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One Way of Reading 'Somebody Blew Up America'

By Selwyn R. Cudjoe
November 26, 2002
Posted: December 14, 2002

[ On Saturday 22, November 2002, 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 of analysis? 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.

"Somebody Blew Up America" is about 240 lines long. It asks some fundamental questions about what took place on September 11. It begins with a declaration: "(All thinking people/oppose terrorism/both domestic/& international.../But one should not/ be used/ To cover the other.)" That seems plain enough to me. After such a declaration, the poem states: "Somebody Blew Up America/... They say it's some terrorist, / some barbaric/ A Rab in/ Afghanistan/ It wasn't our American terrorists/ It wasn't the Klan or the Skin heads/ Or the them that blows up nigger/ Churches, or reincarnates us on Death Row." As a poet, he can only answer these questions through the deployment and organization of language to arrive at a particular stance on the matter. Even more importantly, a poem is meant to be heard rather than read. But it is significant that before he even says a word about the Jews, he uses language that resonates in a manner that brings home the pain and suffering that African Americans and all other oppressed groups have had to undergo at the hands of white American terrorists.

Beginning with the assertion that somebody blew up America, the poem utilizes a rhetorical strategy that asks the questions: why and who. Each unit of the poem contributes to the making of its meaning and reaches its crescendo when it asks the ultimate question: "Who and Who and Who WHO (+) who who /Whoooo and WhooooooOOOOOOooooOoooo!" Such urgency, captured at its most intense in Baraka's reading of the poem, suggests that more than four lines are at stake in this poem. Wrenching four lines from this poem does it a terrible injustice, no matter how passionate one feels about the sentiments that are expressed.

There are other aids that help us to understand the poem. Although the poet's explication of his text is not/should not be taken as self-evident truth, anyone who wishes to understand what Baraka is about in this poem cannot be unmindful of what he says about what he tried to achieve in his poem. In a statement of October 2, 2002 ("Statement by Amiri Baraka, New Jersey Poet Laureate: 'I Will Not 'Apologize,' I will not resign"), Baraka offers many clues about how his poem ought to be read. He says "the poem's underlying theme focuses on how Black Americans have suffered from domestic terrorism since being kidnapped into US chattel slavery, e.g., by Slave Owners, US & State Laws, Klan, Skin Heads, Domestic Nazis, Lynching, denial of rights, national oppression, racism, character assassination, historically, and at this very minute throughout the US. The relevance of this to Bush's call for a 'War on Terrorism,' is that Black people feel we have always been victims of terror, governmental and general, so we cannot get as frenzied and hysterical as the people who while asking to dismiss our history and contemporary reality to join them, in the name of a shallow 'patriotism' in attacking the majority of people in the world, especially people of color and in the third world." In my way of seeing, such a goal has nothing to do with the Jews and Sharon per se. It has to do with an African-American response, if we may, to a very catastrophic moment in our history.

Again, Baraka is very specific in his intention. He says: "We cannot in good conscience, celebrate what seems to us an international crusade to set up a military dictatorship over the world, legitimized at base, by white supremacy, carried out, no matter the crude lies, as the most terrifying form of imperialism and its attendant national oppression. All of it designed to drain super profits bluntly from the colored peoples of the world, but as well, from the majority peoples of the world.!" Then he makes an important statement: "For all the frantic condemnations of Terror by Bush & co, as the single International Super Power, they are the most dangerous terrorists in the world!' There are many persons who would not/do not want to believe this, but some of us see Bush's terrorist campaign as a way to scuttle many of our civil liberties and the war directed against Iraq as a very dangerous undertaking."

This is Baraka's focus. Like it or not, this is where he wants to go. He is concerned about oppressed people all over the world, even the Jews who suffered during the Holocaust, hence his question (constant questioning): "Who put the Jews in ovens,/ and who helped them do it,/ Who said 'America First"/ and ok'd the yellow stars." As Baraka explains, the latter is "a reference to America's domestic fascists just before World War @ and the Nazi Holocaust." Baraka also went out of his way to mention the names of Jews all over the world that were "oppressed, murdered by actual Anti-Semitic forces, open or disguised." The poem asks: "Who killed Rosa Luxembourg, Liebneckt/Who murdered the Rosenbergs/ All the good people iced, tortured, assassinated, vanished." At its best, the poem acknowledges Jewish suffering and pain and attempts to speak for all of those groups (and persons) who have been oppressed by racist, terrorist and fascist forces that become rich in the process. He says that he is a communist. Therefore, it seems reasonable that in the penultimate lines of the poem he would ask:
Who make money from war
Who make dough from fear and lies
Who want the world like it is

Who want the world to be ruled by imperialism and
National oppression and Terror
Violence, and hunger and poverty.

Who is the ruler of Hell?
Who is the most powerful

Who you know ever Seen God?

But everybody seen The Devil.
These are powerful lines. Baraka means to be provocative. We may not "like" what he says, but he believes he has an important literary statement to make and he demands that we respond to his words.
What, then, are the offending lines?

Who knew the World Trade center was gonna get Bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?
And again the question:
Who? Who? Who/
In his reading, Baraka was careful to distinguish between Israeli citizens and American Jews. He insists that he was not saying that "Israel was responsible for the Attack, but that they knew and our counterfeit President did too!" Now, Baraka can certainly be taken to task for this statement, but he has offered his evidence for such a conclusion. He says, even the Democratic Party asserted that the administration knew much more than they told the public and called for an investigation into same. As recently as November 22, the New York Times questioned how much the CIA and FBI knew about the Saudi Arabia connection to the events of September 11. But Baraka goes further. He argued that "Michael Ruppert of the Green Party has issued a video stating clearly, 'Israeli security issued urgent warnings to the CIA of large-scale terror attacks...And that the Israeli Mossad knew the attacks were going to take place...they knew the World Trade Center were targets. This is from the British newspaper The Telegraph." Speaking of the day in question, the British Telegraph of September 16, 2001 had this to say:
In the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld, the 69-year-old Defense Secretary, was beginning a working breakfast with a few Congress members to discuss missile defense. Stony-faced, Rumsfeld voiced his long-held opinion that the US would face another terrorist attack in the near future. "Let me tell ya," he drawled, "I've been around the block a few times. There will be another event."

It was hardly the first warning: last month, Israeli intelligence officials had warned their US counterparts that a large-scale terrorist attack on key targets on the American mainland was imminent. Two senior military intelligence experts had been sent to Washington in August to alert the CIA and FBI that a cell of 200 terrorists was preparing a major operation.
Given our understanding of things as it were then, no one can say with any degree of specificity that the CIA or the FBI knew the terrorists would pounce on the targets on which they did. But Baraka speaks from a particular site and from a specific point of view.

Baraka is more specific about the second of the four offending lines. In trying to confirm what the US knew, when it knew it, etc., Baraka insists that "Israeli security force, SHABAK knew about the attack in advance. My sources were 'Ha'aret" and 'Yadiot Ahranot" (two Israeli newspapers) 'Al Watan' (a Jordania newspaper), 'Manar-TV and the websites of the Israeli security force SHABAK. There are myriad references to this in Reuters, Der Spiegel. The Israeli newspaper Yadiot Ahranot 1st revealed SHABAK had cancelled Sharon's appearance in New York City that day, Sept 11, where he was supposed to speak at an "Israeli Day" celebration. This was also mentioned in the Star Ledger to the effect Sharon was supposed to visit the US, but no dates were mentioned. It is the Green Party's Ruppert who makes the most effective case for the 4000 Israeli workers (Not Jewish Workers!) but Israeli nationals. He says in his video, 'if what I am showing you is known overtly all through the media, how much more does our thirty billion dollar intelligence community know'. . . 'Nonsense' to say the Israeli did it. They were warning the US hands over fist. . . We reviewed the list of former tenants of the World Trade Center at the on-line Wall St., Journal site. And there's the website. It is an alphabetical list of tenants. Scrool to the very bottom and notice the moving date for the office of Zim American-Israeli Shipping to Norfolk Virginia. They were all in the World Trade Center. They must have had Mossad' or (Shabak-AB) input because they vacated one week before September and they broke their lease. The Israelis didn't pull the attack, but they were smart enough to get their people out of the way."

I must confess that I checked neither the video nor the Israeli newspapers that Baraka cites. Yet, to assert that the poem contains "a demonstrable falsehood" (as the English Department contends) seems to be wrong-headed. Baraka's conclusion may be right or it may be wrong. He certainly is not a madman-and mad men do have their own truths-- proclaiming his truths without a smattering of evidence. As an artist, Baraka is using his poem to disturb, to ask us to questions what took place on September 11 and why. Speaking of five Israelis who were laughing while they were filing the debacle (and this is tough to believe), Baraka says: "This is why the poem. . . throughout continuously chants the question WHO WHO WHO? That is, who is responsible for this horrible crime and WHY? It is a poem that aims to probe and disturb, but there is not the slightest evidence of Anti-Semitism, as anyone who reads it without some insidious bias would have to agree."

However one takes Baraka's declaration, the crude sociological modes that Ellison condemned has to come to terms with other semiological modes of literary analysis in which the status of language within the novel or the poem are of enormous importance. Semioticians (particularly someone such as Saussure) reminded us that there is a distinction between the sound image (the signifier) and the concept (the signified) as he tried to move us away from the notion that there is some "real world" out there which we refer to in words. They also warn us that the "real world" we articulate through signs may not be the same (that is, may not mean the same thing ) for/to all of us. Even Michel Foucault who violently objected to being called a structuralist by "certain half-witted 'commentators'" (Foreword to the English edition of The Order of Things), responded to Eduardo Sanguinetti's appeal to realism with the following quip: "Reality does not exist...Language is all there is, and what we are talking about is language, we speak within language" (David Macey, The Many Lives of Michel Foucault, p. 150). Suffice it to say, that when we examine a poem we must always be concerned to relate systems of signs to meaning.

Even within the African-American tradition of literary criticism, an "epistemological break," to use the language of Louis Althusser (Lenin and Philosophy), occurred when Henry Louis Gates (The Signifying Monkey [1988]) made a stunning advancement over Addison Gayle's work (The Way of the New World [1975]) when he argued that even an analysis of African American literature had to yield to a more sophisticated understanding of how language functions in the making of any verbal work. Incidentally, this is one reason (apart from the work that Alice Walker did) why Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) was elevated within the African American canon at the expense of Richard Wright's Native Son (1940). Even within the African-American critical tradition of literature (and we have a way of looking at the world) crude sociological modes of analysis must give way to modes that seek to understand how language functions within the poem.

It is these varied readings of cultural signs that have led to such disparate explications of Baraka's poem. This is what Professors Gason-Vera and Williams have pointed out. Gason-Vera pleads: "My defense is literature. Poems are poems, and for literature people, like me, if they are good, they are sacred. I have not read [David] Duke, actually, if I remember well he is popular racist who wanted to be Governor of Louisiana, isn't it he. I will probable hate the man. However, if Duke will write a poem denouncing injustices and suffering of his people and will do it with a strong poem, with strong metaphors that could be analyses in a literary, political, and historical context, I would love to teach it."

Williams offers the following: "[In 'Somebody Blew Up America,'] there are plenty of references to hot-button political and historical issues ('Who got fat from plantations/Who genocide Indians/ Tried to waste the Black nation'). But there are no imputations to blame any one group for the various social tragedies Baraka is railing against-in fact, he is liberal in his suggestion that quite a few people including key African-American members of the Bush administration might be called into question for their political beliefs or politics. Questioning is in fact the dominant rhetorical strategy in Baraka's poem ('Who is them paying/Who telling lies, etc.,') I suppose that my real questions are: how do we go about anchoring claims that someone's art per se is responsible for promoting-racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. beliefs?"

We must always examine how language is used in a particular work of art. After D. H. Lawrence published Lady Chatterley's Lover, it was condemned for its "phallic reality" and "indescribable depravity." When the novel arrived in the United States copies were confiscated by the US customs on grounds that such "vile" and "vulgar" language would subvert the morals of the community. As Professor Williams asks in the specific context of "Somebody Blew Up America": "How do we read Joseph Conrad's portrayal of soulless, savage 'niggers' in Conrad's Heart of Darkness? How do we respond to Allen Ginsberg's 'a vision of ultimate cunt and come?" (from 'Howl')?" After being excoriated by the press, Lawrence exclaimed "Nobody likes being called a cesspool" (Lady Chatterley's Lover: A Propos of 'Lady Chatterley Lover," xxxii) One could not help but hear similar resonances in Baraka's outburst: "I am not an Anti-Semite. No one likes being slandered. Your slander will be with me for the rest of my life!" (Lecture, November 22).

We may or may not like "Somebody Blew Up America." Yet, we cannot reduce the poem to a crude sociological document. It requires a special kind of expertise and discipline to understand it. This does not mean that we have to like it. Many may find it disturbing, but then that is the author's purpose. Many may find it offensive or worse, that, too, is a conclusion we must also respect. Yet, as scholars and teachers, we have a special obligation to our colleagues, our students and our college, to act as educated men and women to whom rationality and analysis are of primary importance. We do our community little good if we do not ask our students to look at this (and other texts) seriously, carefully and knowledgeable. These are indispensable criteria for ferreting out the truth of any literary act.

Baraka's work has enriched the lives of many persons throughout the world. As he displayed over the last month, the thrust of his work is meant to disturb our peaceful acceptance of the terrors and evils of this world. Unless Wellesley is different from other parts of the world, Baraka's work will continue to do for Wellesley what it has done for the rest of the world. Twenty years from now, Baraka's truth, as Whitman's truth, and as Poe's truth, will have more valence than anything his critics have said here over the past few weeks. The truth of Baraka's work, warts and all, will live on as long as we respect the power of the word and the lucidity with which it captures the struggles of all oppressed people all over the world.

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