Jesse Fried • Jun 14, 2017
Considered one of the most significant American poets of the 20th century, Amiri Baraka is a great interpreter of our culture ("our" having several meanings here, some referring to New Jersey and others not). Born and raised in Newark, Baraka is a New Jersey hero for giving up the high life in the hippest circles of 1960's NYC to return home and become involved in grassroots politics during an especially tumultuous time in Newark's history. While his uncompromising idealism and intense Black nationalistic rhetoric rubbed some people the wrong way, his writings about the experience of participating in Newark's public life are priceless.
Sadly lacking the skill to read, enjoy and interpret most poetry, I nevertheless have been quite influenced by some of Baraka's other writings. His short story collection Tales of the Out and the Gone combines a casual and conversational tone, rich avant garde weirdness, a deeply thought-out modern American perspective, and sincerity about some issues of importance to our state and our human condition. The stories have a strong thematic overlap with this site: NJ politics, race in politics and culture, the absurdity of the suburban experience...I can't recommend it highly enough. His famous early play "Dutchman," though very much of the 60's era, has an enduring power to it. It takes place in New York, one of the main characters is from New Jersey. One might even go as far as to interpret NJ as a symbol of youth, purity, and fertility in the play, compared to New York standing in for power, abuse, seduction, and death. Good vs. evil, even.Baraka is also famous as a cultural commentator, with important essays about Black music and Black culture. He has has some novels too, which I hope to read.
Black identity and American identity and the sometimes uneasy coexistence between the two are themes that run throughout Baraka's work. A very radical Black nationalist during the 60's, his intellectual evolution over the next half century is quite a fascinating and relevant live story for us to grapple with. Let me get back to you on that once I've read a lot more books.
Baraka holds a distinction in our state rich with irony and strangeless: he the last-ever Poet Laureate of New Jersey. A poem of his managed to take down that short-lived cultural institution in a political tornado of awkwardness and controversy. His post-9-11 poem "Somebody Blew Up America" ruffled some feathers. I am struggling to adequately interpret or paraphrase the poem here, so I will invite the reader to read it for him or herself. Suffice it to say that in the emotionally charged political atmosphere of that time, certain counterhegemonic ideas expressed in the poem were not well received by people in the state. Then-governor James McGreevey felt the need to act, but had no legal means to strip Baraka of his title. Our State Legislature saved face by passing a bill abolishing the position of Poet Laureate altogether. Without passing judgement on the content of the poem, which I will just say is relatively heavy, I will say that I am amused at the laureator's remorse exhibited by NJ's political class. Had they never read. In fact, I think it's a great and very telling story about NJ and culture.
Baraka's son Ras is the current mayor of Newark at the time of writing. Ras was the principal of one of Newark's high schools before becoming mayor.