Race

Barack Obama is leading John McCain in many states that previously voted Republican, and leads overall by 9 percentage points, according to Gallup today. Nicholas Kristof, at the NYT, suggests that the lead would be even more were it not for subconscious racism among many: “racism without racists”. Meanwhile, McCain and Palin are whipping up what seems like thinly-concealed racial hatred against Obama. (They dare not be overtly racist but they portray him as the strange guy, different from you, hiding sinister secrets.)

On the one hand: it is a sign of how far America has come along since the civil rights struggle that Obama can now be this close to becoming President.

On the other hand: the history of racism in America before the civil rights era was extremely ugly (of modern nations, only South Africa had a worse record), and it is naive to think that everything has been forgotten within a generation.

Here are two poems from the dark days: one by Claude McKay, and the other by Abel Meeropol.

If we must die
Claude McKay, 1919

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!


Strange Fruit
Abel Meeropol, 1937
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.


Notes: McKay was a Jamaican-born poet who wrote his poem in response to racial riots that swept several US cities in 1919. Meeropol was a Jewish writer from New York, and this poem was, of course, about lynchings in the south. He set his poem to music and Billie Holiday made it famous. Watch her sing it here.

Note 2: I found the McKay poem striking for its careful classical sonnet structure combined with its extremely militant tone: an interesting contrast.

Note 3: Does anyone think Neil Young’s “Southern Man” (words, video) owes something to “Strange Fruit”?



UPDATE Mar 6, 2009: removed a comment by JF at his request, together with two follow-up comments.

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6 Comments

  1. The Republican campaign is such a disgrace. I was watching a rally video of Sarah Palin when he brought up the “pallin around with terorists” nonsense and hate people booing in the back with one person shouting out very audibly “Kill him!” It’s incredibly worrying.

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  2. For the readers who may not be familiar with the song – Billie recorded “Strange Fruit” in 1939. Probably one of the bravest (and the finest) examples of art and protest coming together.

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  3. Rahul, Colin Powell, the former Chief of Staff of the U.S. armed forces, a black Republican, the former Secretary of State under George W. Bush, probably could have gotten elected President by now if he had been interested in being President.It’s not the 60’s. The white man’s not the sole source of power in the U.S any more, and that’s fine with me. The Republicans demonize the Democrats, and the Democrats demonize the Republicans, and when the white man slings mud on the black man, it doesn’t have to be racially motivated.You say, “They dare not be overtly racist but they portray him as the strange guy, different from you, hiding sinister secrets.”He’s a flaming liberal, as opposed to a liberal, as opposed to a bleeding-heart liberal, as opposed to a moderate, as opposed to a so-called conservative. He’s a hard-core socialist, which is different than a whole lot of people in the United States. As far as I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a significant number of elections, Obama is more oppenly socialist in his rhetoric and actions than any Democratic nominee I’ve ever seen. Big Daddy G’s gonna solve all our problems, that’s his message.Every political spin-miester I see on TV is always telling me “what the American people want,” but obviously, they’re assuming too much, so when Palin says he’s “different than you” she’s playing the same “let me speak for all Americans” game everyone else is playing.But I despise both the Republican and Democratic party, though for different reasons. The last election I voted in was in 1996, and on the ballot I wrote in Alan Keyes, a black man. He didn’t get elected.You say: On the other hand: the history of racism in America before the civil rights era was extremely ugly (of modern nations, only South Africa had a worse record), and it is naive to think that everything has been forgotten within a generation.Everything doesn’t have to be forgotten. There doesn’t have to be racial perfection. It’s about power, and the white man relinquished power, and I’m tired of the race hustlers making everything out to be about race. I couldn’t care less whether Obama is black. Black is superficial. Content over form is my motto. And though I don’t actually watch much TV, I haven’t heard anything to make me believe that McCain or Palin are racists.I can see how you would be fan of a black Presidential candidate, and I don’t have a problem with that. What’s totally strange to me is that you seem totally oblivious to the fact that Obama is a 100% hard-core socialist. All that seems to matter to you is that you despise the Republicans. And you don’t seem to have figured out that a McCain-type Republican is sort of like a Democrat. Please allow me to point out that McCain and Ted Kennedy are REALLY GOOD friends and allies.But you wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve resolved not to read your blog so I wouldn’t get into this sort of thing. This is not a good mix for me.

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  4. JF – as you may have figured out by now, I don’t live in the US, and in the rest of the world Obama looks centrist rather than what you call a “flaming liberal”. (In the US, Sarkozy would be a “flaming liberal.”) Most of the rest of your post is not worth responding to, but -What do you mean by saying a McCain-type Republican is sort of like a Democrat? Do you mean McCain is sort of left-wing? He has been an ardent supporter of deregulation in every sector until about three weeks ago (he supported deregulation of healthcare in September, and cited as an argument the “success” of deregulation in the financial industry); and his involvement in the Keating Five scandal was very similar to the sort of thing that led to today’s crisis. Or do you mean Democrats are cronyist self-serving hypocrites whose campaigns are run by lobbyists? It may be true of some of them but it’s hardly their differentiating characteristic from Republicans. Or do you mean Democrats are the types who will do and say anything to win? Again, same answer.

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  5. RS,Even though I lived in USA for six years, visited several times and like several things American, I felt that Americans are a bit different from others. I could not put my finger on it but today I read this article which seems to explain a bit of the differences:http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Global_Economy/JJ07Dj07.htmlSee whether it makes any sense.

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  6. gaddeswarup – interesting article. I agree the spirit of “do it yourself”, whether at home or in governance, is much more present in America than elsewhere. But it is not clear to me what this has to do with being a market for the rest of the world. Certain kinds of people will invest in America, but not because there’s nothing else to do with the money. There is always the alternative of keeping it in a low-interest savings account, even if one argues that the markets cannot absorb so much money (I don’t really follow that argument either). You’d invest in America if you believe it will give you better returns than the above. I don’t believe the major number of Chinese retirees that he refers to will put away their savings in America — so I suppose he’s referring to the Chinese banks and what they would do with all that money that the retirees are putting in. They’ll invest in America if they think it’s safe, or worth the risk — not otherwise.And I believe the biggest holders of US dollars and bonds are Asian governments, not the private sector. (I may be wrong here, as with everything else.)

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