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