This past Tuesday when Barack Obama stepped out of the political morass and wiped the mud from his suit, when every one of the chattering news networks quieted down to watch him speak, I cringed, convinced the gifted orator couldn't be that gifted. He was doing himself in. Yet there he was addressing racism, of all things, with wisdom and grace and care and forgiveness. Accepting that it was, in part, a calculated move by a campaign, and no matter its effect (or lack thereof) on the election, it was the most remarkable speech I've witnessed in my lifetime.
There were the pundits unsure how to handle what so clearly had transcended politics. There was CNN, plucking the most inflammatory line in the speech: Obama: "Racism is a Stain on the Constitution" for their headline--then realizing they were an embarrassing demonstration of Obama's criticism of the press, pulling it. It was a surreal and, in some ways, joyous moment.
Of course, as soon as Obama began walking off the stage, the smear engines of the right wing and the Clinton campaign were warming up again. Their agents were looking for attacks (how dare he insult his grandmother like that!). This is politics after all. But before we lose ourselves in that world again, I want to offer some of what poetry has added to the conversation on race. And I encourage you to add poems to my list.
Like Obama, Langston Hughes was raised by his mother and his grandmother--his father having abandoned them. He became one of the great American poets. His influences--including Carl Sandburg and Paul Laurence Dunbar--were both black and white. His bold and ambitious poem about the African American experience I, Too, Sing America, echoes Walt Whitman more than anyone else.
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed--
I, too, am America.
It stuns me to think that this was written--that Hughes faced these issues--just over fifty years ago. Michael S. Harper, currently a professor at Brown university, reminds us in his poem American History how bad it was at the nation's birth and how bad it still can be.
Those four black girls blown up
in that Alabama church
remind me of five hundred
middle passage blacks,
in a net, under water
in Charleston harbor
so redcoats wouldn't find them.
Can't find what you can't see
Harlem Renaissance poet Claude MckKay's The White House lays out more of the difficulties faced by African-Americans and speaks to the resentment that might build in a community. There is dignity and power in the poem's rigid form.
Your door is shut against my tightened face,
And I am sharp as steel with discontent;
But I possess the courage and the grace
To bear my anger proudly and unbent.
The pavement slabs burn loose beneath my feet,
A chafing savage, down the decent street;
And passion rends my vitals as I pass,
Where boldly shines your shuttered door of glass.
Oh, I must search for wisdom every hour,
Deep in my wrathful bosom sore and raw,
And find in it the superhuman power
To hold me to the letter of your law!
Oh, I must keep my heart inviolate
Against the potent poison of your hate.
In his great poem For the Union Dead, Robert Lowell ruminates on Boston's monument to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (who was white) and his 54th Massachusetts Regiment of African American soldiers (you might know them as the subject of the movie Glory).
Two months after marching through Boston,
half the regiment was dead...
The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year--
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns . . .
Shaw's father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son's body was thrown
and lost with his "niggers."
Lowell wrote that the monument "sticks like a fishbone in the city's throat." It was a wonder to hear that throat cleared on Tuesday.