Barack Obama and Langston Hughes on “Grumblers” and “Merry Christmas”
When US presidents offer us their holiday greeting messages, do we know what are they really saying? How hard can it be to figure that out? Langston Hughes died in 1967, but he knew what every US president, including Barack Obama is really saying, underneath and behind the mask.
Barack Obama and Langston Hughes on “Grumblers” and “Merry Christmas”
by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
In a recent interview with one of the few black reporters privileged to be part of the White House press corps, President Obama was asked
April D. Ryan: Speaking of the African American community, this seems to be a shift in black leadership, as it relates to supporting you. You have the CBC that’s upset with you about targeting on the jobs front — African Americans, 15.6 percent unemployment rate, expected to go to 20 percent; mainstream America 10 percent. Then you have black actors who supported you — Danny Glover, who’s saying that you’ve not changed, your administration is the same as George W. Bush. What are your thoughts about the fact that black leadership is grumbling, and the fact that people are concerned with you being the first African American President, and they thought that there would be a little bit more compassion for black issues?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, April, I think you just engaged in a big generalization in terms of how you asked that question. If you want me to line up all the black actors, for example, who support me, and put them on one side of the room, and a couple who are grumbling on the other, I’m happy to have that.
I think if you look at the polling, in terms of the attitudes of the African American community, there’s overwhelming support for what we’ve tried to do. And, so, is there grumbling? Of course there’s grumbling,
Obama was referring to the relatively mild and tentative criticisms of the Congressional Black Caucus, along with other expressions of disappointment on the part of such activists as actor Danny Glover. The president can ignore, dismiss or disparage the divide between his policies and the opinions of the African American community which supported him. But it's deep, it's real, and it's growing. It's even historic.
Presidents have been issuing holiday greeting messages from their homes or cozy offices for a long time now, and Obama's will be on line any minute now. Those interested can probably find it at JackandJillPolitics.com, at whitehouse.gov, and any number of other places. But the ironic 1930 Christmas message of Langston Hughes, the poet laureate of Black America sounds, with the most minor edits, like it could have come from the lips any US president of the past hundred years, including Barack Obama.
Sixty-nine years ago Langston Hughes began his holiday poem “Merry Christmas” with these lines
Merry Christmas China
From the gun-boats in the river
Ten inch shells for Christmas gifts
And peace on earth forever
At the moment, the U.S. was hip-deep in the Chinese civil war, bankrolling and advising a string of opium-soaked warlord armies against communists and agitators, and conducting naval operations in Chinese rivers and off its coasts. Today our first black president's Pentagon, headed by the same team that ran George Bush's Pentagon, sits atop some 800 overseas military bases in a hundred countries with more than 2 million uniformed personnel. Our president will spend more on this military machine than the all the rest of the planet combined, fighting and preparing to fight what the National Security Doctrine calls “multiple overlapping wars” to control resources in distant lands in the interest “free trade and free markets.”
Langston's Christmas poem draws our attention to a part of the world much in today's headlines.
Merry Christmas, India
To Gandhi in his cell
From righteous Christian England
Ring out bright Christmas bell
Under our first black president, Afghanistan and Pakistan are part of a vast law-free zone in which daily shellings and air raids go unreported and unremarked except by the families of victims. Assassinations and kidnappings to fill America's world-wide network of secret prisons have replaced the open incarceration of real and suspected political foes. At least we knew Gandhi's name, what he was charged with, where he was locked up, what his sentence was, whether he got a day in court and whether his keepers mistreated him. We can't say that about hundreds or thousands of Obama's prisoners.
Merry Christmas Africa
From Cairo to he Cape
Sing hallelujah, praise the Lord
For murder and for rape
Some things have changed very little indeed. The four part series “The Ravaging of Africa” to which a link appears in our left column, is a comprehensive indictment of US policy in Africa, which has caused the death of some 26 million Africans since the 1960s, including nearly ten million in Congo alone. America's role as conscienceless predator was reaffirmed last week in Copenhagen, when the US categorically rejected the notion that it owed the rest of the world a debt for being the single major contributor to climate change over the last century and a half. Africans can drown or starve due to US -initiated climate change, but there will be no technology sharing, no reparations, nothing in the way of human solidarity between Africa and the West if the son of Africa in the White House has anything to say about it.
Langston Hughes draws our attention to the Caribbean, where the US has enforced its will at gunpoint for much of two centuries.
Ring Merry Christmas Haiti
And drown the voodoo drums
We'll rob you to the Christmas hymns
Until the next Christ comes
Ring Merry Christmas Cuba
(Where Yankee domination
Keeps a nice fat president's
in a little half-starved nation.)
In Cuba at least, Yankee domination is over. President Obama seems to resent this fact just as much as the last nine presidents, and continues to enforce a warlike economic blockade on Cuba.
And in Haiti, after more than a dozen US invasions and occupations, the US engineered the kidnapping of that country's elected president, whom Obama will not even allow back in the Western hemisphere. In the name of international cooperation, the US pays for a multinational occupation force from Brazil and other countries to hunt down and kill members of Haiti's Lavalas party, freeing US Marines for duty elsewhere.
Under the rules, Haiti is to be kept starving and terrorized, prevented by law from feeding or funding itself, owning its own infrastructure or employing its own people. Some things don't change much.
The Christmas message of Langston Hughes doesn't forget about domestic affairs either.
And to you down and outers
(“Due to economic laws”)
Oh, eat, drink, be merry
With a breadline Santa Claus--
Jobless levels are the highest they've been anywhere since the Great Depression, when Hughes penned his Christmas greeting. But now, just as in 1930, we have a president with an unshakable belief that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” a saying popularized by John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. In this time of economic crisis, President Obama has transferred more wealth to Wall Street from the real economy than all his predecessors combined.
But hard-pressed homeowners and those with heavy debts due to unpayable medical bills remain underwater. Their bailout isn't coming. The only ones, apart from Wall Street who'll get anything under an Obama administration will be the military.
President Obama began this December with a belligerent address that used the cadets at West Point as human stage props. At mid-month he went to Copenhagen to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, and offer another bald-faced set of excuses for wars, kidnappings, secret prisons and the whole panoply of empire. He or his vice president may end it treating us to a Christmas or New Year's message posing with the troops in occupied Iraq or Afghanistan. The more some things change, the more they stay the same.
We don't know exactly what Obama will say in his holiday message. But Langston Hughes knew seventy years ago what he will mean.
While all the world hails Christmas
While all the church bells sway
While better still the Christian guns
Proclaim this joyous day
While holy steel that makes us strong
Spits forth a mighty yuletide song
SHOOT Merry Christmas everywhere
Let Merry Christmas GAS the air.
Presidents can always find sycophants, yes-men or yes-women eager to agree to whatever they say, often before they can even say it. All that comes with the job, along with Air Force One and that song they play every time he enters a crowded room. But the the truth is always true, no matter how hotly or how many the deniers, and most of Black America is not in denial on war, peace, mass incarceration or poverty. The heroes, and the just plain honest will always be those who speak the truth to power.
Langston has been gone from us a long time now. We'll never know what he might say to a son of Africa in the White House, married to a girl from the south side of Chicago. But nobody on either side of the grave speaks more directly to what our first black president has become than Langston Hughes did seven decades ago. Barack Obama is in power. He can ignore, disparage or dismiss the truth. But it's still true. And most of us know it.
We wish the president and first family, along with all our readers and friends around the world a joyous and fulfilling holiday.
Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and based in Atlanta. He can be reached at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport. Langston Hughes is the poet laureate of Black America and can be reached at public libraries, and at independent and other bookstores everywhere.