“Ode to Obie, my Chosen Great-Godfather”
This poem is dedicated to Obie Nash, a very close friend of mine in California who served in World War II and brought home a German war bride. I have since lost contact with him but deeply cherish the time spent with him, listening to his war stories and his insights. I feel honored to have chosen him as my great-godfather. Particularly since this is Black History Month, it was very interesting to learn that he was treated better in Europe as an African American GI than he was in his own country, which was heartbreaking for him.
I see the photograph: you — black, beaming, full of bravado
off to fight a war on German soil, not of your own making
the light is incandescent, against the barracks in the company
of others, rifles poised against their chests, brazen, facing
down the camera’s eye which takes with it
a piece of the soul in every moment (indiscriminate).
Far from Alabama and the soft rhythms of its speech
and a land where pigment (which should be the color of water)
is everything and segregation is still the common rant
and being African-American is termed inexpedient.
You do abide and have come to make your mark for humanity
though perhaps your own country scorns and derogates you.
What is color anyway: just a five letter word of no signal importance..
what is the hue of thunder, of water breaking on the shore, or the
howl of a lone coyote on the plain, of a mother’s love when her son
is lost on a roiling sea, an infinite night punctuated by a gallery of stars.
But I digress: because what you did over there, in Europe, with your
American brothers, intent on exterminating the Nazi threat,
had nothing at all to do with color but only to do
with gallantry and ethics and saving the Jews and other so-called
undesirables from the mass slaughter that had been fashioned for
them. In the intemperate heat of battle your blackness
fell off you like the mantle of night to the sunrise
where, far from your family, on foreign soil, there were no
black-and-white bathrooms or indices of different/not-equal.
At the Nuremburg trials you witnessed men, white-skinned, monstrous
in their sins, multifarious
and understood that bigotry was not only a discrimination practiced
in America… you cried for the Jews whose ashes lay around you,
piled in heaps of bones, “schrecklich”, the German word for “dreadful”
which in your eighties, you still remember.
And you were changed from the experience, beyond the measure of
any calculus that can define the architecture of a life.
Coming back from the genocide, still the soldier, you carried the brace
of what you had seen in Europe, and vowed: this is where it ends —
I am a man, like any other, who is defined by my heart and mind
and soul and nothing so inconsequential as color
where courage has no shade and love, a guiding beacon,
is the force which is irrefutable in my life, and the seed which I sow,
colorless and enduring, in a place where no longer
can I suffer the diminishings of liberty for a negro’s tribe.
I am just a white boy, only twenty in my years, who has never been
to battle but all the same has been
transmogrified by the epic fights that you have waged.
For me: you are simply my great-godfather, color-less,
the color of water, the wind thunderous against the sky,
moon pendulous and permanent, as rain which again and
again, variable in tone, will soon arrive.
The sound of the whipporwill and egret is you, sounds which
have no color, the movement of a wild appaloosa on the plain
this poem is my Liebeslied (love song) to you.