May 14th, 2014

Newarks’ new mayor and the Newark old guard: what’s in a name?

This NY Times article is about the contest by which Newark, New Jersey elected its new mayor, Councilman Ras Baraka, who according to the Times is “the fiery scion of a militant poet.”

The contest—between two black Democrats—was both expensive and bitter, pitting a union-supported Newark insider (Baraka) against a man perceived as a power-broker outsider (Jeffries). And the city, Newark—which I knew as a different place in my youth, when we used to go to visit elderly relatives who still lived there—has been plagued with seemingly intractable problems for many a long decade.

The most recent mayor, Cory A. Booker, used his position as a springing-off spot for his current office of US Senator, but Baraka won by running as a Newark insider against the Booker administration, of which Jeffries was seen as a continuation. The article mentions Baraka’s family several times,saying that “Mr. Baraka relied on his family’s name” among other things, and that both candidates lived in Newark’s South Ward, “which has long been the Baraka family’s base of support.” In addition, we have this:

Mr. Baraka, 44, benefited from high name recognition. His father, Amiri Baraka, who died in January, was a leader of Newark’s cultural and political life after the riots of 1967.

So it appears that family, particularly Baraka’s father, and name recognition played a large part in Baraka’s victory. But in the entire 1000-word article, the Times somehow neglects to mention something I’d consider rather important about that family name, something that readers of a certain age (my age, to be exact) remember and that would enable newer readers to place Baraka’s father and understand who he was, and that’s his birth name, Leroi Jones, the name by which he first became famous as a “militant poet.”

The Times probably has good reason to leave this sort of thing out:

Within the African-American community, some compare [Amiri Baraka, aka Leroi Jones] to James Baldwin and call Baraka one of the most respected and most widely published Black writers of his generation. Others have said his work is an expression of violence, misogyny, homophobia and racism. Baraka’s brief tenure as Poet Laureate of New Jersey (2002–03), involved controversy over a public reading of his poem “Somebody Blew Up America?” and accusations of anti-semitism, and some negative attention from critics, and politicians.

If you follow the link to the poem you’ll find those accusations are hardly made-up, and you’ll find other examples on Baraka’s Wiki page to show that he was an equal-opportunity hater of almost everyone except black people, with “his advocacy of rape and violence towards, at various times, women, gay people, white people, and Jews.”

And what does “militant poet” mean? In Amiri Baraka’s case, it meant something like this:

After the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, Baraka left his wife and their two children and moved to Harlem. Now a “black cultural nationalist,” he broke away from the predominantly white Beats and became very critical of the pacifist and integrationist Civil Rights movement. His revolutionary poetry now became more controversial. A poem such as “Black Art” (1965), according to academic Werner Sollors from Harvard University, expressed his need to commit the violence required to “establish a Black World.” “Black Art” quickly became the major poetic manifesto of the Black Arts Literary Movement and in it, Jones declaimed “we want poems that kill,” which coincided with the rise of armed self-defense and slogans such as “Arm yourself or harm yourself” that promoted confrontation with the white power structure. Rather than use poetry as an escapist mechanism, Baraka saw poetry as a weapon of action. His poetry demanded violence against those he felt were responsible for an unjust society.

Jones changed his name in 1970, when he was 36 years old and already very famous. He became a Marxist in the mid-70s (officially, that is), and in the 80s found a home in academia, settling into a professorship at Stonybrook.

I have no idea how far the Ras Baraka acorn falls from the parental tree, or how many of these views of the father the son shares today. But my guess is that dad had a pretty big influence on him. And the Times, of course, has done a bang-up job of obfuscating the truth about who Baraka’s father was as best it can. While not ignoring him entirely, the article makes him sound like some kindly old Newark patriarch and patron of the arts.

[ADDENDUM: Here's some background on one of the bitter disputes that were part of the Newark mayoral race. Sounds like Baraka's election bodes ill for Newark, which has already seen plenty of ill, and for its children's eduction:

The mayor’s race pits radical Councilman Ras Baraka, who was principal of low-performing Central High, against Shavar Jeffries, a former assistant state attorney general who helped start a successful charter school.

The Newark backlash could have been avoided, says Jeffries. Too often, he said, “education reform . . . comes across as colonial to people who’ve been here for decades. It’s very missionary, imposed, done to people rather than in coöperation with people.” Reformers “have to build coalitions and educate and advocate,” says Jeffries. “You have to persuade people.”

Baraka won the election.]

13 Responses to “Newarks’ new mayor and the Newark old guard: what’s in a name?”

  1. J.J. Says:

    During my life as an airline pilot, everyone I ever came in contact with referred to Newark as Manurerk. We all uniformly tried to avoid schedules that laid over there. And I have laid over in Baltimore and DC where we had armed guards with machine guns and German Shepards on duty in the lobby of the hotel. Much preferred that to Manurerk.

    The proximity to New York and all the money that sloshes over the river is all that has kept Newark alive. Otherwise they would be like Detroit.

  2. Sgt. Mom Says:

    Fascinating … so they are turning on each other, now?

  3. Don Carlos Says:

    When there’s no one else left, they do turn on each other. Hungry dogs gotta eat. Not all race hustlers can get academic tenure, though one might venture to guess Ras is not as poetic as Amiri.

  4. parker Says:

    From flyover country, far from the decaying metro areas east and west, its imposible to get interested in what is obviously a SNAFU situation anywhere in NJ. From flyover country everything else is a stain upon the land that we no longer recognize as America. Please leave us alone to go our way and you go your way.

  5. blert Says:

    Baraka never owned a waste paper basket, hence, the ode.

  6. Ymarsakar Says:

    The only intractable problem is the LEft. Everything else are symptoms.

  7. Eric Says:

    Neo: “The most recent mayor, Cory A. Booker, used his position as a springing-off spot for his current office of US Senator, but Baraka won by running as a Newark insider against the Booker administration, of which Jeffries was seen as a continuation.”

    In light of parker’s comment, I think this is the important story because Senator Booker is being groomed for a national profile by the Dems establishment, one that might affect flyover country as well as the coasts.

    Booker burnished his political reputation as the Mayor of Newark, yet the Baraka v Jefferies election indicates that Booker didn’t do much for Newark as its mayor, as judged by Newark’s residents. They apparently view Booker as a carpetbagger who used Newark as a stepping stone without helping Newark on his way.

    Since Booker seems to have been placed on an Obama-esque fast-track based on the strength of his mayorship, it behooves political observers to cut through the narrative and make an accurate account of Booker’s actual record as mayor.

  8. Matt_SE Says:

    Has anything good ever come out of New Jersey?

  9. Eric Says:

    Matt_SE: “Has anything good ever come out of New Jersey?”

    Well, Thomas Edison began his career as an inventor in Newark before setting up shop in Menlo Park.

    Newark was a great American city once upon a time.

  10. thirdtwin Says:

    Son of the geeza who skeeza’ed Condoleezza.

  11. Ymarsakar Says:

    Wasn’t Edison run out of town by somebody or other.

  12. Molly NH Says:

    Yeah, Ymar the guy with the whale oil franchise ! LOL

  13. Dennis Says:

    Today the people of Newark swear in their new mayor. Their choice with whom they must live. I do not believe that they could really know (remember) Baraka’s father, his hatred, Marxist beliefs and connections with racial violence. I believe his views are shared by his son and followers. Perhaps it would be poetic justice if his voter/supporters alone shared his “New Newark” agenda, but all of Essex County and the State of New Jersey will be hurt. Let’s see what happens next and what Senator Booker will do to help. Don’t hold your breath!

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