Somebody Blew Up America Poem

March 7, 2012 by staff 

Somebody Blew Up America Poem, Amiri Baraka, one of America’s most distinguished poets delivered a lecture at Wellesley College. It caused a huge controversy on the campus because Baraka wrote “Somebody Blew Up America,” a poem that dealt with the disastrous events of September 11, 2002 and his reaction towards it. In this article, Professor Selwyn Cudjoe contextualizes Baraka’s poem and argues for its literariness rather than reducing it to a mere sociological document ]

Over the past few weeks, Amiri Baraka’s poem(s) and his presence on the campus have caused painful feelings on all sides and generated much controversy. As s a scholar and critic of African American literature, I would like to offer my contribution to the debate. Whether we agree or disagree about the “anti-Semitic” nature of “Somebody Blew Up America,” it is important to engage the poem in its own terms and in its literary and cultural contexts. Yet we must be careful.

As is true with so many of these issues, once a black person’s work is under scrutiny, most of us seem to lose our perspective and decide that statements about hate, etc., are enough to win the day. Such a posture is not new. In 1963-64, in a celebrated exchange with Irving Howe, a progressive Jewish intellectual of tremendous imaginative and intellectual power, Ralph Ellison had cause to ask:

Why is it so often true that when critics confront the American as Negro they suddenly drop their advanced critical armament and revert with an air of confident superiority to quite primitive modes ofanlysis? Why is it that sociology-oriented critics seem to rate literature so far below politics and ideology that they would rather kill a novel [or a poem] than modify their presumptions concerning a given reality which it seeks in its own terms to project? Finally, why is it that so many of those who would tell us the meaning of Negro life never bother to learn how varied it really is? (Shadow and Act, p. 108)

Needless to say, the first two questions are more pertinent to our discussion and raise several important questions. In the first instance, we must be truthful before any honest dialogue can take place. No matter how we try to disguise it, the entire controversy around Baraka and his persona non grata status on this campus arose because he wrote “Somebody Blew up America.” Despite claims to the contrary, prior to October 1, 2002, very few persons on campus can point to one essay s/he penned protesting the hatred, venom, etc., of Baraka’s work. Therefore, it seems sensible to discuss this work in its own terms and in its literary and cultural contexts.

Before I discuss this poem, it is important to point out that amidst the sound and fury of this controversy, Professors Erika Williams and Elena Gascon-Vera sought to remind us that we were dealing with a poem as a particular form of literary expression. For example, Professor Williams asserted: “Baraka produces literature-a fact that seems to get lost in the discussion about his personal views and/or stated rhetoric in such forums as newspapers interviews and public speeches.” In their own ways, Professors Williams and Gascon-Vera sought to nudge us to an understanding that it was necessary to take on the poem in its own terms before we arrived at any conclusions about what it had to say. It is important to thank them for their intervention.

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