Monday, January 19, 2009
I’m posting the following poem by Robert Hayden, both in acknowledgment of Martin Luther King, Jr Day, & also in honor of Barack Obama’s inauguration as President tomorrow. Hayden is a poet worth exploring—he studied under W.H. Auden, & this appears to have been a good match for his talents; both poets display ease while working with form, both can shift between a high & a more colloquial rhetorical level, & both wrote poems explicitly about politics. Hayden's work also was informed by Harlem Renaissance writers such as Langston Hughes & Countee Cullen. In 1976, Hayden became the first African-American to hold the position of Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.
For those who’d like to know more about the great Frederick Douglass, please take a look at the Wikipedia page about him; Douglass was a highly influential man in the 19th century, being a prime mover in the abolitionist movement, & a man who fought for civil rights for all thru his work as a lecturer, a publisher & a writer. Douglass served as an adviser to President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War & championed the adoption of constitutional amendments guaranteeing voting rights & other civil liberties for blacks. He also was the first African-American nominated to run as Vice-President (in 1872, on the Equal Rights Party ticket with Victoria Woodhull, herself the first woman to run for President).
When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues' rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.
Tomorrow’s inauguration will be a historic event, & it is to be hoped a step toward better times for this country & also a step toward the U.S. taking a more reasoned & open stance toward our neighbors around the world. But President Obama’s taking office doesn’t mean that we don’t still have critical civil rights battles ahead of us; prison statistics concerning people of color tell us this; the neglect of inner city public schools tell us this; California Proposition 8 tells us this; the fact that we still haven’t passed the Equal Rights Amendment tells us this; the wage comparisons between male & female workers tell us this—as well as wage comparisons for either the inner city or the rural poor & the more affluent suburbanites. Men like Frederick Douglass or Martin Luther King, Jr. would remind us of this, as would women like Mother Jones or Emma Goldman. Citizen K's post today is titled: "Let us strive on to finish the work we are in,"a quote from Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, & a reminder to us, in a different context, that we must constantly strive against the forces of malice both within us & around us.
Although we may forget this in our politics & in our lives, we are all brothers & sisters.