Cultural critic pushes poetic limits

Amiri Baraka speaks out about conflict and culture in the 20th century

On June 14, Amiri Baraka spoke to students, faculty and community members about the politics of the 1960s in Grant Hall.
On June 14, Amiri Baraka spoke to students, faculty and community members about the politics of the 1960s in Grant Hall.

Amiri Baraka is the reason the state of New Jersey has no poet laureate.

He was named poet laureate of New Jersey in 2002. He was asked in September of that year to resign after one of his poems, titled Somebody Blew Up America, was criticized as being anti-Semitic. The poem reads,

Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed

Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers

To stay home that day

Why did Sharon stay away?

But finding no law allowing him to fire the poet laureate, then-governor Jim McGreevey helped introduce a bill to get rid of the position.

Based on his position on the media’s role in society, one can only conclude Baraka considers this event among his successes.

Speaking with Lilian Allen as part of Queen’s conference on the sixties titled New World Coming: The Sixties and the Shaping of Global Consciousness, Baraka addressed a crowd in Grant Hall on June 14 using poetry and stories to convey his opinions on culture and media from the 1960s to the present.

It’s the newspapers’ job to teach people about their history, he told the Journal after his performance. He said students especially need to understand the past if they are ever going to make a difference in the future.

Baraka wrote his first newspaper when he was in the seventh grade, printing 10 copies by hand and distributing them around his neighbourhood.

He continued to read poetry and literature during his time at Howard College in Washington, D.C. but he said he didn’t start thinking seriously about his writing until after he was kicked out. Rather than go home to face disapproving parents, he decided to join the air force.

“That’s when I started sending poetry out to be published,” he said. “But it would always come back within a week.”

In 1969 Baraka started printing his second newspaper, called Unity and Struggle, and distributing it to 15 major cities in the U. S. He said he lost a lot of support when the paper moved left of centre.

“We had to start again because once we went left, became Marxist, we lost people.” He said young people need to work to understand how the past is linked to the present.

“People either don’t know or they’ve forgotten,” he said of past conflicts. “The same struggles aren’t happening today, but other struggles are, and you have to try to relate them.

“We know you’re going to have different answers but that’s how we understand.”

He said student media has a unique place among media outlets.

“You’re supposed to shake these students up,” he said.

“You have to be a college intellectual,” he said. “Because you’re not going to have time to study when you get out.”

He said students need more than what a standard degree offers if they’re going to find their place in the world.

“Preparation is more than just reading those books, going to class. You need to have intelligent discussions that newspapers can ignite. … If you don’t understand, if you don’t know where you are, then you don’t know what your task is, your role.”

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