Ben Okri's "Obama"
Introduction and Excerpt from “Obama”
On Thursday, January 19, 2017, one day before the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States of America, the U.S.A. edition of The Guardian published Ben Okri's poem, "Obama," about which the publication claimed, "With Donald Trump about to enter the White House, a poet celebrates the achievements of the outgoing president." One will peruse Okri's poem in vain looking of any achievements that might be associated with President #44. One will also peruse this poem in vain looking for any "celebration."
The poem offers four musings of a philosophical nature, each handled in each of the four movements that structure the piece:
- "Sometimes the world is not changed / Till the right person appears who can / Change it."
- "For it is our thoughts that make / Our world."
- "Being a black president is not a magic wand / That will make all black problems disappear."
- "And so what Obama did and did not do is neither / Here nor there, in the great measure of things."
Each musing remains a vague utterance, especially in relationship to its avowed subject. The promise of celebrating achievements becomes a dumbfounded leitmotiv that like the Obama presidency fails to deliver anything substantial.
Toward the end of the piece, the speaker even seems to have become aware that he had not, in fact, offered anything concrete regarding the achievements of this president. Thus, he rehashes an old lie that people wanted this president to fail so they could support their racism. For any opposition to a black president has to be racist! The opposition cannot be opposing a black president because they do not agree with his policies; that opposition must be the result of the "race-hate, twin deity of America," despite the blaring fact that that race-hateful America elected this black man to their highest office twice.
Okri usually provides level-headed, balanced thinking on most issues, even the race issue. He knows the difference between achievement and lack thereof; thus, in this poem, he has his speaker spouting philosophical stances and then only implying that they apply to Barack Obama. Okri, the thinking man, knows that Barack Obama is the epitome of an "empty-suit." Obama can lay no claim to achievements accept negative ones. This poem might even be considered one of those that "damn with faint praise."
Excerpt from “Obama”
Sometimes the world is not changed
Till the right person appears who can
Change it. But the right person is also
In a way the right time. For the time
And the person have to work
The secret alchemy together.
But to change the world is more than
Changing its laws. Sometimes it is just
Being a new possibility, a portal
Through which new fire can enter
This world of foolishness and error.
They change the world best who
Change the way people think.
. . .
To read the poem in its entirety, please visit, "Obama," at The Guardian.
Ben Okri is a fine poet and thinker. His unfortunate choice of subject matter for this piece, however, leads his speaker down a rocky path to nowhere.
First Movement: "Change"? But Where is the "Hope"?
The speaker of Okri's "Obama" has a mighty task before him: he must transform a sow's ear into a silk purse. And of course, that cannot be done. But the speaker tries, beginning with some wide brush strokes that attempt to sound profound: only the right person appearing at the right time can change with world. Changing laws is not sufficient to change the world, so sometimes it's only a "new possibility" which functions like a new door "through with a new fire can enter."
The speaker is, of course, implying that his subject, Obama, is that "portal" through which a new fire has entered. Readers will note that the speaker is only implying such; he does not make any direct statement about Obama actually being that new door or new fire.
The election of 2016, after eight years of this implied new fire that has supposedly changed the way people think, proved that American citizens were indeed thinking differently: they had grown tired of stagnant economic growth, the destruction of their health care system, the rampant lawlessness of illegal immigrants, the war on law enforcement officers fueled by that "hope and change" spouting candidate, the ironically deteriorated race relations, and the installation of a petty dictatorship fueled by political correctness.
This beckon of hope and change had promised to fundamentally change the United States of America, and his policies indeed had put the country on a path to an authoritarian state from which the Founders had guarded the country through the U. S. Constitution. Obama proceeded to flout that document as he ruled by executive order, circumventing the congress.
Indeed, after those abominable, disastrous eight years, people's minds had changed, and they wanted no more of those socialistic policies that were driving the country to the status of a Banana Republic.
The speaker, of course, will never refer to any of the negative accomplishments of his subject, but also he will never refer to any positive accomplishment because there simply are none. Thus, no achievement is mentioned in the opening movement.
Five Days Away
Second Movement: Symbols, Signs, Still No Achievements
The speaker then continues with the mere philosophizing, offering some useful ideas that have nothing to do with his subject. He asserts the importance of thought, how thought is the mother of deeds. He then begins an equivocating series of lines that indeed fit quite well with the shallow, misdirection of the subject about which he tries to offer a celebration.
The speaker makes a bizarre, false claim, "We think that achievements are symbols." We do not think any such thing; we think that achievements are important, useful accomplishments. A presidential achievement represents some act which the leader has encouraged that results in better lives for citizens.
Americans had high hopes that the very least this black president could achieve would be the continued improvement of race relations. Those hopes were dashed as this president from his bully pulpit denigrated whole segments of society—the religious, the patriotic, and especially the members of law enforcement. He damaged the reputation of the entire nation as he traveled on foreign soil, apologizing for American behavior that had actually assisted those nations in their times of distress.
The speaker then ludicrously states, "symbols are not symbols," which he follows with "Obama is not a mere symbol." In a kind of syllogistic attempt to define a symbol, the speaker admits the truth that Obama actually had no achievements. If achievements are symbols, and Obama is not a "mere" symbol, then we hold the notion that Obama does not equal achievements, except for whatever the word "mere" might add to the equation.
But the speaker then turns from symbols to signs. Signs can show us whether we are dreaming correctly or not. Signs can show us that we are more free than we know. But if Obama is any kind of symbol, he symbolizes "our possible liberation." But he is also a symbol that "power in this world / Cannot do everything." He then turns to Moses' inability to liberate his people.
The sheer inappropriateness of likening the lead-from-behind, atheistic Obama to the great historical, religious figure Moses boggles the mind. The speaker then makes an astoundingly arrogant inference that Americans turning against Obama equates to Moses' people turning against him "and their God." Americans turning against leader Obama means they will have to "wander in the wilderness" until they at last come to their senses and return to the "vision of their prophets."
The speaker again has offered only musings about symbols, signs, power, lack of power, dreams, and misdirection, but offers nothing that Obama has done that could be called an achievement.
Third Movement: Color Is Not Destiny
This movement offers a marvelous summation of truths, which essentially places all leaders in their proper places. Leaders can serve only a symbols or signs to remind citizens that only the people themselves have the power to change the structures of society that limit individuals. Black presidents possess no "magic wand" with which to make all "black problems disappear." Even Nelson Mandela should serve only as a sign that we are all "self-liberating."
The speaker rightly laments that we tend to look to our leaders to perform for us the very acts that we must perform for ourselves. Our leaders cannot guarantee our inner freedom, only we can do that. He asserts that Obama must remain only a sign that there is "no destiny in colour." Our destiny is in our own will and in our own dreams. The speaker correctly asserts, "Freedom is not colour; freedom is thought; it is an / Attitude, a power of spirit, a constant self-definition."
Sadly, Obama has never demonstrated that he understands the position taken in Okri's third movement. Obama is so steeped in political correctness and radical collectivism that he always denigrates the stereotypical white privileged over the stereotypical groups of race, gender, nationality, and religion. Obama's warped, highly partisan stance would never accept the statements about freedom as described by Okri. Obama believes that only the state can grant freedom to the proper constituencies as it punishes others. Okri's analysis runs counter to the Obama worldview.
Thus, again, in its third movement, this poem that claims to be a celebration of the presidential achievements of the 44th president offers only philosophical musings, and although some of those musings state a correct position, there still remains no positive achievement that can attach to Obama.
Fourth Movement: Obama, Neither Here nor There
With complete accuracy once again, Okri's speaker states baldly, "And so what Obama did and did not do is neither / Here nor there, in the great measure of things." Certainly, one who looks for positive achievements will find the blandness of this state on the mark. The speaker then adds that history will record what Obama did and also what he was unable to do.
Then the narrative goes totally off the rails. American racists, those "racists" who had elected this black president twice, threw up road blocks that limited this president's accomplishments. They wanted him to fail because being black he had no right to succeed. The speaker implies that those American racists thought that this black president did not deserve liberation, meaning they thought he should be a slave—a ludicrous, utterly false claim.
The speaker then concludes with a weak implication that Obama is a hero who demonstrated that it is possible to be "black and to be great":
They wanted him to fail so they could
Prove their case. Can’t you see it? But that’s what
Heroes do: they come through in spite of all that blockage,
All those obstacles thrown in the path of the self-liberated.
That way the symbol would be tainted and would fail
To be a beacon and a sign that it is possible
To be black and to be great.
The problem with this part of the narrative again is, on one hand, that it is only an implication, not a positive statement making the claim that Obama was, in fact, a hero; on the other hand, it is obvious why the speaker would only imply these positive qualities to Obama: the man is not a hero, he is, indeed, a fraud.
Fraudulent Claims of Literary Prowess
There is a certain bit of irony in having a poem attempt to celebrate the achievements of a colossal fraud. Nowhere is the evidence of Obama's characteristic as a fraud more evident than in his claims to have written his two books, Dreams from My Father, and The Audacity of Hope. Jack Cashill's "Who Wrote Dreams From My Father?" offers convincing evidence that Barack Obama could not have written the books he claims to have authored. And Cashill continues his analysis of Obama's writing skills in "Who Wrote Audacity of Hope?" Writing the the Illinois Review, Mark Rhoads poses the same question regarding the Obama works. Even Obama's presidential library will offer no evidence that the president possessed any literary skills.
Clearly, Okri's poem provides a mélange of attitudes toward its subject. On the one hand, it wants to praise the outgoing president, but on the other, it simply can find nothing with which to do so. That the poem concludes with a bald-face lie is unfortunate, but understandable. Still, it cannot hide the truth: that Barack Obama offered it no achievements, or only phony ones, which it could celebrate.
- Ben Okri. "Barack Obama: a celebration in verse." The Guardian. January 19, 2017.
- Barack Obama. "We Are 5 Days From Fundamentally Transforming America." YouTube. Feb 2, 2012.
- Ben Smith. "Obama on small-town Pa.: Clinging to religion, guns, xenophobia." Politico. April 11, 2008.
- Nile Gardiner and Morgan Lorraine Roach. "Barack Obama's Top 10 Apologies: How the President Has Humiliated a Superpower." The Heritage Foundation. June 2, 2009.
- Andrew Miller. "Unriddling the Radical Worldview of President Obama." The Trumpet. January 2016.
- Jack Cashill. "Who Wrote Dreams From My Father?" American Thinker. October 9, 2008.
- Mark Rhoads. "Did Obama Write 'Dreams from My Father or 'Audacity of Hope'?" Illinois Review. October 16, 2008.
- Lolly Bowean. "Without archives on site, how will Obama Center benefit area students, scholars?" Chicago Tribune. October 8, 2017.
- Jack Cashill. "The Question the Times Should Have Asked ‘Writer’ Barack Obama" The American Spectator. January 25, 2017,.
- Jennifer Rubin. "Obama’s phony accomplishments leave us worse off." Washington Post. Feb. 12, 2016.
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© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes