There have been historic moments in my lifetime when the arc of the moral universe has leaned further than usual towards justice and redemption. The falling of the Berlin Wall. Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and ascendancy to President. The Supreme Court endorsing gay marriage.
But one of the most powerful for me personally was the election of Barack Obama. Both of them. But of course, particularly the first. I watched the returns with a group of friends with a mixture of disbelief and euphoria. One image that particularly struck me that night was Jesse Jackson’s face when Obama’s victory was announced in Chicago. And so I wrote a poem about it. And like almost all my poems, very few people read or heard it.
Tonight I went to a poetry reading in a café— by the 8th grade students in my school! Alums and teachers were invited to share poems and I decided to share this one from eight years ago. Hoping this November will either see the first woman President or the first President who actually speaks plain truth beyond the postures of politics. I suspect neither will be as dramatic as this, but let’s face it, despite the mythological moment worthy of future poems and epics, the lions did not lie down with the lambs and in fact, were more vicious than ever. Seems like we need more than epic drama to heal the aches and pains of the body politic. At any rate, it was happy for me to relive that incredible moment and share it with a roomful of school students and parents. Here it is:
Jesse Jackson’s Face on the Eve of Barack Obama’s Victory
© 2008 Doug Goodkin
Two tears trickling down the cheek.
The mouth slightly open in awe.
The stunned still gaze looking over and through
the thunderous crowd,
to a place beyond time,
where the ancestors are gathering.
Harriet Tubman holds hands with John Brown,
Frederick Douglas chats with Marcus Garvey.
Rosa and Martin walk arm-in-arm,
Emmett Till sits on Malcolm’s shoulders,
to witness and watch from the other shore.
On that Chicago night, in the midst of one million voices raised in exultation,
only one person sees them. In his face, you can read the whole story.
The living landscape of his features
sings the true map of America.
The glorious purpled majesty and fruited plain revealed,
as if to a man
trapped in a dark, dank cell, who is suddenly released
and gazes up at the spacious skies.
The land only sung of and dreamed
now the ground beneath his feet.
In that face lie also the shadows
of the slaughtered buffalo
and the fish dead in the stream
of the logged forests, stripped mines and strip malls
of the old cotton fields back home
stained with blood and forced toil
of the footprints on the Trail of Tears
and the dusty old dust and the migrant-picked grapes
of the scabs and the thugs and the pickets
of women kept down and children beaten.
All of it—the shame and the glory—is etched in those two tears,
All the long suffering cadenced
in this moment of triumph.
For above all, it is a face of triumph.
Not the athlete’s triumph spiking the ball and raising his arms.
Not the Oscar winner thanking his family while waving the trophy.
Not the opera diva bowing to her audience cradling the flowers.
It is a face that we may only see once in our lifetime,
whose features we can barely recognize amidst the dazzle of flash and image,
A face of astonished surprise. a wordless word whispered from the parted mouth
that tells a truth too large to comprehend.
It is a face of victory walking through valleys of suffering and over mountains of grief.
A face wholly innocent of the TV cameras,
yet captured by them.
It calls to us in its complexity, speaks
to some distant corner
of our soul long hidden.
What would our faces look like if we lived with our dreams deferred and
found them suddenly arrived?
If we, with our habit of looking to the horizon
to keep our eyes on the prize, bumped into it
unexpectedly on our doorstep?
If our voices, so long tuned to “we shall overcome—someday,”
changed key from future tense to present?
Wouldn’t we look stunned too? Wouldn’t we be speechless?
Wouldn’t we, amidst the roar of the cheering crowd,
stand still as stone,
as large as history,
and hear the harmonies
of all the songs
coming from the other shore?
On the evening of November 4, 2008,
it all gathered together in one borderless body,
shone out from a face that was no longer his,
and spoke what no commentator could capture:
On this night, in my lifetime,
with no people lying dead in the streets,
from faith coupled with work,
heart joined with savvy,
hope mixed with handshakes,
Democracy has risen from the dead
and a black man
was elected the
President of the United States.