This article and poem was written in the come-up to the 2008 presidential election. The poem, titled "The Obama Hour" was written by Thomas Sayers-Ellis and is reprinted below.
Pundits say Obama has a "problem" with white voters. These "hard-working" white folks, in contrast to the lazy, resource-draining, criminally prone black folk, just won't vote for a black man, the argument goes. Race has nothing to do with it. It is Obama's fault for being too "elitist," for his inability to make himself "one of them," for his associations with black folk who loudly condemn the history of American racism and genocide. But race has nothing to do with it.
Yeah, right. In a new poem called "The Obama Hour," Thomas Sayers Ellis pulls back the skin of the nation to reveal that it is our country, not Obama, who has a race problem. We don't know our history. At best we suffer from selective amnesia, at worst we experience a perpetual racial memory cleansing. Either way, we don't own up to our peculiar past, and thus, we pay the price. As James Baldwin once warned white Americans, "If you don't know my name, you don't know your own."
Obama's legitimacy depends on his ability to "transcend" race, on color-blind politics, on unity through forgetting and ignoring. Fortunately, he resists, albeit cautiously. But living in the vortex of the 21st century anti-blacklash, to call racially-motivated white voting behavior "racist," renders one a racist. If you say the government's response to Katrina was racist, your words will be branded incendiary. If you weep for dead Iraqis or resist racial profiling of Arabs and South Asians and demand full and equal rights for undocumented immigrants, you will be labeled unpatriotic. And if you remind us of slavery, lynching, the Ku Klux Klan, the Tuskegee experiment, Tulsa, Michael Richards' "nigger" rant, Don Imus, John McCain's Tar Baby comment, the police killing of Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Michael Byoune, ad infinitum, you are told to get over it. Meanwhile, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's sound bites are etched in stone.
"The Obama Hour" teaches us we can't get over it, and by "we," I mean everybody. We can't get around it, we can't get under it. The only path out of our constrictions is to drive right through it, confront our past, truth and reconciliation. One Nation.
And as Obama drives to the (w)hole, he is in our face shouting, "You better know my name!"
The Obama Hour
F inally, one of us is properly
positioned to run. By "us" I mean Black,
by "positioned" I mean White
and by "run" I mean Race, speeds of darkness,
the way "silver writes" faster than revolution
and the lit and darkening skin of the sky.
The triumphant exasperation, though, belongs
to the word "finally" with its slanted f
signifying relief, a "'bout time" up from the reservoir
of coded sighs we make to mask time,
Colored People's Time, our well-known resistance
to the Romanized face of the clock. To discuss running,
running the country, a black man running,
an African running America, you must discuss Race
including the difficult qualifying times
between the theft of our arrival and hate crimes.
Race as gift, as campaign donation, and gifts matter.
It's racist to erase Race (because "erase"
means Blackness, ethnic cleansing,
get rid of the Blacks); and worse to hack off history
or any limb at anytime, except for purposes
of assimilation and modern design.
In place of the usual halo of numbers, orange balls
Lazy, often late for work, our walk a discourse,
shifting, like the unemployed shadow of a brother
leaning on a corner.
But America prefers Religion to Race
and a clock has disciples, hours,
cuckoos and cock-a-doodle doos.
The people "go to sleep" and the people "wake up"
nations and denominations of,
not the bedside duet of alarm and digital glow.
Thomas Sayers Ellis is poet and an assistant professor of Creative Writing at Sarah Lawrence College.