following collective declaration, "Poetry Matters: On the Media
Persecution of Amiri Baraka," was originally issued by the
Surrealist Movement in the U.S. in October 2002. Posted on this
website and rapidly copied onto other sites, it attracted the attention
of manypoets, writers, artists, musicians, and activistswho
wrote in to affirm their agreement with it. As the number of supporters
grew, it was decided to re-issue the statement with signatures.
In a bleak, jingoistic time when civil rights and liberties are
increasingly jeopardized, this "Declaration of the 131"
signifies that those for whom poetry really matters have refused
to surrender to the authoritarian and militaristic trend. In demonstrating
their solidarity with a fellow poet under reactionary attack, the
signers of "Poetry Matters" are also affirming their passion
for human liberty, the inalienable rights of the imagination, and
free speech for all.
On the Media Persecution of Amiri Baraka
dont usually trigger hate campaigns or Red Scares, but this
years Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival at Waterloo Village
in Stanhope, New Jersey, proved to be different. There, on September
19th, Amiri Baraka read his poem "Somebody Blew Up America."
The applause was thunderous, but some people apparently didnt
like it, for almost immediately the poet was singled out for an
incredible barrage of vilification by Murdochs Fox
News, The New York Times, the National Review, and
scoresby now probably many hundredsof bigoted, neoconservative,
white-supremacist talk-shows and periodicals. Leading the assault
on the poet is the so-called Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a powerful
right-wing political organization notor-ious for its virulent opposition
to Affirmative Action and for its routine use of character assassination
against its critics.
It so happens that Baraka wrote "Somebody Blew Up America"
in September/October 2001, in the weeks following the tragedy known
to all as "9-11." The 226-line poem was promptly posted
on the Internet, copied onto many websites, and further publicized
by the poet at numerous well-attended readings all over the U.S.
and in many other countries. It quickly became one of the most widely
circulated of his works. No attempt was made to conceal the fact
that the poem was, in Barakas own words, "an attack on
Imperialism, National Oppression, Monopoly Capitalism, Racism, Anti-Semitism,"
and that it was meant to "probe and disturb." Not until
the Dodge Poetry Festival, however, did anyone object to it.
What provoked the sudden media war on Amiri Baraka in September
2002? Assuredly it was not merely a difference of opinion regarding
the art of poetry. In truth, despite the hue and cry, the poem itself
is not the central issue here. In any event, the principal charge
alleged against the poem (that it is "anti-Semitic") cannot
withstand a moments critical examination. Indeed, with its
salute to the memory of such revered Jewish revolutionists as Rosa
Luxemburg, and the questions it raises about U.S. capitalisms
little-known complicity in the Holocaust, Barakas poem is
explicitly against anti-Semitism and all racism. If the ADLs
hollow charge, repeated ad nauseam by the media, had even
the slightest substance, how are we to account for the fact that
it was completely unnoticed by the hundreds of thousands who had
read or heard the poem during the preceding year? (The ADL, of course,
construes any and all criticism of the Israeli governmenteven
the merest mention of its long support of South African Apartheid,
for exampleas "anti-Semitic.")
No less spurious is the ADLs puerile argument that Barakas
poem is helping to foment "anti-American xenophobia,"
but this chargebristling with sinister insinuationsdoes
bring us closer to the real issues at stake in the media "police
action" against the poet. For what the ADL, neoconservatives
and repentant ex-New-Leftists really hate about Baraka is that he
is a sharp critic of this countrys anti-democratic institutions,
and an activist who has time and again protested the U.S. governments
repressive role in foreign and domestic affairs. Worse yet, from
the point of view of the white ruling class and the politicians
who do its bidding, Baraka is also an outspoken revolutionary.
Clearly, then, the real target of the ADLs ongoing defamation
of the author of "Somebody Blew Up America" is not that
particular poem, or any other poem, but the poet himself,
his revolutionary courage and audacity, and above all his ability
to articulate the anxieties and yearnings of those "furthest
down" in humankinds long hard struggle against inequality
The question, "Why did the assault on the poet start as late
as September 2002?" is easily answered: Because in August,
a few weeks before the Dodge Poetry Festival, Amiri Baraka became
the poet laureate of the State of New Jersey. An honorary title
with a small stipend, this was far from a position of power, but
for the states corrupt "business-as-usual" Establishment,
it was evidently way too much.
And so Barakas poemor rather, the distorted, out-of-context
fragments quoted by his critics in the press and on TVwas
made a pretext for racial and political persecution by that arch-enemy
of all poetry, solidarity, and freedom: the white power structure.
The ADL and other bigots are demanding that Baraka be removed as
poet laureate. Cravenly submitting to white-supremacist pressure-groups,
New Jersey Governor James E. McGreevey has formally asked the poet
not only to resign as laureate, but also to apologize for his poem!
Baraka has refused.
In the current U.S. political climate: a climate of domination,
fear, and insipid conformism; increasing government surveillance
and curtailing of civil rights and liberties; persecution of immigrants,
radicals, and organized labor; massive militarization and flag-waving
war hysteria, all promoted by an unelected President and a billionaire-owned
mediathe assault on Amiri Baraka is a matter of the greatest
concern to all who care about human freedom, the right to dream,
and the right to speak out.
This attack on a poet is an attack on all poets, all poetry, and
all free speech. The persecution of Baraka is about stifling
poetry, suppressing criticism, silencing voices of dissent. It is
about censorship and coercion; the imposition of conformity and
misery; the denial of freedom.
opposed to all forms of bigotry, we say:
Hands Off Amiri
Long live the unfettered imagination!
An injury to One is an injury to All!
For the Surrealist Movement in the United States:
Gale Ahrens, Jennifer Bean, Jen Besemer, Daniel Boyer,
Ronnie Burk, Richard Burke, Susan Burke, Dennis Cooper,
Laura Corsiglia, Jayne Cortez, Schlechter Duvall, Mel
Edwards, Joseph Allen Fees, Sarah Frances, Brandon Freels,
Beth Garon, Paul Garon, Robert Green, Jan Hathaway, Joseph
Jablonski, Ted Joans, Robin D. G. Kelley, Don LaCoss,
Mary Low, Tristan Meinecke, Casandra Stark Mele, Morgan
Miller, Anne Olson, Ruth Oppenheim-Rothschild, Irene Plazewska,
David R. Roediger, Larry Romano, Franklin Rosemont, Penelope
Rosemont, M. K. Shibek, Louise Simons, Tamara L. Smith,
Debra Taub, Jordan West, Joel Williams.
The following individualspoets, writers, artists,
musicians, teachers, editors, and activists have
expressed their solidarity with the foregoing statement,
and asked to have their signatures added to it:
Ernest Allen, Ron Allen, Miekal And, Derrick Bell, Max
Blechman, Stephanie Booher, Doreen C. Bowens, John Bracey,
Lisa Brock (School of the Art Institute, Chicago), Dennis
Brutus, Paul Buhle, Ed Bullins, Vinie Burrows (Permanent
UN rep for Womens Intl Democratic Federation),
Carolyn A. Butts (African Voices Magazine), Alexander
Cockburn, Polly A. Connelly (organizer, United Auto Workers,
ret.), Maria Damon (University of Minnesota), Susan G.
Davis, Dave Dellinger, Diane di Prima, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz,
Howard Dyckoff, Patricia Eakins (ed., Frigate: The
Transverse Review of Books), Katie Eppich, Torvald
Faegre, DuEwa M. Frazier (CEO, Lit Noire Publishing),
Chris Funkhouser, Nicole Henares Garland, John Higginson,
Steve Garabedian, Regie Gibson, Stephanie Gilman, Maurice
Greenia, Jr., Michael Gregory, Tyree Guyton, Mary Ann
Hansen, Elaine Harger (Progressive Librarian),
James V. Hatch, Patrick Herron, Herbert Hill, Amy Hufnagel,
Noel Ignatiev, Michael James (Heartland Journal),
Joseph Jarman, Carolyn Karcher, Marie Kazalia, Carlos
Cortéz Koyokuikatl, Joel Kovel, Kari Lydersen,
Harry Magdoff (co-editor, Monthly Review), Clive
Matson, Deborah Meadows (Calif. Polytechnic State U.,
Pomona), David Meltzer, Naeema Muhammad (Black Workers
for Justice, NC), Saladin Muhammad (Black Workers for
Justice, NC), Sheila Nopper, Mark Nowak (ed., XCP:
Cross Cultural Poetics), Rob OBrien (ed., ache
magazine), Alix Olson, Jim ONeal (founding ed.,
Living Blues), Simon J. Ortiz, Martin Paddio, Robert
Penny (founder, Kuntu Writers Workshop, Pittsburgh),
Eric Perkins, Elizabeth Peterson, Utah Phillips, Peter
Rachleff, Margaret Randall, Adrienne Rich, Henry Rosemont,
Jr., JoAnn Rosemont, Mark Rosenzweig (Councilor at Large,
American Library Association), John Ross, Ron Sakolsky,
Sonia Sanchez, Archie Shepp, John J. Simon, John Sinclair,
James Smethurst, Gary Snyder, John Starrs, Nelson Stevens,
John Stevenson, William Strickland, Rodrigo Toscano, Askia
Touré, Tony Menelik Van Der Meer, Joseph Verilli,
Lise Vogel (Rider University, Lawrenceville, NJ), Darryl
Lorenzo Wellington, Christopher Winks.
Surrealist Movement in the United States