Watching the evidence change
A meditation on the inauguration of President Barack Obama, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
This is an extraordinary weekend in the life of this nation. Not only do we celebrate the life and work and witness of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who would have turned 80 on January 15, but we will witness the inauguration of the first African American president of the United States. In a city designed and built in large measure by enslaved Africans—in a country for which citizenship was a long series of denials and the vote a cruel, sometimes fatal joke—the dream that most of us imagined we would never see will come true on January 20 at noon.
I sense in this moment the closing of a circle, the work of the holy in the things of this world. It is the culmination of 400 years of suffering and prayer and endurance and injustice and hopeless longing for the right simply to be, a centuries-long legacy embedded in the bones of most African Americans. We find in these next few days of ceremony and celebration a sweet vindication.
And loneliness, too—longing for all those we loved who are not here, who didn’t make it to this day, who cannot cry and dance and scream and stand amazed: My father. My friends Allen, and Paul, and Marjorie. They would have been beside themselves with joy, and thinking of it makes me smile. I grieve, too, all of the loss and the waste of the centuries before this one—all the men and women of great heart and mind and spirit who might have held this high office before now, but whose gifts faded away in the wasteland of hatred and prejudice and ignorance that poisoned our country for generations.
In every generation, though, there were those who imagined this day, even when others could not. Grounded by a belief in a God who acts in history, supported by a faith in deliverance, African Americans—along with allies of every race and ethnic group—struggled and sued, rebelled and resisted, wrote and preached, offered up their hearts and their souls and their lives for the sake of the freedom that was their rightful heritage. So many people, so many names—Maria Stewart and Daniel Walker and Nat Turner and John Brown and Theodore Parker and Harriet Beecher Stowe and Harriet Tubman and Lydia Maria Child and Elijah Lovejoy and Ellen Craft and Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth and Viola Liuzzo and James Reeb and Whitney Young and a million people whose names we will never, ever know—all of them laboring under the heretical notion of change and the idea that one day, things would be different, that all men and women would be brothers and sisters.
Think of all that came before and between the arrival of Africans on the shores of the so-called New World and this moment. Think of all those before us who escaped bondage for a new life that was only marginally better than the old one. Think of all those who failed to escape and whose blood and bodies fertilized the ground. Think of those allies whose work and solidarity with the African American quest for freedom meant isolation and hardship and failure and death. Think of the glimmers of hope along the way, the two steps forward and the one step back: Emancipation, but no forty acres and a mule; reconstruction, then disenfranchisement, the nationwide terror of the Klan, and the horror of lynching as social control; fighting in a war meant to make the world safe for democracy, then returning home to a democracy that did not include a place for you—unless it was at the back of the bus.
In truth, a lot of people died to bring this day to fruition. But what we forget is that a lot more people lived for it. They worked and struggled and saw little or no progress at all. They died not in some fiery violent episode, but in quiet confidence and hope that what they would not live to see would nonetheless come to pass. That is what hope is, after all. I have an enduring fondness for the definition of hope used by the Rev. Jim Wallis, the Christian activist of the Sojourners community: Hope is believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change. Lunch counters would not serve these women and men, but the evidence changed; colleges would not admit them, but the evidence changed; hospitals allowed them to die untreated, but the evidence changed. Over and over and over and over, racism reared its ugly head to bitter effect, but the evidence changed.
In the political arena, the evidence changed, too, long before Barack Obama claimed his place in history. The Rev. Jesse Jackson had to precede Barack Obama; Shirley Chisholm had to precede Jesse Jackson; Frederick Douglass had to precede Shirley Chisholm. Nothing we will celebrate this week is a single act of a single great woman or a single courageous man. What we are seeing is the culmination of the work of a great cloud of witnesses, weaving forever the story of human freedom into the fabric of America, helping to heal the great and dissonant wound that lies at the heart of our nation.
So I will be there in Washington, standing in the freezing cold along with my husband and my teenage sons, who will be able to tell their children many years from now that they were there when the world—and the evidence—changed once again.
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