This poignant, personal essay by Charles Coe witnesses to the cosmic divide between him as an African American and the current president—a divide he theorizes convincingly would much less likely exist if the President and those folks he observes on the road between the airport in Buffalo and Chautauqua had treated themselves to literature, especially poetry, during their formative years and beyond.
A Hard Road
In July of 2016, I was on my way to the Chautauqua Institution, a summer cultural resort in southwestern New York State, to spend a week as poet-in-residence. I flew from Boston to Buffalo, where a staff member picked me up at the airport for the hour and change ride to the site. At one point he said, “We’ve about a half hour out and you have a choice. We can stay on the highway or turn off this little state road and you can get the lay of the land.”
I was game for the latter, so we turned off the interstate onto a road that took us through hilly farm country that was the northern edge of Appalachia, a region with a history of tough economic times. The demand for Concord grapes from that part of the state had declined in recent years, and manufacturing jobs were down more than twenty percent since the late seventies. The story was a common one in the rust belt and depressed farm country.
As we cruised along that little road, everywhere I saw indications of decline and decay: ramshackle old barns that looked like they’d collapse into kindling if you looked at them cross-eyed. Weather-beaten houses that seemed to be sinking into the earth. And rusted mobile homes mobile enough to be hauled onto a lot and put up on blocks. There was a pregnant woman sitting in a lawn chair in front of one with a cigarette in one hand and a can of beer in the other, a sleeping dog curled up in the dirt yard. And everywhere, in front of houses, at gas stations and bait shops and liquor stores, “Trump 2016” signs dotting the landscape like poisonous mushrooms.
I’m not trying to stereotype people who live in such places. I imagine that along that road were friends who’d get together on Sunday evenings to pull out fiddles and banjos and guitars and make music. I’m sure they were kind and caring people, good neighbors just trying to raise their families as best as they could. I’d like to think that somewhere was a shy, quiet teenage boy engrossed in a copy of Catcher in the Rye slipped his way by a black sheep uncle when his parents’ backs were turned.
During my week at Chautauqua, Bill Moyers, one of the speakers, told this story about a time he was touring the South with LBJ as a White House staff member: “We were in Tennessee. During the motorcade, LBJ spotted some ugly racial epithets scrawled on signs. Late that night in the hotel, when the local dignitaries had finished their last bottles of bourbon and branch water and departed, he started talking about those signs. “I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it,” he said. “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
That’s no less true today. Many struggling low-income whites have swallowed the right-wing propaganda from Fox News and Rush Limbaugh hook, line and sinker and see people like me the enemy. Many are anti-vaxxers, believe climate change is a myth, that the Earth is flat, and the Covid-19 pandemic is a hoax. And of course the flip side of being anti-science is being anti-art. Had my driver and I, two black men, gotten into a fender bender on that road and found ourselves surrounded by locals, I don’t think my reciting a Shakespeare sonnet or excerpts from The Epic of Gilgamesh would have done much good to swing them over to our side of the fence.
These are the people who routinely vote against funding for new libraries, and think it foolish to fund school choirs and drama clubs when the football team could use new uniforms. They have a soulmate in Donald Trump, whose proposed 2021 budget would eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts.
Since JFK, inspired and encouraged by his wife Jacqueline, made the White House a place to celebrate the arts, the “People’s House” has been an epicenter of cultural activity. Over the years presidents of both parties have hosted an amazing array of artists including Isaac Stern, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Jose Feliciano, Paul Simon, Natalie Cole, and Stevie Wonder. In four years in the White House, Donald Trump hosted not a single cultural event. Complete radio silence.
This is due partly to the fact that few artists of renown want to be associated with him in any way. Elton John, Garth Brooks, The Beach Boys, Celine Dion, Andrea Bocelli, Justin Timberlake, and Katy Perry all declined invitations to perform at his inauguration. As did Aretha Franklin, who said she was “repelled by some of the things he’s said and done.”
So Trump’s inauguration ceremonies offered second-tier country performers like Lee Greenwood and Toby Keith, and the biggest celebrity on hand was the immortal Scott Baio. In contrast, Obama’s inauguration featured a long list of A-List performers like Mary J. Blige, Jon Bon Jovi, Garth Brooks, Sheryl Crow, Renée Fleming, Herbie Hancock, John Legend, John Mellencamp, Pete Seeger, Shakira, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, U2, and Stevie Wonder.
Like all American schoolchildren, Donald Trump was undoubtedly exposed to poetry in school, but it seems clear that the deeper meanings of those poems, the calls to celebrate our common humanity, were as alien and impenetrable to him as characters carved at the base of an Aztec temple. And I seriously doubt that as an adult the man has ever read a poem of his own free will.
Donald Trump is a man immune to beauty. I could more easily see a ferret doing long division than I could picture him in a chair before a fireplace on a winter evening, afghan tucked over his legs and a mug of hot cider on a chairside table, face buried in a book of poetry. I can’t imagine him shaking his head and marveling at the quiet power of Emily Dickinson, each poem a hammer wrapped in velvet, or being moved by the dignity of Langston Hughes, or setting a book down and staring thoughtfully into space as he pondered Mary Oliver’s timeless question: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?…