to welcome Baraka as advocating censorship. In her column yesterday, Director of the Afro-American Cultural Center and Assistant Dean of Yale College Pamela George wrote, “The Afro-American Cultural Center at Yale and the Black Student Alliance at Yale declare their belief in the importance of free speech as a fundamental tenet of the university.” But those critical of Baraka’s visit never once challenged his right to speak. Rather, they challenged his invitation to speak. This distinction needs to be made.
An established institution such as the Afro-American Cultural Center simply should not be inviting hatemongers to campus, just as the Slifka Center or LGBT Co-op should not invite hatemongers to campus. Doing so merely lends credibility to hateful ideas. Bigots like Baraka have every right to speak here, but that does not mean campus groups should go out of their way to host and then praise them. Claiming that Hillel and other concerned members of the community have been advocating censorship is intellectually dishonest; it is a mere rhetorical device that displays a complete misunderstanding of the actual nature of censorship and that skirts the real issue at hand.
The central problem in this controversy concerns why Baraka’s words received such enthusiastic approval. Did those cheering in the audience that day feel no need to question his history of racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic remarks? Why did they accept without hesitation Baraka’s claim that Israelis were responsible for the World Trade Center attacks? That they had warned their fellow Israelis not to go to work that day? This man has made so many hateful statements over the length of his career that it is bewildering why the Afro-American Cultural Center not only brought Baraka to Yale, but celebrated him as a laudable figure.
Dean George did not end, however, with her criticism of those who believed that Baraka’s hate speech had no place at Yale. She went on the offensive in writing, “When an invitation was extended from a residential college at Yale to a former Israeli general and soldier it seemed appropriate that it be protested; it was appalling to hear students share anti-Palestinian remarks at a tea with Yoni Fighel –” That George so authoritatively pontificates about an event she told me she did not even attend should give pause to us all. That she would compare an apolitical Israeli counterterrorism expert to a man who has written, “I got the/ extermination blues, jewboys, i got/ the hitler syndrome figured,” is insulting. Fighel said nothing that could even be remotely construed as racist, and the fact that neither George nor BSAY ever publicly discussed Fighel’s supposed racism until they were confronted about their own welcoming of Baraka indicates that their claims were merely defensive and have little basis.
George further legitimated Baraka’s visit by writing it would allow students to ponder, “Can one be critical of the Israeli government without being anti-Semitic?” Notwithstanding the fact that no serious defender of Israel ever claims that criticism of the Israeli government is inherently or always anti-Semitic, Baraka’s repeated allegation of Israeli complicity in the Sept. 11 attacks is more than just an expression “critical of the Israeli government.” It is a vicious, anti-Semitic lie that ranks with the worst of neo-Nazi and Arab conspiracy theories that have been circulating for centuries.
Baraka and his supporters claim that he is not anti-Semitic because his theories extend only to Israelis and their government, not to American Jews. Such posturing completely ignores Baraka’s long history of anti-Semitic remarks, as well as the very nature of anti-Semitism itself. Recently, it has become popular for anti-Semites to couch their hatred of Jews in anti-Zionist rhetoric. Yet when one launches into baseless conspiracy theories about worldwide Israeli (read: Jewish) plots, as does Baraka, the only way to describe such sentiments is anti-Semitic. This newfangled anti-Semitism neatly replaces “Jew” with “Israeli” and stumbles forth in ignorance. Defenders of Baraka will also counter the poet’s critics by stating that he does not believe Israel was exclusively aware of the Sept. 11 plot before it occurred, but rather every Western government was knowledgeable, and thus he cannot be labeled an anti-Semite. Yet when viewed in a context that takes into account prior expressions of fondness for the Holocaust, that Baraka believes Israel led a global coalition rather than acted alone in destroying the World Trade Center not only makes him an anti-Semite, but an even greater fool.
With similar historical struggles, the black and Jewish communities have much to learn from each other and a great potential to form a lasting partnership. The Rev. Jerry Streets and Rabbi James Ponet have rightly called for a dialogue on campus regarding race relations. Dean George also wrote yesterday that “– honest dialogue between black and Jewish student groups at Yale is long overdue. Serendipitously, Baraka’s visit has served as a catalyst for this discourse.” I cannot think of a worse way to initiate such a conversation than by kicking it off with a speech by a purveyor of conspiratorial anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia and sexism, especially when so many black students not only failed to condemn Baraka’s views, but praised them. How can a meaningful dialogue take place when students applaud an unrepentant bigot like Amiri Baraka?
James Kirchick is a freshman in Pierson College. His column appears regularly on alternate Wednesdays.