A poem by USC poet-in-residence Kwame Dawes commemorates Barack Obama's inauguration. The eight-part poem, titled “New Day,” soars from Africa to Chicago to South Carolina, tipping its hat along the way to Dizzy Gillespie and Abraham Lincoln.
By Kwame Dawes1. Obama, January 1st, 2009
Already the halo of grey covers his close-cropped head.
Before, we could see the pale glow of his skull, the way
he kept it close, now the grey - he spends little time in bed,
mostly he places things in boxes or color coded trays,
and calculates the price of expectation - the things promised
all eyes now on him: the winning politician’s burden.
On the day he makes his speech he will miss
the barber shop, the quick smoke in the alley, the poem
found in the remainder box, a chance to just shoot
some hoops, and those empty moments to remember
that green rice paddy where he used to sprint, a barefoot
screaming boy, all legs, going home to the pure
truth of an ordinary life, that simple place where, fatherless,
he found comfort in the wisdom of old broken soldiers.
2. How Legends Begin
This is how legends begin - the knife slitting the throat
of a hen, the blood, the callous pragmatism of eating
livestock grown for months, the myth of a father, a boat
ride into the jungle, a tongue curling then flinging
back a language alien as his skin; the rituals
of finding the middle ground, navigating a mother’s
mistakes, a father’s silence, a world’s trivial
divisions, the meaning of color and nation-negotiator
of calm, a boy tutored in the art of profitable charm;
this is how legends begin and we will tell this, too,
to the children lined up with flags despite the storms
gathering, children who will believe in the hope of blue
skies stretched out behind the mountain of clouds;
and he will make language to soothe the teeming crowds.
She says she never saw him as black, unlike his mother
who said she did. She says she saw him as colorless,
just a man, unlike his white mother who touched his father’s
face, the deep brown earth, the glow. She says it's best
to see him as simply a human in this country that shed
long ago the pernicious sting of race, she says, and I
call her a tenderhearted dreamer, a sweet liar, I say,
a white-lie teller who would rather tell this bland lie
before admitting that walking down King Street
the morning after the votes were counted, she was
scared, but proud, so giddy with the wild beat
of her heart, knowing that her country paused
for an instant and did something grand, made a black
man president, such a miracle, such beautiful magic.
I have asked this of them year after year, a punch-line
waiting to happen with clockwork consistency -
raise your hand if you can remember a time
you believed that even you could take the presidency;
yes, you, blacks, poor, women, Latinos - was it when
you were four, five, six? And the believers all
would raise their hands. So the second question:
how many now think you have the wherewithal
to be the chief today - and up go four hands:
a dreamer, a liar, a clown, a madman. What went wrong?
How did you all mess up? Well, it's messed up now, it’s gone
now that a black man has done it! Cancel class, time to hang
a poor joke; can’t complain about oppression no more;
we’ve got to recalibrate who is the man now, that’s for sure.
Of course, my home has kept its promise to itself;
the one that made Eartha Kitt, Chubby Checker, Althea Gibson,
James Brown all pack their bags, clean out their shelves,
never to look back, not once. They found their homeless songs,
like people who have forgotten where their navel-strings
were buried. We kept the promise that made those who stayed, learn
to fight with the genius of silence, the subterfuge of rings
of secret flames held close to the heart, kindling the slow burn
of resistance. But good news: despite the final state count,
we know that the upheaval of all things still brought grace
here where pine trees bleed and palmettos suck up the brunt
of blows, and so we can now hum the quiet solace
of victory with a surreptitious shuffle, a quick, quick-step
for you, Smoking Joe, Dizzy, James, and Jesse, slide, slide, now step.
Here is my confession, then, the one I keep inside me -
while the crowds gather in Washington, I will admit this:
it is enough that it happened, more than enough that we see
him standing there shattering all our good excuses: no, not bliss,
not some balm over the wounds that still hurt, but it is enough
to say that we saw it happen, the thing we thought wouldn’t,
and we did it even if we did not want to do it. And that is tough,
yes, but it is good and grand and beautiful and new. And,
more, it is enough, no matter what comes next, that a man
who knows the blues, knows the stop-time of be-bop,
who’s asked from inside out the meaning of blood and skin,
is, let’s just say it, standing there, yes, standing at the top
of the world - it is enough for tomorrow; and yes he is tough
and yes he is smart, but mostly it is sweet and more than enough.
7. On Having a Cool President
He will not be the buffoon and clown; he’s too cool for that.
His cool is the art of ease, the way we drain out tension;
the way we make hard seem easy, seem like it ought.
Cool is not seeing the burn in the fluid grace of execution.
Cool is knowing how to lean back and let it come,
but always ready for it to come. He will be no minstrel show
fool, but a man who shows, in the midst of chaos, unruffled calm.
Like, I-can-be-brighter-than-you-and-still-be-down, cool.
Like some presidential cool; a cool that maybe hasn’t been seen
in the White House before. You see, he is a nobody’s fool,
kind of cool, the one that makes a gangsta lean look so clean,
kind of cool. That’s what we have now, and to be honest,
you can call this cool what you want, me, I call it blessed.
8. Lincoln, January 1st,1863
I think now of that other Illinois man, pacing the creaking boards
of the musty mansion, cradling a nation’s future in his head,
the concussion of guns continuing, the bloody hordes
of rebels like ghouls in his dreams; he, too, avoids the bed;
tomorrow the hundred days will be over, a million
souls will be free, a million pieces of property pilfered
from citizens, a million laborers worth their weight in bullion
promised a new day across the border, a million scared
owners, a million calamities, all with the flow of ink
from his pen. This is the path of the pragmatist who would
be savior, the genius act of simple war, the act to sink
an enemy, and yet hallelujahs will break out like loud
ululations of freedom. Uneasy lies the head, he knows -
this is how our leaders are born, how we find our heroes.
Kwame Dawes explains how he wrote New Day