Did anyone notice who carried the day in that stirring and soulful Inauguration? There was Amanda Gorman, speaking with the body, voice and mind the words that soothed our troubled soul and awakened our determined spirits. Wise beyond her years at 22 years old. There was Kamala Harris representing the long-deferred dream of women finally given a voice high in the halls of power so that the dream doesn’t fester, crust over or explode, but can say its piece in measured speech. There was firefighter Andrea Hall who spoke and signed the Pledge of Allegiance in a way that made clear: “I said it, I meant it, I’m here to represent it!”
The night before the Inauguration, at the much overdue and sorely needed memorial for the 400,000 Americans who have died from Covid, the necessarily sparse words and eloquent silence were given yet fuller voice by nurse Lorie Marie Key singing Amazing Grace and Yolanda Adams singing Hallelujah. I believe those heartfelt and heart-sung notes helped carry the ungrieved dead to the ancestral lands where their loved ones awaited them.
The “Celebrate America” event after the Inauguration had its own happy blend of music, poetry, appreciations (including a brief shot of an Orff xylophone in the part honoring teachers!!), but for me the highlight was watching the two women on the side signing the words of the songs. They were dancin’!!! Never have seen such infectiously joyful interpretations in sign language and in case, you missed it, go back and check it out. The facial expressions and whole body amplifying further what the hands had to say.
All those folks mentioned above had one thing in common. They were black women. I, for one, would like to physically and metaphorically get down on my knees and thank black women for being the carriers of true democracy in this land. The white Founding Fathers planted the seed of the idea and ideals of democracy, but I nominate American black women as the ones who actually birthed that baby and raised it. Carried it in their bodies, endured the agonizing labor of giving birth, swaddled and held and breast-fed that baby, changed its diapers, helped it learn how to walk and talk, organized the doctor visits and drove it to soccer practice, helped it with its homework, taught it how to be fair and kind and clean its own room, how to work hard and persevere, soothed its scraped knees and got it up and back on the bike. While they did the day-to-day work of giving body and soul of airy ideals, the fathers sat in their good-ole-boys club smoking cigars and making up laws to keep democracy the small province of gentlemen who owned land.
What makes this yet more extraordinary is that these black women began their tenure torn from their homeland, stuffed down into the dark holds of ships, unloaded like cargo, taken away from their families, bought and sold, beaten and raped, made to work sun-up to sun-down in scorched cotton fields or in the house taking care of the slave-masters’ children. All while these propertied “gentlemen” sat on their porch sipping mint juleps and talked about the honor of the South.
So join with me in honoring the true carriers of democracy, from the founding moment to yesterday’s inauguration. Speak their names out loud like the long beautiful poem they are— Phillis Wheatley. Harriet Tubman. Sojourner Truth. Ida B. Wells. Rosa Parks. Fannie Lou Hamer. Shirley Chisholm. Angela Davis. Michelle Obama, Susan Rice, Alicia Garza/ Patrice Cullors/ Opel Tometi, Michelle Alexander, Isabel Wilkerson, Stacey Abrams, Kamala Harris. Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks, Oprah Winfrey, Nikki Giovanni. Norma Miller. Pearl Primus. Katherine Dunham. Bessie Smith. Ella Fitzgerald. Billie Holiday. Sarah Vaughan. Marian Anderson. Mary Lou Williams. Hazel Scott. Mahalia Jackson. Big Mama Thornton.Nina Simone. Carmen Macrae. Nancy Wilson. Natalie Cole. Dionne Warwick. Gladys Knight. Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin—and so many more.
And next time you pass a black woman on the street, take a moment to thank her. And then get to work and follow their example. And yes, I'm talking to you (us), white men!