Election 2016 in Black & White

A funny thing has happened during this tumultuous dumpster fire of a United States election season: Black poets are getting play from the Republicans. That’s right, the Tump side of the Presidential race has been highlighting the work of a few Black writers, much to the chagrin of, well, most decent folk. The irony is that these writers have not been quoted by the likes of Donald Trump and Scott Baio because they want to share and promote the poetry of Black artists; rather, they are co-opting these words, stripping them of context and authorial identification, and presenting them as promotional speech for their own racist–or to be more charitable, nationalist–purposes.

  •  Trump likes to quote from the song “The Snake” by Oscar Brown, Jr. The Chicago Tribune linked here notes that Brown’s family has asked Trump not to quote his work but Trump hasn’t responded. The song retells a fable of a woman who helped a snake only to be bitten by it later. Candidate Trump likes to use this as a metaphor supporting his anti-refugee stance. Rather than a cautionary tale about being “wise as a serpent,” Trump seems to interpret the song as being applicable to traumatized Syrian children. Given Trump’s racist positions and race-baiting rally speeches, I’m not sure “ironic” is even a strong enough word to describe this situation.
  • At the Republican National Convention, Scott Baio paraphrased part of Langston Hughes’ poem “Let America Be America Again.” I can’t add much more to Pajiba’s excellent analysis of the irony of Baio using this particular poem, but I’d like to discuss the other portion of the poem that undercuts the entire Republican platform as represented by Trump. Toward the end of the poem, the speaker says:

O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath– America will be!

So, after the speaker has thoroughly interrogated the typical American slogans and found them empty, he swears that though this is how America stands today, he will not be content to see it remain so. He swears that someday America will be America for him, and for others like him. It is a kernel of hope in an otherwise sardonic analysis. And this only adds to the irony of a group of people invoking Hughes’ poem to advocate for a return to a mythic America–the speaker in Hughes’ poem intends for the country itself to change, to move forward from the “America” that Trump and Baio and their ilk wish to see return. Hughes’ poem is not one of stasis, or even merely of complaint, but of possibility–however small.

  • On the more positive side of things, The New York Times celebrated the opening of the new Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture with a full page reprinting of Hughes’ “I, Too.” Langston Hughes is given his due here, with no paraphrasing, no editorializing, and in support of a project that he, no doubt, would support.

Despite the somewhat gloomy pall cast by this election season, examples such as these at least remind me–and thus, I remind my students–that the study of literature is never just an isolated activity. Texts never remain within the four walls of a classroom or office; they are vibrant, living entities that can crop up when you least expect them to, and they demand an informed response.

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