Billionaires who back conservative Republicans are trashed on NPR when they die as “scathing TV ad” backers. But what about a black radical who wrote a poem blaming 9-11 on Israel and implying America was evil and terrorist? On Thursday night's "All Things Considered," NPR began by calling him “one of America's most important — and controversial — literary figures,” under the headline “Amiri Baraka's Legacy Both Controversial And Achingly Beautiful.”
The man’s invented Muslim name was Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones). He was the poet laureate of New Jersey in 2002, but they abolished that honorary office after his poem. NPR cultural correspondent Neda Ulaby found his most controversial work wasn’t too negative, it was “complicated.”
NEDA ULABY: Amiri Baraka's literary legacy is as complicated as the times he lived through - from his childhood where he recalled not being allowed to enter a segregated library to the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.
AMIRI BARAKA: Somebody blew up America. They say it's some terrorist, some barbaric Arab in Afghanistan. [And it was.]
ULABY: In that poem, which quickly became infamous, Baraka hurls indictments at forces of oppression throughout history.
BARAKA: Who the biggest terrorists, who changed the Bible, who killed the most people, who do the most evil, who don't worry about survival, who have the colonies, who stole the most land, who rule the world, who say they good but only do evil.
ULABY: The poem is a furious blaze of references, from the invasion of Granada to the Jewish Holocaust, and conspiracies ranging from who shot Malcolm X to who killed Princess Di. Then, critics said, Amiri Baraka took it way too far.
BARAKA: Who knew the World Trade Center was going to get bombed? Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers to stay home that day? Why did Sharon stay away? Who? Who? Who? Who? Who? Who?
ULABY: The poem had immediate consequences. Baraka was reviled even by former fans. And his post as the official state laureate of New Jersey was dissolved. A few years later, the host of the NPR show "News and Notes" pressed him about the incident.
FARAI CHIDEYA: So you've got no regrets, though? No regrets about the poem, no regrets about...
BARAKA: I don't have regrets, no. I have regrets that they didn't pay me my money. You know, the cheap criminals, I have regrets about that, you know, naturally. But I don't have regrets about writing that poem because the poem was true.
ULABY: Over his life, Amiri Baraka would express an extremely broad range of beliefs - some offensive, some achingly beautiful.
Notice that NPR never found it necessary to insist that Baraka’s accusations against America were controversial because they were conspiracy theories with no factual support. Neda Ulaba wouldn't say it, but "critics said" it went too far. It had the distinctively “objective” sound of someone else found them controversial -- someone who couldn't see he was "complicated." (Or that America's racial history complicated it.)
But let's look at how NPR sliced that January 9, 2007 interview down to make his absolutely certainty against the Israelis sound less like Jeremiah Wright:
CHIDEYA: Speaking of defending your work. In a preface to your book you call yourself the last poet laureate of New Jersey. And you were taken out of that position after writing a poem that implied that Israel had advanced knowledge of the 9/11 attacks. Why did you write poem?
Mr. BARAKA: Yeah, everybody knows they did. Everybody knows that. I mean that's the silliest thing; everybody knows that. Everybody know that Germany, France, China, warned the United States repeatedly that these things were happening. That's common knowledge. And also, it's inaccurate to say they took me out of the poet laureate. They couldn't do that. And so I said, the last poet laureate.
What they did, New Jersey is so corrupt that they got rid of the poet laureate position, you know. What they wanted to do is declare their ignorance before the world, so they got rid of the poet laureate position. That's why I said, so I was the last one. They could not take that away from me except for some kind of criminal procedure called ex post facto, where they would have to go back in time and do that.
Governor Greedy, who called me and asked me to apologize and resign, he had to apologize and resign as the governor, which is unprecedented, I imagine. You know, what they did was...
Mr. BARAKA: I have regrets, no. I have regrets that they didn't pay me my money. You know, the cheap criminals. I have regrets about that, you know, naturally. But I don't have regrets about writing that poem, because the poem was true and it's accurate and will be proved to be true and accurate. And no matter how much lies these people tell it will still be true.
Unsurprisingly, the liberal establishment wanted to support a black radical who hated America. Ulaby explained “Baraka's work galvanized generations of younger artists even as his stridency alienated him from the mainstream. But he managed to work in both worlds. He was a full professor for decades at SUNY Stony Brook and recognized by the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.”
NPR’s cultural show “Fresh Air” also honored Baraka with a snippet from a 1986 interview (no need for 9-11 reflections), and guest host Dave Davies said:
Baraka was a prominent cultural figure in the black nationalist movement of the '60s and '70s. His play the "Dutchman," which won the Obie Award in 1964, gripped audiences with its explicit language and rage against the oppression of blacks in America. His writing about jazz and African-American culture, most notably, "Blues People: Negro Music In White America," was highly regarded.
But his detractors accused him at various times of being racist, dangerously militant, homophobic and anti-Semitic. His infamous 2002 poem about the September 11th attacks contained lines that suggested Israeli involvement in the attack on the World Trade Center. But, as "The New York Times"' Margalit Fox, wrote in Baraka's obituary: His champions and detractors agreed that at his finest he was a powerful voice on the printed page, a riveting orator in person and an enduring presence on the international literary scene whom -- whether one loved him or hated him -- was seldom possible to ignore.
But they found poems to ignore. From the website Discover the Networks, we might suggest some other “complicated” works for NPR to discuss, like “Black Art” in 1969, which reported “We want poems that kill. Assassin poems, Poems that shoot guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys and take their weapons leaving them dead with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland.” This same poem later celebrates the image of “cracking steel knuckles in a jewlady's mouth.” And:
Baraka's poem "Black People" asserts that blacks are justified in robbing or even killing whites, because the latter "already stole" everything from the former. "[The white man] owes you anything you want," wrote Baraka, "even his life. All the stores will open if you say the magic words. The magic words are: Up against the wall mother f---er this is a stick up! … Let's get together and kill him my man." In another poem, Baraka writes, "Rape the white girls. Rape their fathers. Cut the mothers' throats."