Prophecy: Can This Poet Restore America’s Dignity?

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By J.C. Williams

You see them all the time. The man with filthy, splitting shoes revealing blackened toenails, leaning on his shopping cart outside Alan’s Market or the Venice Library. The woman with a weather beaten face, wandering the grass between the beach and the Venice Boardwalk, talking to herself or to someone unseen. “Homeless Vet,” one sign reads; another begs, “Please Help.” Who are these individuals, found in every metropolitan area? Where did they come from, and what do they need? 

Before Columbia, before Harvard Law, before the Illinois State Senate, before the 2004 Democratic National Convention, before the U.S. Senate, before the Democratic Party presidential nomination, was the poet who signed his name “Barry.” In 1979, this multiracial 17-year old high school student published a poem called “The Old Man” in a high school anthology. The poem foreshadows both the poet’s future role as a catalyst for transformational change, as well as demonstrating what has proved to be an enduring compassion for the downtrodden. 

I saw an old, forgotten man 
On an old, forgotten road 

 The poem could be read as a discussion of race, specifically about African Americans being forgotten by history and having their rights and dignity trampled upon here in America. Then again, could it be about any man or woman, homeless or not, who has been forgotten or who has lost his or her way in life? 

In retrospect, the poet’s choice of words was profoundly inspired. The first few lines resonate with two common, yet surprisingly powerful words: “old” and “forgotten.” Old, I get, redolent of ageism and obsolescence. But forgotten? 

Has the man in the poem been abandoned by his own parents, unable to comprehend a child with a mental illness? Have self-absorbed siblings distanced themselves; or conversely, have dedicated ones despaired at the man’s resistance to their interventions? Has the man been forsaken by kids who never knew their dad? Has a bitter spouse or ex-spouse dissed his memory, or just plain moved on? Have the government or healthcare system let him down, finding no place for certain kinds of people in their programs? Or does the blame belong to members of a society who do not seem to care about the fate of such an individual, as long as their cars are washed, lawns watered, mortgage payments made? 

Staggering and numb under the glare of the
Spotlight. His eyes, so dull and grey,
Slide from right, to left, to right,
Looking for his life, misplaced in a
Shallow, muddy gutter long ago.

 By the third line, the poem’s protagonist is “staggering and numb,” evoking not just physical imbalance, but possibly mental, emotional, and spiritual imbalance as well. He is “looking for his life, misplaced” (uh, honey, have you seen my life anywhere? I just can’t seem to find it.). 

What is he seeking? What has he lost? His identity … his ambition … faith in himself … or in a Higher Power? The poet does not indict, he merely observes.  The man looks in a “Shallow, muddy gutter” and later, a “transient spark” crosses his face. Images of homelessness, vagrancy, dissolution, addiction, disenfranchisement and despair come to mind. Though written in another city, state and time, there is no shortage of such individuals today. 

I am found, instead.
Seeking a hiding place, the night seals us together.
A transient spark lights his face, and in my honor,
He pulls out forgotten dignity from under his flaking coat,
And walks a straight line along the crooked world.

 What circumstances of fate or destiny put the poet in this man’s path? As “the night seals [them] together,” we see the poet’s fate becomes intertwined with that of the man. An amazing transformation occurs: “ . in my honor/He pulls out forgotten dignity . And walks a straight line .. “ 

In that beautiful, perfect, and powerful instant, the “forgotten” man is suddenly whole – redeemed – transformed by this seemingly chance encounter with the poet, a stranger who somehow helps the forgotten man believe in himself; who reminds him of his innate worth as a human being. 

 He pulls out forgotten dignity from under his flaking coat, 
And walks a straight line along the crooked world.
 

 The final two lines must be considered in light of the poet’s current occupation. In his 2006 book, Senator Barack Obama states in the Epilogue to The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream: “my satisfaction seems to come more often now from knowing that in some demonstrable way I’ve been able to help people live their lives with some measure of dignity.” (page 361) Like the man in the poem, Obama himself seems to “[walk] a straight line,” or live true to his principles, while traversing “the crooked world,” a phrase prescient in alluding to the challenge of maintaining one’s integrity in the world of politics. 

So what about those on the streets, or any Americans who are struggling? What do these individuals ask of us? Will a meal, a bath or a means to make a living suffice? Beyond the mechanics of survival, how do we provide someone with dignity? 

The name Barack is based on the word “baraka,” which means “blessed” in several languages. Sen. Obama has certainly been blessed with unique talents, talents which enable him – in one capacity or another – to bless others. Has he been ordained to restore America’s dignity and battered hopes? Time will tell, but for many Americans, he has already begun to restore “forgotten dignity”; the capacity to dream; and a sense that audacity is the way forward.

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