NEWARK (CN) – Amiri Baraka sued former Gov. James McGreevey, who revoked his position as poet laureate of New Jersey and refused to pay the annual $10,000 honorarium because of allegedly anti-Semitic remarks in Baraka’s poem about the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Baraka says McGreevey demanded his resignation after he read his poem, “Somebody Blew Up America,” at a poetry festival, and when he refused to resign, McGreevey persuaded the Legislature to abolish the post, and stiffed him for his money.
Baraka, a much-decorated poet and playwright, says McGreevey objected to the poem he read at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival on Sept. 19, 2002. McGreevey specifically objected to the lines: “Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed / Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers to stay home that day? / Why did Sharon stay away?”
Baraka said he refused McGreevey’s demand to apologize and resign, and that McGreevey then vowed publicly to withhold payment of his $10,000 stipend, and abolished the post of state poet laureate.
Baraka says he and the state entered a contract in May 2002, making him poet laureate, and McGreevey and the state breached the contract.
Baraka became internationally famous for his 1964 play, “Dutchman,” which won an Obie award and dealt with the socially explosive theme of interracial sex. He was then known as Leroi Jones. He was criticized for his allegedly anti-Semitic and homophobic writings long before he was appointed poet laureate. In response to criticism of “Somebody Blew Up America,” Baraka said the poem was anti-Israel, not anti-Semitic.
In response to a previous lawsuit from Baraka, the 3rd Circuit ruled that state officials are immune from such claims. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal. This lawsuit, apparently, differs from the first one in claiming breach of contract, rather than constitutional violations.
Baraka is represented in Essex County Court by William Manns Jr.