This bridge between our words and the “realities of our time” is how Barack Obama described our “never-ending journey” in the United States. There is much to think about in the words the President chose for his 2nd Inaugural speech yesterday and the various snapshots the media has provided us of Americans who either made the trek to the nation’s capital or their local coffee shop to watch the event as a community of people. This post is a glancing blow, a first shot at sharing some of the ideas in the air this week.
Many of our alumni are welcoming students back to school today and one in particular is leading a group of students back home from Washington, D.C. I hope they’ll consider sharing their reflections and those of their students. I hope you will also consider sharing your ideas or those you find in the media that are meaningful. Until then, check out some of these stories…
Saying he was inspired by Walt Whimtan’s idea that America contains multitudes, Richard Blanco read his poem, “One Today,” during the ceremony. Blanco also represents a uniquely American story that enabled his words to convey a certain kind of heft. It’s impossible to choose one verse as the most moving. Perhaps what is the most interesting is how the ONE and the MANY reverberate through each and every stanza. So, you must read the whole thing but here’s one moment in the poem that was especially meaningful to me:
All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.
Commentary on the meaning of the moment flooded Facebook and Twitter where the White House’s graphics to accompany the text appeared alongside tributes to Martin Luther King. Too often in this era of 24/7 cable news, commentary is cheap, meaningless and whatever the opposite of thought provoking is (maybe mind-numbing?).
I was grateful for two pieces where the authors aimed to reflect on the moment and the context. James Fallows wrote about “The Two Most Powerful Allusions in Obama’s Speech” for The Atlantic. The two themes he discusses briefly are the “lash and the sword,” which he shows connects to the closing passage of Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address, and “Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall.” After sharing an excerpt from Obama’s speech, the very first sentence which he claims summarizes the entire thing, Fallows demonstrated how Lincoln, Jefferson, Madison, Adams and George Washington lined up with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Martin Luther King and Congressman John Lewis:
As in the one-sentence summary at the start of the speech, Obama wants to claim not just Lincoln but also Jefferson, Madison, Adams, George Washington, and the rest as guiding spirits for his kind of progressivism. In this passage he works toward that end by numbering among “our forebears” — those honored ancestors who fought to perfect our concepts of liberty and of union — the likes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Martin Luther King and other veterans of Selma including still-living Rep. John Lewis, and the protestors 44 years ago at the Stonewall.
After reading much (maybe too much) about the rhetoric and watching a video of Conrell West ranting against Obama’s decision to use MLK’s bible for the swearing in, I went looking for what Ta-Nehisi Coates writing. Also posted on The Atlantic, his reflection on the President’s remarks made an essential point. This is the reason why we should always be careful about dismissing something as “nothing but rhetoric.” Coates writes:
As surely as it has always mattered to homophobes, white supremacists, and chauvinists what was and wasn’t said in the public, it should matter to those of who seek to repel them. What ideas do and don’t get exposed in the public square has to matter to any activist, because movements begin by exposing people to ideas. “I Have a Dream” is not simply important because of whatever civil-rights legislation followed, but because it put on the big American public stage a notion that was long held as anathema — integration. The idea extends beyond legislation.
The moment wasn’t lost on a Chicago high schooler who attended the inaugural event and shared her thoughts with NPR, “I think this is the first time he bluntly said everything he believed in outright to the public and I thought that was phenomenal.” The NPR piece that focuses on this group of Chicago teens and their ideas about Obama was short but invaluable. That might be what I appreciated most yesterday… hearing the voices of the future consonant with the voices of the past and taking to task the voices of now.
***I very much want to “color code” both texts, Obama’s speech and Blanco’s poem, to bring out each of these groups of people, the past, the future, the now and the people of all times. Expect a future post. If you have ideas for different ways to present these words or to put them into conversation with other familiar forms, please do it and share it with us.
UPDATE: Todd Heuston is trying to escape D.C. with his group of students from South Anchorage High School but shared a sound clip from Alaska Public Radio. Now we can add his voice and those of his students to this collection of reflections on the inauguration. Listen to Todd’s thoughts about Obama’s “broad strokes” and the issues that interested his students this most here.