Friday, March 20, 2015

Obama's America, and mine

Not to be narcissistic or nuttin', but Obama's celebrated "we are..." riff at Selma, which widened the circle of national inclusion to encompass the Lost Boys of Sudan and (implicitly) undocumented immigrants crossing the Rio Grande, as well as "the Tuskeegee Airmen, Navajo code-talkers, and Japanese-Americans who fought for this country even as their own liberty had been denied," reminded me of a children's poem I wrote in the mid-nineties. It reflects a children's book canon (and a little extracurricular YA reading at the end) from the sixties and early seventies that perhaps Obama shared in part:

American Child 
I've heard a lot of stories, I'm from everywhere.
I'm Abe Lincoln splitting logs, one swing for each,
Alone, speechifying the squirrels.
I'm a redbacked Hebrew slave, gathering straw
Under a red Egyptian sun.
I'm the old slave Joe, head bending low,
Crossing cottonfields, heading home.
I'm an Indian girl, gathering berries,
Pile-driving whalebones, building a shelter,
Alone on my island with dogs and dolphins.
I'm Sonny Boy Brown, Harlem warrior,
Ringing cash registers, sleeping in subways,
Fighting till sundown, left fist pounding.
I'm a Japanese daughter, wood clogs clacking
Through Market Street in moonlight, past silver fish stalls.
I'm a Spanish lord in chain mail, crossing a continent,
Looking over a new ocean, driving home a cross,
Then bending my head on a chopping block. 
I'm Goodwife Mary Wilson, held for a witch,
Waiting for trial, watching and praying.
A hundred peoples, a hundred stories,
A hundred women, a hundred men
In one mind, American.
Here is Obama in Selma:

We are Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea – pioneers who braved the unfamiliar, followed by a stampede of farmers and miners, entrepreneurs and hucksters. That’s our spirit.

We are Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, women who could do as much as any man and then some; and we’re Susan B. Anthony, who shook the system until the law reflected that truth. That’s our character.

We’re the immigrants who stowed away on ships to reach these shores, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free – Holocaust survivors, Soviet defectors, the Lost Boys of Sudan. We are the hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande because they want their kids to know a better life. That’s how we came to be.

We’re the slaves who built the White House and the economy of the South. We’re the ranch hands and cowboys who opened the West, and countless laborers who laid rail, and raised skyscrapers, and organized for workers’ rights.

We’re the fresh-faced GIs who fought to liberate a continent, and we’re the Tuskeegee Airmen, Navajo code-talkers, and Japanese-Americans who fought for this country even as their own liberty had been denied. We’re the firefighters who rushed into those buildings on 9/11, and the volunteers who signed up to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We are the gay Americans whose blood ran on the streets of San Francisco and New York, just as blood ran down this bridge.

We are storytellers, writers, poets, and artists who abhor unfairness, and despise hypocrisy, and give voice to the voiceless, and tell truths that need to be told.

We are the inventors of gospel and jazz and the blues, bluegrass and country, hip-hop and rock and roll, our very own sounds with all the sweet sorrow and reckless joy of freedom.'

We are Jackie Robinson, enduring scorn and spiked cleats and pitches coming straight to his head, and stealing home in the World Series anyway.

We are the people Langston Hughes wrote of, who “build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how.”

We are the people Emerson wrote of, “who for truth and honor’s sake stand fast and suffer long;” who are “never tired, so long as we can see far enough.”

That’s what America is. Not stock photos or airbrushed history or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American as others.
Not entirely"airbrushed," perhaps.  But still stylized and selective and seductively self-flattering.

No surprise, I guess, that Obama speaks a late-boomer educated liberal language that feels like home to many of us.

P.S. Son Jonah reminds me that we were both channeling Whitman:
The quadroon girl is sold at the auction-stand—the drunkard nods by the bar-room stove;
The machinist rolls up his sleeves—the policeman travels his beat—the gate-keeper marks who pass;
The squaw, wrapt in her yellow-hemm’d cloth, is offering moccasins and bead-bags for sale;  
The connoisseur peers along the exhibition-gallery with half-shut eyes bent sideways;
And these one and all tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them;
And such as it is to be of these, more or less, I am 
He is definitely right in my case, poor reader of Whitman though I am. And doubtless in Obama's too.

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