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.]