Joe Wilkins

“Arguing with James Baldwin the Day After the Re-election of Barack Obama”


Arguing with James Baldwin the Day After the Re-election of Barack Obama

It has been vivid to me for many years that what we call a race problem here is not a race problem at all: to keep calling it that is a way of avoiding the problem. The problem is rooted in the question of how one treats one’s flesh and blood, especially one’s children. -James Baldwin


On her deathbed your grandmother,
a former slave, hands you a tin box, which you open
to find not sweets, as she thought and you expected,
but needles and thread― 

and how old were you then?
I can’t take it. Not today. And so close 

your busted, back-of-the-stacks book,
and with a hangover big
as the half-abandoned Midwestern burg
I wander, blink and wonder 

in the early winter light. I’m trying not
to feel like a dumb sucker, trying to believe
this mess we’re in is getting better. See, plain as you
once were, or me, 

or any color of any boy in these United States,
my son has just turned three,
and this yes, or rather
this hoped-for-but-unexpected yes again, this re-election―
this has got to be something, 

right? The highways are crumbling,
the war’s still on, 

but come on?


It’s cold out,
every other storefront empty. I walk by
and think there’s something there, 

though it’s only ever
my reflection. At least these streets 

know me. These last six months
of knowing what to do, of walking this way up,
and that way down, of knocking on door after door,
listening and explaining and registering to vote― 

I wish I didn’t know
who’s about to lose their home,
who’s still furloughed at the plant, which door
leads to a sick child’s dark room.
I’d like to say a thing 

to smash glass, wreck bricks,
rearrange the light― 

the way to a pillow of ash I’ve laid my flaming head
ever since I was fourteen and first read your book
about fire. Listen,
I’m a liar. 


The day before the election
I took the morning off,
hiked instead with my son down to the slough,
and there, 

along the abandoned railroad berm,
in among rocks and weeds
and bits of trash,
found a bone-brittle milkweed.
Like penitents 

we knelt before it.
Frost-shattered, the husk gave easily,
and even for the cold
we shed our gloves to hold
those velvet seeds, white and dark
as prayers in the small cup of my son’s hands. 

Until a wind lifted the sudden thousand of them,
lifted them to stitch and mend
the sky’s gray rags,
those needled threads of light―

we were silent,
absolutely winter still,         
and when finally we unbent our knees,
rose from the frayed and oil-stained earth― 

you’re goddamn right I promised him,
swore wherever they fell 

they’d root and grow. 


Joe Wilkins