People are still talking about last month’s First Draft Writers’ Series and Portland poet and novelist Harold Johnson — sharing his books, wanting more. An African-American who was raised in World War II and Depression-era Yakima, Washington, Johnson is a musician, teacher, and artist as well as writer. In his most recent book, “ARTICLE II: The Gallery,” he gives us a special gift: an opportunity to walk in the poet’s shoes as he tours the National Portrait Gallery, reporting on U.S. presidents one through 44 in the voices of black Americans.
It’s a book about slavery and racism in the U.S. as told through “presidential rap sheets.” It’s brilliant. Both searing and — thanks to Johnson’s gifts — funny. And shocking, especially if we thought we had learned about these presidents in school.
They’re numbered, not named, though readers can check the list in the back of the book. The effect of looking at one president after another through the lens of racism is cumulative, overwhelming. Here’s what the poet says about 11 — President Polk: “On periodic presidential visits to yr plantings, / a practice was to have the last two slaves / who’d done something deemed unslavelike / brought before you, stripped / and whipped in front of other enslaved persons.”
The end of slavery was not, of course, the end of presidential racism. Some talk about making things better but do nothing, and most are like 26, Teddy Roosevelt, who says, “As a race and in the mass / they are altogether inferior to the whites.” Or 28, Woodrow Wilson, former president of Princeton, who praised “The Birth of a Nation” after showing it in the White House, and called African-Americans “lazy.” (“You, an educator,” says Johnson.)
I was surprised to learn that number 30, Calvin Coolidge, “Silent Cal,” actually spoke — in favor of anti-lynching laws. And he wrote to a citizen who had insisted that the United States was a white man’s country, “I have taken my oath to support the Constitution. It is the source of your rights and my rights. I propose to regard it, administer it, as the source of the rights of all people, whatever their beliefs or race.”
Silent Cal? Maybe he just wasn’t heard.
When we stand in the black viewer’s footsteps regarding portrait after portrait of the more recent presidents whose administrations we have lived through, listening hard for evidence of hope, we realize even more deeply what it means to have the man who integrated the armed forces refer to White House servants as “an army of coons.” Or the president who helped win World War II afraid to answer the plea to come to a city in the South and give a speech urging citizenship protections for everyone — instead, thinking maybe “further action in this field would merely result in more bitterness.” (“Come on, man, you’re not talking to chumps.”) We remember the president who “rode the dirty race HORse to WashingTON.”
But being knocked sideways by such recognition can help us face the world with deeper understanding. We live in a country where many find the slogan “Black Lives Matter” threatening, and where white men march with tiki torches chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” Feeling empathy reminds us that we are all in this together.
On Thursday, Nov. 21, First Draft will give us more opportunities to explore contemporary questions from someone else’s perspective. Alex Kuo’s Mao’s “Kisses: A Novel of June 4, 1989” is told from the point of view of Ge, the (fictional) personal note-taker of China’s leader Deng Xiaoping — who has the “inside dope” of the events leading up to those tanks in Tiananmen Square. “What is the real China?” Ge asks.
And Joan Burbick’s Stripland follows four characters whose lives were upended by the 2009 shooting of a Nez Perce man by the Idaho State Police. The stories of a homeless man, a woman lawyer, a bereft photographer, and an internet trickster intersect and overlap as they try to understand, exploit, or seek revenge for the killing.
Americans are polarized, we’re told. We need to try to understand each other. Feel our connections, empathize with others. Writers help us do that.
See you at First Draft.