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Nov 6, 2015

Pushed and Pulled: Controversial Poet Visits JMU Despite Dissent in 2004

by Hannah Vaughn

Montpelier (2004) featuring Amiri Baraka

This unpublished cover of Montpelier shows Amiri Baraka reading at the 2004 Furious Flower Poetry Conference. With its provocative caption (“Does He Hate Me?”) the magazine aimed to draw attention to the event. Themed “Furious Flower: Regenerating the Black Tradition,” the conference was dedicated to Baraka and to Sonia Sanchez, poets associated with the Black Arts Movement begun in the mid-1960s.

The decision to honor Baraka created controversy despite his high profile as one of the most widely published African American writers. The pushback was related to a poem he’d written in response to the September 11 attacks, “Somebody Blew Up America,” targeting forces of global oppression and singling out white men, who, according to Baraka, had committed the most crimes against humanity. Demanding its audience re-think assumptions, the poem fires a barrage of powerful statements and urgent questions, often in dramatic repetition: “Who? Who? Who?”

National public outcry against the work came after he read it at the 2002 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Stanhope, New Jersey. The poem includes the line “Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers to stay home that day?” Accusing him of anti-Semitism, critics demanded he be removed from his post as New Jersey Poet Laureate. With no legal mechanism in place to unseat Baraka, the governor simply eliminated the position. The poet refused to apologize: “I don’t have regrets about writing the poem," he said. "Because the poem is true.”

When the Furious Flower Poetry Center announced Baraka was going to read at the 2004 conference, members of the university’s Hillel organization demanded that he be uninvited. They were especially troubled because of the timing; he was going to read “Somebody Blew Up America during the last hour before sundown on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jewish people.

Student Lisa Freedman wrote the editorial “Does He Hate Me?” In it, Freedman explains the confusion and hurt that she and other members of the Jewish community felt in response to “Somebody Blew Up America.” Although offended by Baraka’s words, Freedman saw him speak and was “captivated” by his presence even as his words still stung. She left with “a memory of him accusing the Jews of being evil.” (The article appeared in the magazine, although this cover of Montpelier was pulled. The magazine replaced its cover story when the JMU Dukes football team clinched its first—and so far only—NCAA Division I-AA Championship that same month.)

Individuals from Hillel were given the opportunity to meet with Baraka, but Dr. Joanne Gabbin, the conference organizer, had refused to strike him from the program. “That kind of censorship is a slippery slope,” says Gabbin. “If we were pressured to remove Amiri Baraka from the conference, what would that say about the other poets?”  Her decision to keep Baraka on the program was supported by the university’s president at the time, Linwood Rose, who also attended Baraka’s reading. Afterward he remarked, “What was all the fuss about?”

Throughout his career, Baraka fielded criticism that his impassioned writing and performance style was abrasive and aggressive, yet he always maintained that his forthright delivery was intended to shock his audience out of their apathy toward injustice. In a 2009 interview, Baraka made it plain: “Art is a weapon in the struggle of ideas.”


Hannah Vaughn is an office assistant at Furious Flower and a sophomore at James Madison University with a major in Health Services Administration.








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