In2 Pondering Poetry & Politics…

Looking back on some of my schooling I sometimes have moments of gratitude. One such moment is my exposure to writers/poets such as Langston Hughes. Just yesterday I decided to take a break from my history explorations and other real life to-do’s and dug into some of his work. I came across a poem which had that odd effect of triggering thought and wonder and I wanted to share it.

Dear Fellow Americans,
I write this letter
Hoping times will be better
When this war
Is through.
I'm a Tan-skinned Yank
Driving a tank.

I wear a U. S. uniform.
I've done the enemy much harm,
I've driven back
The Germans and the Japs,
From Burma to the Rhine.
On every battle line,
I've dropped defeat
Into the Fascists' laps.

I am a Negro American
Out to defend my land
Army, Navy, Air Corps--
I am there.
I take munitions through,
I fight--or stevedore, too.
I face death the same as you do

I've seen my buddy lying
Where he fell.
I've watched him dying
I promised him that I would try
To make our land a land
Where his son could be a man--
And there'd be no Jim Crow birds
Left in our sky.

So this is what I want to know:
When we see Victory's glow,
Will you still let old Jim Crow
Hold me back?
When all those foreign folks who've waited--
Italians, Chinese, Danes--are liberated.
Will I still be ill-fated
Because I'm black?

Here in my own, my native land,
Will the Jim Crow laws still stand?
Will Dixie lynch me still
When I return?
Or will you comrades in arms
From the factories and the farms,
Have learned what this war
Was fought for us to learn?

When I take off my uniform,
Will I be safe from harm--
Or will you do me
As the Germans did the Jews?
When I've helped this world to save,
Shall I still be color's slave?
Or will Victory change
Your antiquated views?

You can't say I didn't fight
To smash the Fascists' might.
You can't say I wasn't with you
in each battle.
As a soldier, and a friend.
When this war comes to an end,
Will you herd me in a Jim Crow car
Like cattle?

Or will you stand up like a man
At home and take your stand
For Democracy?
That's all I ask of you.
When we lay the guns away
To celebrate
Our Victory Day
That's what I want to know.

                GI Joe.

I read and reread this piece and it really started to provoke a line of thinking involving the present day political picture.

The history that backs up and flows from this poem is undeniable. Being the history geek that I am that was worth a couple of hours of thought. Through the day today in between real life issues the political angle in the form of questions began to solidify.

Some of the questions are:

Does anyone, black or white, apply the title to the coming E-Day aka 4 November. Barack Obama enjoys overwhelming support among black America but what victory do they take from his ?

Racism is seen as very real in this race for president. I wonder if it is always true racism though ? I remember how people seemed to like Colin Powell and any number of celebrities. Is the negative vibes aimed at Obama only due to his skin ?

After this election no matter the outcome will times be better ?

Does America and especially white Americans get any props for coming this far ?

In reading the lines “You can’t say I didn’t fight To smash the Fascists’ might.You can’t say I wasn’t with you
in each battle.”
Would some inevitably say today that the fascists are the GOP or some such thing ?

You spend a day with a poem you get to thinking. How about you ?



  1. Marc says:

    I’d like to say first that I’ve been an Obama supporter since his 2004 DNC speech, and since I read the Audacity of Hope not long after that. I was, during the primaries, continually derided by the hardcore Hillaryites as having the “blind optimism” of my generation in my belief that a black man could be elected president. I was apparently to ‘naive’ in my understanding of american racism and how deep and insidious it really is. I felt I had a pretty good sense for it, so I battled on.

    Hillary may not have been intending any racist messages, but her supporters certainly did try the “electability” argument on me more than a few times in that our country wasn’t ready for a black president.

    So, if I clap my heels together not, its not just because I was right in my faith in a candidate, it is because I was correct in my faith in the American people.

    I’m more than aware that racism does exist in this society, nor am I so silly to think its going away anytime soon. However, I tend to believe that racism only effects us to the extent that we fear it. Racism exists always, at a certain low level but it only exceeds acceptable barriers at the point where fear pushes the ignorant into believing it.

    Democrats feared a black man would never be electable and so, to some, he was unelectable.
    Some even said they feared he’d be shot, and so he too would again become unelectable for them.

    But when you walk tall for a righteous cause, you eventually win the day. Maybe not in the immediate, but eventually.

    So “blind optimism” won over “fearful pragmatism” for the Democrats anyways, as most Hillaryites have now jumped on the Obama bandwagon now that he has assuaged the fears of unelectability.

    As president, if Obama scores some early successes, I think you’ll see alot of the supposed racists melt away too. Racism is, after all, fear or hatred of someone different from yourself. Prove its not the case and it is hard to justify the racism.

    So, who won the day? All of us, or anyone who votes for or against Obama not out of the color of his skin. Or despite it.

  2. Alfie says:

    “So, who won the day? All of us, or anyone who votes for or against Obama not out of the color of his skin. Or despite it.” I like that bit a whole bunch. On a selfish side note in a “real world” conversation I was criticized pretty hotly by someone that thinks the poem doesn’t allow for some of my thinking. Am I wrong ?

  3. Marc says:

    I’d say self-righteous poetic interpreters are generally wrong. The poem had some obviously immediate political meanings to Hughes, but that was then and this is now, and the meaning, viewed through the lens of a history Hughes couldn’t have seen coming, is whatever you perceive it to be.

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