Why a poet wrote a poem — “Obama Checks Black”


A poem contains its own meaning. Robert Frost, when asked to explain a poem he had just read, is said to have answered, “So you want me to say it worse?” In his masterful “Introduction to Poetry,” Billy Collins decries his students’ compulsion to beat each poem “with a hose/ to find out what it really means.” Yet poets do write to communicate, and the impulse to “understand” is certainly, well, understandable.

What makes poems by Collins or Frost work is that they often mean more than they appear to, and everything that goes into their composition — rhythm, word choice, line length, meter — communicates that meaning. Poems often start with a phrase or a general idea, and the poet follows where it leads, surprising and delighting himself, hopefully, as much as the reader. So when offered the chance to talk about the poem reprinted in this magazine, let me try to remember the impulse behind heading toward my keyboard.

‘Obama Checks Black’

In 2008 I was asked by a Jewish journal, JBooks, to explain my support for Obama in light of his perceived “Jewish problem” [http://bit.ly/1JfF4wI]. The New York Times had recently published an article about Obama’s lack of support in the battleground state of Florida, headlining it with a quote from an elderly man bemoaning his earlier experience: “It was a beautiful Jewish neighborhood — until the black residents moved in …”

When I was born in 1953, my neighborhood was 90 percent Jewish. Each year the lever tilted a bit until, 12 years later, 90 percent of the residents were African American. For me this led to a lifelong interest in issues of race and social justice, which I have explored in many children’s books, lectures, and poems.

Days after reading the Times article, I was doing research for a book when I came across an 1893 New York Times quote about the neighborhood of primarily Jewish immigrants where my grandfather would eventually settle: “Cleanliness is unknown to these people. They cannot be lifted to a higher plane because they do not want to be.” Thank you, New York Times!

In the beginning of the 20th century, Jews in America were considered nonwhite. It seemed obvious to everyone that Jews were not white, and my grandfather never would have even considered the possibility that his grandchildren would check off “white” on the U.S. Census (whose categories, by the way, change regularly, and make an interesting study of changing views about race in and of themselves). I grew up comfortable with racial stereotyping, yet thinking blacks and Jews were the best of friends with a common economic and sociological enemy.

Jews, of course, had an easier time passing for white, even before they were welcomed into that greater group. Because of the fear of black people passing, in the early 1900s the one-drop rule was made the law in most states. If you had one drop of black blood, you were legally black. Light-skinned people were considered black, even if the person had more white ancestry than black. This rule is partly why today, most blacks with white blood still identify as black. Even our president.

I grew up able to quote the Mischling classifications, which came from the 1935 Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor [also known as the Nuremberg Laws]: “A person with either three or four Jewish grandparents is considered to be a Jew. But a person with two Jewish grandparents is considered a Jew if they are a member of the Jewish religious community or they are married to a Jew, with at least one parent who is Jewish; or …” — this went on for pages. The punishment for a German man who had extramarital sex with a Jewish woman differed according to the degree of the woman’s Jewishness.

It all seems ridiculous, but I am writing these lines now while the country is in an uproar over Rachel Dolezal’s “reverse passing.” (Dolezal, a white woman, made headlines this summer for passing as black.) Who should be able to tell whose story? Does the minority get to choose whom to welcome into their group, as the majority previously did? These are all interesting questions, and remain part of the mixed stew that went into the writing of my poem.

Obama Checks Black

Cleanliness is unkown to these people. They cannot be lifted to a higher plane because they do not want to be.”

— New York Times, 1893

So many choices, the Angel of Census-Takers tells my grandfather,
as if she were guiding him above Brooklyn’s original bar mitzvah buffet;
as if the New York Times hadn’t editorialized that very day
against the putrid pushcart fish and the Jewish cholera germs strewn
through Brownsville like a Great Plains Midwesterner might sow grain.
Other, she suggests, passing up the painful crossbreed, the rotten Mulatto,
but mulling the “one drop” that shames for generations: the Quadroon,
the Octoroon, the one sixty-fourth. When, my grandfather wants to know,
did money whiten skin, did the Hebrews buy in, did even the Ivy Leagues
lose their religion? He’s in flight now, closing his eyes above WW II’s
“who is a Jew?” Nuremberg laws, but landing safely in Levittown,
just days before Dr. King’s Dream. In the 60’s there is no other option.
Even the Mexicans must be American Indian, Hawaiian, Korean or white.
What, my grandfather wants to know, about the Puerto Ricans who have
overrun his old neighborhood? He turns toward his personal Angel,
who was never all-knowing, but who has been to the future and come back.
Even the light-skinned President, she announces, will one day check black.

Richard Michelson will be speaking on a panel about writing poetry with
Jennifer Tseng, Donald Nitchie, and Justen Ahren at Islanders Write on
August 10. For information, visit mvartsandideas.com/islanders-write.

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