Friday, February 27, 2009

Presidential Politics & the Consciousness of the Poet, or: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Racist

[I wrote this piece last November, on the day I voted for now-President Barack Obama. It appeared on the blog site of The Kenyon Review. I want to repeat it here partly in the interest of completeness and partly to help contextualize some upcoming material.]

He was level on the level,
Shaved even every door,
Voted for Eisenhower
‘Cause Lincoln won the war.
–John Prine

Election day 2008—my vote is cast, and, along with the rest of the country and much of the world, I settle in to await the outcome. For me, it is a moment of introspection, and I realize with something of a shock that this is the 15th presidential election that has occurred in my lifetime.

In 1950, when I was born, Harry Truman was the president; the first election I lived through was the one that elevated Eisenhower, though of course I have no memory of it, nor do I remember anything of the process of his reelection in 1956 (my earliest recollection of a television image is of Eisenhower’s presidential Christmas tree, which I saw on our brand new RCA black and white set in 1954—that may have been the first thing we watched on the new gimcrack).

Of the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, I remember a great deal. The bitter campaign against Nixon arrived in nightly segments in our living room via that same seemingly immortal black and white RCA television; my father, addicted to the evening news (though even more addicted to the evening weather report) would sit in his big chair quietly swearing, basically consigning Kennedy to hell. I sat watching too, trying at 10 years old to make some kind of sense of what was happening. I remember the day JFK won, and the consternation of the adults in my family. I remember my teacher cautioning us children to speak respectfully of the new President, no matter how we might actually feel about him. I remember his inauguration, which presents itself to me in grainy television black and white: Kennedy and Eisenhower in a limousine together, the dislike between them palpable on Eisenhower’s tired, strained face. It dawned on me: Eisenhower dislikes this man. What does that mean? How could I trust this new president if the old president was against him? Neither the realpolitik nor the ideology of the situation were at all clear to me, and so they didn’t matter. This was personal. Eisenhower, about whom at that point I knew nothing, had presided over my early childhood like a distant grandparent (he looked like a grandfather ought to look, as far as I was concerned; and since both my grandfathers died before I was born, perhaps I needed him to). How could I accept this new man, disliked by my father and my presidential surrogate?

But there was Kennedy, suddenly front and center on the RCA—Kennedy and his family. As I watched them take the stage, other things dawned on me. They were beautiful! My father’s mutterings from the big chair in the corner of the room notwithstanding, this family was riveting. There were children in the White House! Kennedy’s Christmas tree was more than just a national symbol: there were children beside it. Certainly Ike and Mamie rolled Easter eggs on the lawn with a flock of younglings, but that was not the same. Kennedy was a father, not a grandfather. He was up close and personal with his kids.

Something in my worldview began to shift.

Of course I know now that it was not merely my personal worldview that was changing; it was the zeitgeist.


Let me now provide some context. I was born in 1950, in a very remote and rural part of the state of Mississippi. We lived on a farm 15 miles from the nearest town—Macon, which then had a population of about 3000. When I came to light there, we were still before the Great Flood of the civil rights movement, which washed away so much. Our county, a thoroughly agrarian area, was about 70% African American, but everything that was worth anything was owned by the white minority, which used Jim Crow laws and customs to keep a hammerlock on everything. It was a racist time, a racist place. My family all were deep dyed in the wool Mississippi racists, with all the accessories and trimmings. And so of course—since a child’s world is not the child’s to determine—was I.

There is much in this brief statement that cries out to be unpacked—more than I can attempt at present (though this theme will recur as Mindbook unspools itself). For the present, suffice it to say that in 1960, when JFK was elected, Mississippi was already a war zone. I did not know that; but my father did. And the coming of Kennedy, as it turned out, was the sign of an escalation of the hostilities.

I think that the 1960 election was the fulcrum of my father’s tipping from Democrat to Republican, as it was the fulcrum that started the whole South tipping that way. I suppose Dad must have voted for Eisenhower in the preceding two elections, but I don’t know that for certain. It makes sense that he would have. He was a soldier in World War II, and Eisenhower was his general. My guess is that he voted for Eisenhower without much attention to ideology; his motivation would have been dutiful loyalty.

Kennedy represented something different. Young, brash, Catholic, identifiable in his every utterance as Bostonian (read Yankee), Kennedy represented everything in the potential future of America that my father, and indeed the whole Old South, feared and therefore hated. Every evening my father sat at the altar of the RCA, quietly swearing—cursing, and at the same time stating his allegiance—and I, though this was never said, was meant to absorb his depth of feeling; I was meant to internalize that hatred.

I can remember that I tried. But it just didn’t stick. The images I saw on the black and white RCA prevented it. There was Kennedy with his brilliant smile; there was Jacqueline with her intelligent stylishness; and there were the children, younger than I was, but children just like me. I could not hate those children, and by extension I could not hate their parents. It was a family, like mine. They sat in their house, just on the other side of the television screen, carrying on their lives. Their lives differed from mine in the details; but surely, surely a life is a life. What, in the vision presented to me, was there to hate?


Election day 2008: it is now almost exactly 45 years since November 22, 1963, the day Kennedy was assassinated. It is a cliché to say that everyone then living remembers exactly what they were doing when they heard the news; I too have my story.

I was walking from the junior high school building to the football field with my alto saxophone case in my hand; it was time for marching band practice. I remember it was cold, but not terribly so; I remember walking across a playground where just a few years earlier I had spent my elementary school recess periods: just there, Eddie Agnew fell from the horizontal ladder and cracked his head on a concrete piling; just over there Clifton Cockerel and Bobby Bland had fought until both their faces were covered in blood and snot. I rarely enjoyed recess completely; it always seemed fraught with anger, nastiness, or out and out violence, and it was generally necessary to watch one’s back, even while in the middle of playing games.

As I walked to practice, I felt something shift around me. There seemed to be people running aimlessly in various directions; I could hear shouting. I had to cross a street to get to the football field. Just as I reached the sidewalk, I heard music coming from the stadium. Some of my older band mates had got there ahead of me with their instruments, but the band director was not there yet. The drummers were playing a cadence, and suddenly a trumpet burst out: someone was playing “Dixie.”

None of this was usual. Something was happening. The world felt suddenly and inexplicably anarchic.

Just then a band member ran past me, clutching a French horn case. “What’s happening, Freddy?” I said.

“Ain’t you heard?”

“Heard what?”

“They shot him. They shot the son of a bitch.”

“Shot who?”

“Who do you think? Kennedy!”

Over on the football field now, four or five horns were playing “Dixie.” Kennedy was shot. It was a celebration.


I graduated from Noxubee County High School in May of 1968; in the five years between Kennedy’s death and that month, much had happened, but where I lived, little had visibly changed. The school system was still completely segregated, and remained so until 1972. Desegregation came to Mississippi county by county, town by town, building by building, brought by federal marshals, and they started with the areas of densest population; my remote home was low on the list, and change was a long time coming.

A month before my graduation, April of 1968, in a moment of horrible déjà vu, Martin Luther King was murdered; a month after, June 1968, it was Robert Kennedy’s time to die. By then, people no longer celebrated such deaths out in the open, though I’m sure plenty of people in my hometown did their own personal victory dances.

In the living room, my father sat in his chair cursing; his hatred for Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy was a palpable atmosphere in our house. By then, my feelings were clear to me. I mourned though those months, but no one else in the house knew it. I mourned in solitude, and quietly. And I was infinitely grateful to leave that place for college. I wanted out so badly that I enrolled in summer school. I was no longer of that place, though a part of my soul was so deeply wounded that it would require decades—no, a lifetime—to repair the damage.

In 1963, though, when John Kennedy died, my thinking was less clear. I found the celebration of his death shocking; at the very least, it was in bad taste, and at the very least, I was born with taste. But how was I supposed to feel? I was thirteen; I didn’t know how to feel about anything. The man with the brilliant smile was gone. The father of those children was dead. They were playing “Dixie” on the football field. Who was I? Why didn’t I know? What was coming? What did any of it mean?


The first vote I ever cast in a presidential election was cast against Nixon. By the time I was old enough to vote, I had begun to know my own mind. You would think it would all have been obvious, even to a child. It is a testimony to the power of tribal law, to the bewitchment of mores, that it took me so long to sort out the obvious from the heinous.

Today I cast my vote, proudly, for Barak Obama. This afternoon, when she is released from school—from an excellent school attended by children of many races, taught by men and women from every walk of life—my seven-year-old daughter will accompany my wife to the polls to see what it means to cast a vote. There is not a day that passes when I am not grateful for all the change that has been wrought in this country in the past fifty years—and the change that has been wrought in me. At the same time, I do not and will not forget where I came from. Both my daughters—one 31, one 7, members of different generations—have grown up differently than I grew up, and if I am proud of one fact about my life, it is that.

If I am proud today, and hopeful—I am convinced that Obama will win this election—at the same time I am afraid. The old hatreds from the time of my childhood have lurked not merely around the edges but at the very heart of this political season. Racism is more complicated now than it was in 1960, but it is no less stupid, no less insidious, no less dangerous. Barack Obama reminds many of us of Kennedy. He has a similar radiance, a similar presence. He has a beautiful family.

If he wins this election, may the gods protect him—the gods and the secret service. But more to the point, if he wins this election, we all must protect him. If he wins this election, many things will change. Our prayer—to call it that in the absence of a better word—must be that, if he wins, enough will change, and will have changed, that history, in our hands, refuses to repeat itself.

The Real

Years before I knew about the Cave
Or those double-sexed science fiction
Archehumans of the Symposium,
I first heard of him

On a second-grade field trip tour
Of my miserable hometown library
Where he was reduced to nothing

But a small white bust
Of marble (fake), a couple
Of terms (philosopher, Greek),
And that singular-sounding name

Alien as the name of a planet.
It was awesome; I had no idea
What any of it meant. But if a man

Could have his head turned
Into that smooth, undifferentiated object
On a dusty oak stand in a corner
Of a room full of books,

There had to be something behind it.
Nights I tried to remember
Plato’s face on that bust

So I’d know him if I met him, or saw
His picture in the paper,
But it was useless. There was nothing
To remember him by, and I grieved

The way you do when you forget
The face of someone you care about
Or deeply hate. Later on, he made me feel

Like a fool for not knowing
He was older than Jesus, and just
As dead. Jesus I knew about,
Since he was an obvious American

Institution. Jesus and I
Came to an understanding early on.
When I was seven, my eyes went bad,

Nearsighted, and I prayed for vision.
What I got was glasses. Ashamed,
I thought if Jesus thought
I was worth anything,

What I’d prayed for
Was a small enough favor.
I already knew the objections

To thinking that way:
You asked for the wrong thing.
You asked in the wrong spirit.
Jesus always answers your prayers,

He just says no sometimes.
That cut no ice with me.
What I wanted was real,

I believed in it, I needed
To see things clearly.
Do unto others, I thought.
But Jesus sees everything.

I know my theology was faulty,
But I was born in Mississippi,
A Methodist. My education was bad.

If Jesuits had brought me up,
I would have been different, I’m certain.
I would have known the reasons for human suffering.
I would have known who Plato was.

As it happened, all I had to go by
Was what passed in me
For common sense, and an imagination

Undisciplined and overactive.
By the time I was twelve, I’d confused
Plato and Pluto and plutonium.
It was 1962. We were going through

The Cuban missile crisis
When a girl in my science class
Started screaming: There’s going to be

A war, we’re all going to die.
The teacher calmed her down
And we prayed together, but I
Would not close my eyes.

We’d seen films of Hiroshima
And diagrams of nuclear explosives.
We knew about chain reactions and fallout shelters.

We knew that when the fireball comes
You look away. Maybe that girl’s fear
Was what made me want to kiss her.
No, she said, let’s be platonic.

I didn’t know that soap-opera word.
I thought it meant dead. It worked.
It was like a force field

Or a terrible embargo.
Platonic love preserved me
Years in a dictatorial state
Of tortured virginity.

In the dark bedroom, my body glowed.
I could take off my glasses and see
In the night sky out my window

Not pinpoints of light, but cold
Distant balls of fire, white, unreal
As constellations, but unimagined, visible.
What does it mean that I became a shadow

In my own untrustworthy mind?
What does it mean I could only love
Other shadows like me?

The winter John Kennedy died
Some of my classmates cheered.
I didn’t, but I didn’t know
If it was right to grieve.

That’s a hard thing to admit.
But I was confused. Those were confusing times.
The South had spent a century

Perfecting the purity of hate.
It was them or us, we said.
We hated the North, communists, Russians,
Catholics, Negroes, liberals and atheists

Everywhere. How could I know what to love?
Everywhere I turned I found a world
I was afraid to touch,

Unreal. If there was truth
It was somewhere else.
I knew it. Everybody knew it.
But no matter. That was our idea of heaven.

We were dying blind, turning into permanent shadows
Caught in some meaningless moment
Of what we prayed was not

The only life: burned childlike
Out of ourselves at any given instant
Of grace: touched by the fire, etched white
Against a pure black wall.

(This poem was originally published in my book Lower-Class Heresy, published by University of Illinois Press in 1987. The book is out of print and all rights belong to me.)

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