The police officer looks at you with a jolly grin, holding a rye bread sandwich. He has the proverbial map of Ireland on his face and the words above his smiling expression underline this point: “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Rye Bread.”
New Yorkers of a certain age will remember these advertisements, the brainchild of advertising executive Judy Protas, who died earlier this month at the age of 91.
As part of the popular ad campaign, the Irish cop was joined by an Italian mother, a Native American, an Asian and a whole rainbow coalition of races and ethnicities, all brought together to drive home the simple point that America was a happy melting pot and that, for all of our differences, at least we could agree on what constituted good rye bread.
That’s the happy face of the melting pot. Of course, there’s another, not-too-cheerful side.
Also in early January, the controversial poet Amiri Baraka died at the age of 79. The very idea of a “controversial poet” may seem quaint at this point. But since the 1960s, Baraka (who was born Leroi Jones in Newark, NJ) had used volatile language to articulate political messages, mainly expressing the rage felt by impoverished African Americans living in a racist nation, parts of which were still under the thumb of Jim Crow.
Like him or not, you knew where Baraka stood. His 1965 poem “Black Art” took aim at Irish cops who did not seem quite as genial as the fellow in the Levy’s Rye Bread ad.
“We want poems that kill/assassin poems, poems that shoot guns,” Baraka wrote. “Poems that wrestle cops into alleys/and take their weapons leaving them dead/with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland.”
Well, Irish cops can at least take heart that they weren’t the only ethnic group to face Baraka’s fury. In this poem alone there are references to “wops” and “Jews” and even “mulatto b**ches.”
Other writings of Baraka’s from the 1960s combine the genuine rage of an oppressed minority with what critics have called sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic thought.
Which is why it was so curious, all those years later, when New Jersey’s Irish American governor Jim McGreevey named Amiri Baraka New Jersey’s official poet laureate in 2002.
This is not to minimize Baraka’s contributions.
Again, like it or not, his reputation as a poet and provocateur was well-established. Speaker after speaker at Baraka’s funeral (presided over by the actor Danny Glover) testified to his genius. That’s presumably what McGreevey was thinking of when he named Baraka New Jersey’s poet laureate.
But there is an old saying – what do you expect from a kitten but a meow? A few months into his term of service, with America still struggling to comprehend the enormity of the September 11 attacks, Baraka penned a poem called “Somebody Blew Up America,” which implied that Israeli agents and other Jews may well have been part of a conspiracy to topple the Twin Towers.
There are about a thousand implications in this long, politically-charged poem, but, not surprisingly, these are the ones that got the most attention.
Again, McGreevey should have known the kind of writer he was tabbing as the state’s bard. Given what we would later learn about McGreevey, Baraka’s alleged homophobia alone might have been cause for concern.
Anyway, when all was said and done, McGreevey had to abolish the position of state poet laureate because there was no other way to remove the controversial Baraka. This is probably for the best.
There is a much larger debate to be had about whether or not the government should essentially sponsor a writer – and, for that matter, if a writer should choose to be government-sponsored, given the limits such sponsorship will put on his ability to express himself.
But that’s a whole other column. For now, given the way things have turned out in New Jersey, I’m just glad Chris Christie never had to rough anyone up in order to get his own preferred poet laureate into office.
(Contact “Sidewalks” at tdeignan.blogspot.com)