So apparently the Obama inauguration team is trying to choose which poet should read from their work on the big day. First off, I’m curious as to why the last few Republican presidents haven’t chosen to have poets read at their inaugurations. It’s one thing to be anti-intellectual, which has been at least one strain of the Republican rise – and hopefully fall – over the last half century, but can’t we all just agree that poetry is for everybody. Maybe there isn’t a Republican poet who’s any good? I don’t know – I don’t claim to be an expert on the state of American poetry.

John Lundberg, in that Huffington Post piece to which I linked above, has an interesting suggestion:

[Philip] Levine might be the most poignant choice, given the country’s current economic struggles. Raised in a blue collar family in Detroit, Levine writes poetry that champions the working man. Here’s an excerpt from his poem “Drum,” which begins by describing a blue-collar scene:

We sit
for lunch on crates before the open door.
Bobeck, the boss’s nephew, squats to hug
the overflowing drum, gasps and lifts. Rain
comes down in sheets staining his gun-metal
covert suit. A stake truck sloshes off
as the sun returns through a low sky.
By four the office help has driven off. We
sweep, wash up, punch out, collect outside
for a final smoke. The great door crashes
down at last.

Later in the poem, Levine conflates working class and classical imagery, making the scene seem heroic and even timeless.

…In the darkness
this could be a Carthaginian outpost sent
to guard the waters of the West, those mounds
could be elephants at rest, the acrid half light
the haze of stars striking armor if stars were out.
On the galvanized tin roof the tunes of sudden rain.
The slow light of Friday morning in Michigan,
the one we waited for, shows seven hills
of scraped earth topped with crab grass,
weeds, a black oil drum empty, glistening
at the exact center of the modern world.

If Obama is concerned about the inauguration taking on a tone that’s too ethereal for these tough economic circumstances, Levine’s unpretentious writing might prove an effective foil. Levine’s message suits Obama’s focus on the middle class and on the hard work and sacrifice it will take to get through a deepening recession. It seems wise to choose a poet who has long lived that life and sung within it.

I can’t decide whether it would be too hard to take a poet singing the Michigan ‘working man’s blues’ as Obama promises to ‘renew America’s promise’ – the theme of the entire inauguration proceedings. Regardless, it could be powerful stuff.

One thing that I’ve been thinking about for a while is how Obama uses seemingly more universal language as a way to avoid discussing race (i.e. health care isn’t a black problem, it’s an American problem; lack of equality – economic (?) – isn’t a black problem, it’s an American problem; lack of equal pay for women isn’t a black problem, it’s an American problem, etc). It’s not that I don’t really disagree with the logic of any of those points or others that he ends up addressing through similar arguments, but it seems like there are aspects of all of these social problems that are rooted significantly in racial disparities. This is not really an either/or proposition. We should be able to note the universal and particularized aspects of these kinds of problems.

So when it comes to deciding which poet should speak at the inauguration (assuming it’s only one and I’m not sure if that’s a correct assumption), I wonder whether the poet should somehow represent the deracialized / universalized working class, the focus of both Obama’s policies and rhetoric, or the more particular African American historic nature of the inauguration. I would be surprised if Obama did not refer to the day’s special significance to African Americans and their history, but I imagine one debate right now among inauguration planners is how much to be explicit about this aspect of the day. The real tightrope walk is how to have the inauguration – whether it be the choice of poet or Obama’s speech – address a seemingly universal (read: deracialized) historic moment, while simultaneously pointing to the fact of its universality precisely because it is so tied up in its racial dimensions.

This may be a little late, given the non-stop presidential campaign post-mortems of the last week, but I was told to keep quiet about the campaign until my time on staff at the Obama office in South Philly was formally up last Friday. One of the primary narratives that surrounded the campaign generally and particularly when it came to South Philly, where I’ve lived since the middle of September, was how the white working class/middle class (terms too often conflated without considering their significantly divergent meanings) vote was turning on race.

The New York Times political reporter Katharine Q. Seelye went after this story big time just two days before the election took place. It appears as though she went around the exact same neighborhoods in wards 26 and 39 where I canvassed and coordinated other volunteer canvassers in the weeks leading up to the election. In fact, I was canvassing out of Marconi Plaza at Broad and Oregon exactly one week before Seelye spoke to

Harry Klemash, 67, a Democrat who supported Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primary but is still not comfortable with Senator Barack Obama. “Obama has too many socialist policies, and he doesn’t have enough experience,” Mr. Klemash, a retired pressman, said Sunday as he walked his miniature poodle in Marconi Park in South Philadelphia, a largely white, Catholic, ethnic neighborhood.

In this exact spot one week before I was approached by a man who bounded towards our Obama canvass table on a windy Sunday afternoon. He asked me what we were doing in the park and I asked him if he knew who he was supporting in the election (standard canvass script). He said he was undecided and so I asked him how he felt about the last eight years — my standard first line of attack. After going through everything that had gone wrong under the Bush presidency, we finally got to his skepticism about Obama. This ran the gamut of Jeremiah Wright’s Jeremiads (thanks Prof. Kendall Johnson), to worries that Al Sharpton, Jessie Jackson and Louis Farrakhan would all be in power in an Obama administration. After we worked through the unlikelihood of that happening — hadn’t Jackson threatened to cut off Obama’s balls? — it was clear this guy was hurting at the bank. Suddenly he was saying, “We need a change.” It was only a matter of time before another volunteer had already signed him up for some Get Out The Vote weekend volunteer shifts (I wonder if he ever showed up).

But what about Seelye’s portrait of the exact same neighborhood? It’s not that it was innacurate, after all the one ward in the city to vote for McCain was ward 26, which includes Marconi Plaza’s western border. Still, it simplified a richer portrait, one that lends credence to what Ezra Klein suggested may have been a Pennsylvania fake out by the Obama campaign. Sure, I heard old Italian guys tell me that we should “keep the White House white” and had other McCain supporters scream at me that Obama was a Muslim. More often I heard people say, “I just want whoever is going to help me,” and then proceed to tell me that they can’t find work or that they aren’t getting enough hours at the job that they have. As the last month of the campaign went on, I heard less skepticism about Obama’s experience, associations, or his race. It was either “I’m hurting too bad to worry about that stuff” — one guy even answered his door, “Yeah, I’m voting for the colored guy” — or skepticism about Sarah Palin, McCain’s age or his help-the-rich-forget-everybody-else policies.

So no, I wasn’t surprised that South Philly was where McCain’s faint dreams came to die. My anecdotal experience seemed to tell the story. You can use Sarah Palin to whip a few rural southerners into a racist frenzy, shredding any last shred of dignity you had before this campaign, but white South Philadelphians weren’t going to buy your appeal to the dregs of racial populism. It wasn’t surprising to me to read of similar things going on in the northeast part of the city, which has similar demographics and was also considered potentially ripe territory for the McCain campaign. At the end of the day, “the colored guy” cared about the average South Philly pocket book and “the war hero” couldn’t care less about putting “country first.” I doubt last Tuesday’s spontaneous celebrations extended too far down Broad Street into Marconi Plaza, but I imagine many down there were pleased to have a fighting chance in Obama’s America.

———

To temper a little of the unbridled euphoria (of which I’ve been plenty guilty), one phone call I made to a black mother a little further north of Marconi Plaza, but still in South Philly should remind everyone to keep their eyes on the prize. For all the articles written about South Philly in this campaign, few recognized the extent to which segregation still defines the region of the city. South Philly is not all white and, in fact, two wards — 30 and 36 — have significant, struggling black populations that helped win this state and this election for Obama. I called a mother in ward 36 and asked her if she would be supporting Obama. She answered, “Yeah, but he doesn’t ever talk about us. He always talks about the middle class, but I’m not the middle class. I’m the working poor.” All I could say is, “you’re right.” And the ranks of the working poor will continue to rise with the way the economy is headed — wages go down, full time work becomes even more rare, inflation rises.

We can hope that Obama’s experience as a community organizer in Chicago might lend a little meat to the new Office of Urban Policy, but the fact is this campaign held on to the myth of the middle class in this county more than ever before. Even though basically everyone identifies as middle class, this one woman’s plea for Marxist sanity broke through all the myth-making and reminded me that Obama represents a lot of great things and that he could also accomplish great things, but many Americans continue to struggle after the excitement of his victory dies down.