Obama writes to homeless poet on 'Commentary to a Black Man'

WASHINGTON Fri May 23, 2014 6:06pm EDT

U.S. President Barack Obama listens while making personnel announcements in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington May 23, 2014.    REUTERS/Larry Downing

U.S. President Barack Obama listens while making personnel announcements in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington May 23, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Most mornings, David Denny ambles around a Metro stop in downtown Washington D.C., in the signature neon-yellow vest of a vendor selling Street Sense, a newspaper largely written and sold by the local homeless.

But this week's mornings were not like any other: Denny's name was on the front page of the latest issue of Street Sense. He had received a letter from U.S. President Barack Obama.

Fifteen years ago, Denny wrote a poem he called "Commentary to a Black Man," a rumination on race, poverty and the drug trade that contained a haunting plea to his fellow black men:

"We are the patriarchs of this fallen tribe, We bit the carrot, we took the bribe," he wrote. "This is a commentary we must all face, of the devastation we have caused our own race."

The poem's original draft, written over several years, survived among the letters Denny sent to his daughter from prison in Colorado, he said. Almost two decades later, in August 2013, it was published in Street Sense, where Denny had become a regular contributor and vendor after years of street life.

"I wanted people to stop trying to justify making money from selling drugs," Denny, now 58, told Reuters after reciting the poem in his deep, booming voice.

"I wanted them to stop rationalizing and justifying how they poison our own community... I wrote it because I lived that life," added Denny, who said he was now living on the back porch of someone he knew in the city.

One of Denny's regular customers, area resident Vicki Eastvold, told him she found his poem so powerful, she was going to send a letter to Obama to share it. Nine months later, to Denny's awe, a response from the White House arrived at Street Sense's offices.

"We need to change the statistics for young men and boys of color - not just for their sake, but for the sake of America's future," Obama wrote in a signed letter dated March 4.

"If we help those young men become well-educated, hardworking, good citizens, they will contribute to the growth and prosperity of this country," Obama wrote. "We will start a different cycle... I have great hope we can change the commentary."

Obama, the first African-American U.S. president, has made addressing income inequality a key theme in his second term, and in February launched a personal appeal to improve opportunities for boys from minority groups.

The White House on Friday confirmed the president had sent the letter but did not further elaborate on why he chose to respond.

What did Denny think of Obama's response to his poem?

"He says so much in this one paragraph, it's amazing," Denny said, holding up page seven of the latest Street Sense to read Obama's letter out loud.

"He really read my poem... He gave the antidote right here."

(Reporting by Alina Selyukh, editing by Ros Krasny and Andrew Hay)

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