Decrypting Obama's 'Pop'

In 1988, the Center for Labor Education and Research (CLEAR) at the University of Hawaii-West Oahu produced a documentary about the life of Frank Marshall Davis. Best known today as the mentor of the young Barack Obama, Davis had died the year before on the island where he had lived for the previous forty years. 

To understand the way the progressive media work, consider this: The documentary makes not one single mention of Davis's undeniable communist affiliations, his pornographic writings, or -- to be sure -- his flirtation with pedophilia. It was as if a producer had made a documentary about Richard Nixon and failed to mention Watergate.

Given the production date, the filmmakers had no reason to explore Davis's relationship with Barack Obama, then an unknown community organizer in Chicago. Obama speaks about that relationship in his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father, but its deeper secrets may well be encrypted in a 1981 poem attributed to Obama called "Pop," arguably the Rosetta Stone of the Obama psyche.

Unfortunately, those keen on breaking the Obama code have gotten little help from the mainstream media. The reviewers of "Pop" have shown no more interest in pursuing and sharing the truth than have the producers of the Davis documentary. As is obvious in both cases, the literati gravitate towards individuals for their rough and radical edges, but they end up refining their personalities for mass consumption like so much Wonder Bread. This is not a novel practice. It has its roots in the early days of the Soviet experiment.

In their pursuit of the larger truth -- pravda -- Soviet leadership scorned any petty factual truth -- istina -- that stood in its way. The man who exported the technique of "lying for the truth" to the West was an unlikely German Communist named Willi Munzenberg. A sort of roughneck publisher, Munzenberg had an instinctive feel for the power of the media and persuaded Lenin to let him apply it.

As author Stephen Koch details in his masterful book Double Lives, Munzenberg pioneered two new lines of secret service work: the propaganda front, controlled covertly from afar, and the "fellow traveler," a friend of the revolution who voiced the dogma du jour as artlessly as if it were his own. The messages being voiced varied over time, but they remained consistent in their intent -- namely, to promote the Soviet experiment usually by defaming the West.

Always the cynic, Munzenberg described the idealists who unwittingly hewed to the party line as "innocents." The fronts to which he guided them he called "Innocents' Clubs."

The marriage of modernism and socialism may have stripped these innocents of almost all traditional faith, but not of the need for the same. Munzenberg filled the void, directing aspiring radicals to any number of causes that offered, as Koch notes, "a substitute for religious belief."

Koch did not then know who Obama was. Double Lives was published in 1994, the same year that Obama recruited Bill Ayers to help him with his memoir. Still, nothing about Obama's rise could have surprised Koch. 

Ayers began the packaging with Dreams, a book calculated not to elect a president, but to elect a mayor. "For the first two years [of their acquaintance], I thought, his ambition is so huge that he wants to be mayor of Chicago," Ayers would later tell Salon. As Ayers understood, the left's ideology and information infrastructure had outlived the Soviet collapse.  So had its hunger for ersatz religious fulfillment. 

Obama -- daringly radical, thrillingly multicultural, and consciously messianic -- could help fill the void. And so months after the book's publication, Ayers helped Obama launch his first political sortie, this for state senate, with a fundraiser chez Ayers.

Dreams' treatment of Frank Marshall Davis testifies to the book's calculation. Ayers and Obama labor to establish just how important a figure Davis was in Obama's life. On nine separate occasions in Dreams, they show Davis instructing Obama in the ways of the black man, thereby helping authenticate him as an African-American.

The Davis connection still mattered in 1995 Chicago. Before leaving for Hawaii in 1948, Davis had been a prominent player in black Chicago life. In addition to his job as executive editor for the Associated Negro Press, he manned the front lines in any number of causes and made useful friends along the barricades, some of them, like Vernon Jarrett, still prominent. Years later, Jarrett would use his influential newspaper column to advance Obama's career. His daughter-in-law Valerie Jarrett would become the Obamas' closest counsel.

In Dreams, Davis is strategically referred to by his real name, "Frank." Other than public figures like Jeremiah Wright and members of the Obama family, no one else is. Ayers and Obama wanted black Chicago to know Obama's pedigree, but they were savvy enough to omit Davis's last name, as well as any reference to his communism. Had they written this book with the presidency in mind, they would likely have eliminated all references to Davis -- and Wright too, for that matter.

Obama has had to depend on the media and the literary establishment to keep "Frank" out of the public debate, and they have largely obliged him. I would doubt if one voter out of a hundred in the Obama "innocents' club" could even identify Davis.

In a similar spirit, the friendly literary critics who have reviewed "Pop" have blinded themselves to the poem's real subject. They prefer the poem to be a reminiscence, and a benign one at that, about Obama's "Gramps," Stanley Dunham. The New Yorker, for instance, unhesitatingly describes the poem as a "loving if slightly jaded portrait of Obama's maternal grandfather." I could find no mainstream publication that even suggests otherwise.

Nor did any of the reviewers ask why Obama would name the poem "Pop" if it were about a man he has always referred to as "Gramps." They breezily duck the implication of paternity and instead reimagine "Pop" as a tribute to their and Obama's shared decency. Writes poet Ian McMillan in the U.K. Guardian, "There's a humanity in the poem, a sense of family values and shared cultural concerns that give us a hint of the Democrat to come."

It was in watching a 1987 interview with Davis that I became convinced that he was indeed "Pop." Davis looks and seems like the man in the poem: the drinking, the smoking, the glasses, the twitches, the roaming eyes, the thick neck and broad back. What is more, the subject of "Pop" does something natural for Davis but not for Dunham: He "recites an old poem."

The first time the reader meets Davis in Dreams, he is referred to as "a poet named Frank." Obama remembers, "[Davis] would read us his poetry whenever we stopped by his house, sharing whiskey with Gramps out of an emptied jelly jar."

A therapist who blogs under the name "Neo Neocon" offers the most insightful reading of the poem that I was able to identify. She is convinced that "Pop" is Davis and finds the following sequence disturbing in the extreme:

Pop takes another shot, neat,

Points out the same amber

Stain on his shorts that I've got on mine, and

Makes me smell his smell, coming

From me ...

Writes the therapist, who chooses to remain anonymous, "[This incident] may be describing outright sexual abuse. But perhaps not; we don't know, and we'll never know. But there is no question that the poem is describing a boundary violation on several levels: this child feels invaded-perhaps even taken over-by this man, and is fighting against that sensation."

The therapist argues that the invasion is mental as well as physical, and the young Obama attempts to resist that too.

 ... as he grows small,

A spot in my brain, something

That may be squeezed out, like a

Watermelon seed between

Two fingers.

Although I agree with the therapist about the nature of the conflict and even the resistance, I vary in one significant observation: I believe Davis to be the author of the poem. Unlike with Dreams, where the evidence of Ayers' involvement is overwhelming, my suspicion here is more hunch than science. 

Still, it is an educated hunch. Nowhere else in his unaided oeuvre, such as it is, does Obama show the language control he does in "Pop." Two years later, in the pages of Columbia's weekly news magazine, Sundial, he would be writing semi-literate clunkers like "The belief that moribund institutions, rather than individuals are at the root of the problem, keep SAM's energies alive."

More telling is Obama's poem "Underground," which appeared alongside "Pop" in the spring 1981 edition of Occidental College's literary magazine, Feast. This silly adolescent ode to "apes that eat figs" in underwater grottoes has none of the style or sophistication of "Pop."

In fact, "Underground" sounds as it were written by another, lesser poet, namely Obama himself. Others have noted the difference. Poet and novelist Warwick Collins, for instance, believes "Pop" to be "by far the more powerful and complex" of the two poems, and his is the consensus opinion.

One of my correspondents who has done yeoman's work on the Ayers-Obama connection has long believed Davis to be the subject of "Pop." His preliminary textual analysis, admittedly not conclusive, leads him to believe that Davis is the author of "Pop" as well. Working with only one poem as base, however, makes comparison with other Davis work difficult, especially since Davis experimented with a range of free verse styles.

Like so much contemporary poetry, "Pop" is sufficiently obscure in meaning that one does not so much review the poem as decrypt it. All such efforts, of course, are subjective, including the one that follows.

I see "Pop" as a self-reflection by Davis. Distressed to be losing the young Obama to the lures of the mainland, he writes a poem about the young Obama as seen through Obama's eyes. I would not be surprised if he gave the poem to him as a parting gift. 

In the poem, "Pop" wonders about this "green young man" and worries how he will fare amidst the "flim and flam of the world." In his other works, Davis occasionally uses "green" to mean "untested" as it means in "Pop." In Dreams, by contrast, "green" is used only in the literal sense.

Davis, now in his mid-70s, knows his hold on Obama is tenuous. He fears that the young man will forget everything he told him about being black and that the "spot" he left in Obama's brain "may be squeezed out, like a Watermelon seed."

The choice of the word "watermelon" strikes me as too knowing to have come from the young Obama. Davis sees himself as he thinks Obama must -- aging, unattractive, twitchy, oily, smelly, an old-school "watermelon" man, a walking stereotype.

The poem is much more poignant if one imagines that Davis wrote it. Whether he is writing about a young friend, a son, a sexual initiate, or some combination of the three will likely never be known. If Davis named the poem "Pop" for his own literal fatherhood, it is quite possible that Obama himself never knew.

The progressive media do not care to know. And in their world, there is no greater offense than to seek to know something they have chosen not to. Ask Joe McCarthy or Whittaker Chambers or Gary Aldrich or the AGW "denialists" or the Swiftboaters or the CIA interrogators or even poor Linda Tripp. Ask the "birthers."

The literary faithful who have reviewed "Pop" prefer to see in it the seeds of the literary genius that would seemingly blossom in Obama's 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father. I see in it signs that Obama, even as an adolescent, was willing to take full credit for something he could not himself write.
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