20 January 2009

for those who do justice & love

The Inauguration was so uplifting and incredibly special... and while I wish I could have been in D.C. for the big day or surrounded by my peeps and loved ones at a viewing party... a part of me is content that I watched it alone, feeling reflective, having time to let it all sink in... and wash over me. And so now I can write it down and really engage in my thoughts. While it would probably be most appropriate to talk about Obama's speech, which I thought was really good with some surprising moments & expected moments, I want to talk about the benediction and the poem.

First the poem by Elizabeth Alexander - "Praise song for the Day" - at first, I was disappointed, I felt it was too subtle, too broad, not culturally specific enough. I wanted more fire, more energy, something more. I was waiting for this during the reading, as her beautiful metaphors ran through my mind, I was waiting for her to take me somewhere and leave me feeling moved by her message of love. I was not moved until I read it on the page. Now that I have had time to reflect on the piece, I feel its power, its subtle rage, but I still wanted more specificity. I do like that she talks about words and the everyday: "We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider." I like that she speaks of people fixing things that need to be fixed, people wanting more, wanting better lives. I like that she says people are making things - music - "with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice." Subtle in its references to Black cultural production, yet somehow inclusive... praising creativity & daily work.

I am happy that she reminds us to "Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of." For me, this not only an important (re)memory of the labor by African Americans during enslavement, reconstruction, and segregation, but it's also diasporic in its scope (for Africans enslaved in the Americas and their descendants), and casts a wide net to include the many immigrant communities (particularly Asian & Latino/a) that labored and continue to labor in the United States.

I love that she uses "praise song", which is not only an African poetic form, but it also resonates with people who are religious and/or spiritual. I like that it's a "praise song" that is somber as it calls for love to be the root & will for change. But it's a praise song, and I didn't feel that in the poem or the reading. But I find it radical that she asks us to imagine if love was the mightiest of words, what if love was more than marriage, family, and nation... love beyond comfort... asking us to think about love as a radical act. Perhaps this is too touchy-feely for some, perhaps this is too simple, but maybe it needs to be that, maybe we need to start looking at the most obvious solutions... maybe she calls us to create the change we want in our individual lives, in the everyday. (Clearly connecting with Obama's call for being the change we want in the world.)

Surely there is too much hate in the world... so I ain't mad at her for her call of love, her asking us to think about love. I see "love that casts a widening pool of light" as healthy love... love that is not weighted down with obligation or expectations or pain. Maybe this is all too idealistic, and for sure, my cynical self screams out - we need more than love! - and yes, we do need more than love, but I'm willing to start with love.

I've been thinking a lot about how to stay in the struggle, being active in community work and service, being a writer/teacher/scholar/poet, how do we stay healthy, how do we avoid burnout? I feel like we have to take care of ourselves first, we have to stay healthy. Then maybe our work will be more productive, our minds/bodies/spirits will feel renewed & sustained. And that way we can better organize & recruit, and keep ourselves & our comrades/partners/friends in the struggle against oppression, fighting against racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, classism, and patriarchy - in all the ways that we can do that - in whatever our work is - from the day to day experience, from direct action & campaigns to teaching, writing, & community organizing.

So this brings me to Revered Joseph Lowery's benediction, (the best prayer ever) which I did not expect to love as much as I do. First of all, he started with a verse from the Negro National Anthem - so beautiful, so perfect for the moment! And second, he was brilliant and radical in his references to history and his call for change & justice. And third, he made it ever so clear that we ain't there yet, that we have work to do. I quote at length pieces from the prayer that I want to remember and reflect on:

And now, Lord, in the complex arena of human relations, help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance.

And as we leave this mountain top, help us to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the oneness of our family. Let us take that power back to our homes, our workplaces, our churches, our temples, our mosques, or wherever we seek your will.
With your hands of power and your heart of love, help us then, now, Lord, to work for that day when nations shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid, when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.

Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around ... when yellow will be mellow ... when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right. That all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen.

I appreciate his acknowledgment of different religions and spiritual beliefs. I love his call for tolerance and justice. And finally, I am still trippin over how he ended it with such a specific Black cultural reference, and how much it worked for me, and how much I loved it - mostly cause he kept it in the future tense. He wants us to recognize the work we still have to do and understand that just because we have the first Black President of the United States, it don't mean racial injustice, prejudice, or racism goes away. I love that he made this Black vernacular saying so multi-racial, without taking away its multiple and deep meanings for Black people, while opening it up for people of color.

I felt like he built a bridge with his prayer and hopefully made people think about the work we still have to do. We need to push the boundaries of all that divide us, while recognizing & embracing difference, as the great Audre Lorde says, so that we may build strong alliances. This means we cannot ignore race, gender, class, sexuality, religion, nationality, etc. This means we have to do some hard work. It means we have to challenge each other and hold each other accountable, especially our leaders. I was happy to hear Obama say that his administration would be held accountable. I was very happy to hear him acknowledge that rich countries cannot ignore their relationships to poor/developing countries. I was pleased to hear his confidence and determination to make tough decisions - asking us to be a part of the change we want.

I've been curious about how the Obama administration would position itself on civil rights issues & other issues - their agenda is up on the web and very intriguing. I like the policy of transparency, use of technology, and how it seems that they want to keep people in the know about what they do. Time will tell, and these are only items/issues on an agenda... But I'm tryin to keep hope alive...

Check out the new white house agenda on civil rights

I want some of these to be more progressive, but I guess we have to start somewhere... and these actions are way past due...

So I'm sendin Obama a conscious vibration for his first 100 days! and for the next four years! Let's see what changes he makes and hold his administration accountable for what they say & what they need to do.


Jennifer said...

Quite a thoughtful reflection. I was feeling Lowery's benediction to (especially the "in-house" reference with the rhyme at the end).

Helen Klonaris said...

Angelique, thank you for this. I agree with you regarding Elizabeth Alexander's poem, it was not as obviously full of fire as I had hoped, but once you sink into what she is saying, its meaning, its possibilities, open up inside you... something like love can do... Yes to radical love being the root of action for justice in the world... love your blog!