Poetry and politics: Baraka, both poet and mayor, offers reading list to N.J. pols suffering from corruption stigma

By Mark Bonamo | 04/09/15


NEWARK – Newark Mayor Ras Baraka walked down Broad Street on Thursday, his 46th birthday, and contemplated a situation that has settled over all of New Jersey’s politics.

The reputation of New Jersey politicians suffered another blow last week when U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) was indicted on federal corruption charges, adding another poison ivy vine to the Garden State’s historical culture of political corruption. Indictments in the the federal investigation into the lane closings at the George Washington Bridge, which reportedly involved several of Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s aides and allies, could be forthcoming as soon as next week, according to press reports.

Maybe the Marquis de Sade, the 18th century French revolutionary politician, philosopher and writer, said it best about observers’ fascination with the dark side of life when he wrote: “Beauty belongs to the sphere of the simple, the ordinary, whilst ugliness is something extraordinary.”

In some ways, Baraka is uniquely qualified to assess these extraordinary times in New Jersey politics. His late father, the revolutionary poet Amiri Baraka, encouraged the literary leanings of his son, a published poet himself who has contributed a spoken-word intro to the critically acclaimed album The Score by the hip hop group The Fugees. Both father and son witnessed the indictment of numerous Newark mayors in their lifetimes.

So when asked if he had any suggestions for New Jersey politicians to read in order to reorient their minds, Baraka was effusive about the efforts of other poets.

“How about Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’? That’s a start,” Baraka told PolitickerNJ as he walked in front of City Hall. “And Margaret Walker’s ‘For My People’. They should try that, too.”

Baraka laughed approvingly when Dante Alighieri’s ‘Inferno’ was added to the mix, but shifted back to the Americas when putting the next poet on politicians’ reading list.

“They’ve got to read Jose Marti,” said Baraka, a reference to Cuba’s national literary hero and freedom fighter. “They’ve got to liberate their minds.”

Baraka had little to say about the legal troubles of Menendez, New Jersey’s most prominent Cuban-American politician, other than to note he felt that Menendez “has worked hard for the state” and that he wished New Jersey’s senior senator “the best.”

But as he ducked inside City Hall to go to work, Baraka had one more poetic suggestion for a specific New Jersey politician.

“Governor Chris Christie should read ‘Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair,'” said Baraka, a reference to a line in the poem ‘Mother to Son’ by Langston Hughes. “Maybe that would help.”

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