Amiri Baraka, New Jersey’s controversial one-time poet laureate, died yesterday, aged 79. The poet, essayist, and playwright’s body of work will be remembered, if at all, as among the least humane in the history of American letters. An early 9/11 denier—a notorious 2002 poem suggested Jews were responsible for the attacks—Baraka embraced many of the last century’s worst ideologies.
His rise to prominence is a lesson in the ways radical political commitment can disfigure talent—and mask its absence. And his many awards and honors—including prizes from the PEN/Faulkner, Guggenheim, and Rockefeller foundations—are a reminder of the damage wrought by a literary establishment willing to lower standards to accommodate fashion and ideology.
Born in 1934 to a postal worker and a social worker in Newark, Everett Leroy Jones attended Howard University at a time of racial turmoil and transformation. He dropped out of Howard in 1954, later deriding the historically black college as a place where “they teach you to pretend to be white.” A stint in the U.S. Air Force—or “error farce,” as Jones called it—ended when he was discharged on the (dubious) ground that he’d been a Communist while at Howard.
Jones set out for Manhattan in search of a literary career. He married a Jewish woman and befriended Beat writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. As the 1960s counterculture picked up steam, Jones and his writings became ever more radical. The 1965 assassination of Malcolm X by Nation of Islam members marked a watershed moment. Jones abandoned his family, moved to Harlem, and established himself there as a black-nationalist leader in the Malcolm X mold, to help the neighborhood “gain its sovereignty as a black nation.”
This Jones failed to accomplish, and in late 1965 he moved back to Newark, where he reinvented himself as Imamu Amiri Baraka. Over the next four decades, as the author traded one nutsy worldview for another—at one point he even led a Maoist sect—hatred remained his one cosmological constant.
He hated white men. “Most American white men are trained to be fags,” he wrote in a 1965 essay. “For this reason it is no wonder their faces are weak and blank.”
He hated white women. “The average ofay [white person] thinks of the black man as potentially raping every white lady in sight,” he wrote in the same essay. “Which is true, in the sense that the black man should want to rob the white man of everything he has.”
He hated the African-American civil rights movement, which he deemed insufficiently violent and separatist. “Roywilkins is an eternal faggot / His spirit is a faggot,” he wrote in a poem assailing the executive secretary of the NAACP and one of the organizers of the 1963 March on Washington.
And he hated Jews. “Smile, jew. / Dance, jew. / Tell me you love me, jew. . . . / I got the extermination blues, jewboys. / I got the hitler syndrome figured,” Baraka wrote in a poem published in 1969.
Baraka’s bigotry reached its apotheosis in 2002, with the publication and performance of his 9/11 poem, “Somebody Blew Up America.” The opening reads: “They say its some terrorist, some barbaric A Rab, in Afghanistan It wasn’t our American terrorists It wasn’t the Klan or the Skin heads Or the them that blows up n— Churches, or reincarnates us on Death Row It wasn’t Trent Lott Or David Duke or Giuliani Or Schundler, Helms retiring . . . ”
In the “verses” that follow, the poet asks questions like: “Who killed Malcolm, Kennedy & his Brother Who killed Dr King, Who would want such a thing? Are they linked to the murder of Lincoln?” Then, near the end, he wonders: “Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers To stay home that day Why did [former Israeli prime minister Ariel] Sharon stay away?”
Earlier that year Baraka had been appointed New Jersey’s second poet laureate. The furor over “Somebody Blew Up America” forced the state legislature to abolish the post, since the law establishing it contained no provision for removing the laureate. Baraka sued on First Amendment grounds, taking his case all the way to a federal appeals court, where it failed.
What drew the Garden State’s arts and academic establishment to his work in the first place remains a mystery. Whatever measure of innovation was contained in Baraka’s early work had long been swept away by his need to declaim on ideological matters; what remained was bombastic, artless verse resembling the jeremiads of street-corner doomsayers. Still the awards came, including one from the—no doubt racist and imperialist—National Endowment for the Arts.
Sohrab Ahmari is an assistant books editor at the Wall Street Journal.