He died at Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey. Beth Israel is one of America's classic "Jewish" hospitals. To this day, among Jews of the Essex County diaspora, the designation "born at the Beth" carries with it a certain honor.
Last week, Amiri Baraka, one of the foremost African-American poets of our age, died "at the Beth." And apparently, he had gotten excellent care there.
Let's just add that little factoid to the list of maddening ironies that surrounds the life of America's most controversial black literary figure.
Amiri Baraka was a complex man, a master of searing verse. Born LeRoi Jones in 1934, the poet was transformed and radicalized by Malcolm X's assassination in 1965, leading him to become a hard-core black nationalist. Among other things, that traumatic event caused Jones to leave his Jewish wife and two young daughters.
At a certain point, Jones's writings became increasingly anti-Semitic. In one poem, he refers to his ex-wife as a "fat jew girl." The poem also contains these sentiments: "Smile, jew. Dance, jew. Tell me you love me, jew. I got something for you now though. … I got the extermination blues, jew boys. I got the hitler syndrome figured."
Another poem: "Atheist Jews double crossers stole our [black people's] secrets. … They give us to worship a dead Jew and not ourselves. … Selling fried potatoes and people, the little arty bastards talking arithmetic they sucked from the arab's head."
In 1968, Jones became a Muslim and changed his name to Amiri Baraka. And the anti-Semitic images kept on coming: "We want poems like fists beating ni--ers out of Jocks, or dagger poems in the slimy bellies of the owner-Jews." ("Black Art," 1969)
And then, in the autumn of 2001, there came his most controversial poem -- "Somebody Blew Up America." Baraka suggested that the Bush administration, as well as the governments of Germany, France, Britain and Israel, knew about the Sept. 11 terror attacks in advance. "Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed?" reads the poem. "Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers to stay home that day? Why did Sharon stay away? Who know [sic] why Five Israelis was filming the explosion, and cracking they sides at the notion."
Baraka read the poem in front of two thousand people at the September, 2002 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival held in Stanhope, New Jersey. By then, Baraka occupied the post of poet laureate of New Jersey. "Somebody Blew Up America" was so controversial that then-New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey and others asked the poet to step down from his salaried position. Baraka not only refused to step down; he refused to apologize. All he could do was spout his paranoid conspiracy theory: “Israel knew, the United States knew, Germany knew, France knew. And they didn’t warn us that it was going to happen.”
What ever happened to the position of poet laureate of New Jersey? (Which really means: why couldn't Bruce Springsteen have gotten that gig?). There was so much ruckus around Baraka's poem that New Jersey decided that it really didn't need a poet laureate after all.
Now, it's tempting to say that if a poet wrote homophobic verse, there's simply no way that his reputation would remain intact.
Baraka did that as well.
In 1965, as LeRoi Jones, Baraka wrote an essay, "American Sexual Reference: Black Male." In it, he states: "Most American white men are trained to be fags. For this reason it is no wonder their faces are weak and blank. …" In his "Civil Rights Poem," he declares: "Roywilkins [sic] is an eternal faggot. His spirit is a faggot … if i ever see roywilkins on the sidewalks imonna [sic] stick half my sandal up his ass."
Oh, come on. He went after Roy Wilkins?
In the past week, I have been stumbling over many words of praise for Baraka. I agree that his literary output was prodigious and that his influence was vast.
And yet, I am confused. Why are Baraka's fans (including Jews who should know better) so willing to breeze over his anti-Semitic verses? In some elite circles, anti-Semitism in its tux and black tie getup of anti-Israelism is chic. In those circles, pointing out anti-Semitism is so, well, last century. It is so passe.
I get it.
But what about Baraka's savage anti-gay verses? Are we simply willing to write them off as the notorious homophobia of the black liberation movement, circa 1960s? As black men struggling with their masculinity in the face of a racist society that had symbolically castrated them?
Let me ask it another way. There are many great literary figures who produced unflattering portraits of Jews. A short list would include Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, just to name a few. When we assess a creative person's output, at what point does the bigotry start to "count?"
Or is it just hyperbole, created for shock value -- the literary equivalent of Howard Stern?
A few years ago, I had a conversation with Henry Louis Gates about violent rhetoric in the African-American community, including gangsta rap.
I asked him whether African-Americans who trafficked in anti-Semitic verbiage were serious. Perhaps, I surmised, they were just "doing the dozens" -- the urban black game of playfully trading and piling on insults, as in "Your mama is so ugly that..."
Professor Gates looked at me, and in a steely voice, he responded: "Don't fool yourself. They really mean it."
To imagine that people can talk and write that way, and not really mean it, is demeaning. To them. Is there nothing as insulting as not being taken seriously?
Did the late Amiri Baraka really mean it?
If so, that is part of his legacy.