Amanda Gorman Made Silvester Beaman Sad, Joe Biden Happy, and John Lewis Dance

"https://youtu.be/lI1c-Lbd4Bw

The saddest person on the Inaugural stage was not Mike Pence, the outgoing Vice President. Indeed, after what he had to put up with from Trump for the last month, he’s probably relieved if not outright happy. The saddest person was not Amy Klobuchar or other presidential hopefuls who came up short during the primaries, who no doubt imagined themselves as the person taking the oath of office today. The saddest person on the stage today was the Reverend Doctor Silvester Beaman of Bethel AME Church in Wilmington, Delaware.

The happiest person on the stage was President Joe Biden, but it’s not because he was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States of America. It’s not because the inauguration went off without more violence. It’s not because he can finally *do* things to address all the problems he and we are facing, which had to have been incredibly frustrating as the transition floundered and foundered and blundered its way to today. It’s not because he accomplished what Beau wanted him to do.

The reason Beaman was so sad and Biden was so happy is this: Biden finished before Amanda Gorman spoke and Beaman had to follow her. Honestly, I half expected Beaman to step up to the microphone, ask “Can I get an Amen?”, and then drop the folder with his prepared benediction and sit down. Don’t get me wrong: Beaman’s words were good, but he had to know that he was following something epic.

When I saw Gorman come down the Capitol steps wearing her yellow power coat, her bold hoop earrings, her bright red wrap around the powerful tight braids atop her head, I just sat back and smiled. Michelle Obama looked great in her purple, but she was a member of the audience today. Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez both made their entrances before they picked up the microphone, and were fine, but Gorman owned those steps in a way that no on else did today. Seeing her enter reminded me of AOC stepping onto the House floor in her power red suit as she prepared to respond to being called a “fucking bitch” by Florida Congressman Ted Yoho. Before Gorman opened her mouth, it was clear that she had Something To Say and it was going to be good.

And make no mistake: she did, and it was.

It was incredibly powerful for three reasons. First, Gorman was unapologetically herself: young, African-American, articulate, and proud of all three. She did not cast herself as Maya Angelou or Robert Frost, two earlier inaugural poets. She spoke with the rhythms of rap that are the language of her generation and her community, embracing the whole heritage of Africans on this continent, and conscious of her power in this moment.

Second, Gorman was unflinchingly honest. She spoke of the ugliness of our history at times, at the tragedies we have been through, and the reality of what is going on right now. There were no pious platitudes to paper over the pain that far too many have had to deal with for far too long.

Most of all, Gorman was unimaginably hopeful. If she owned and possessed the four centuries of pain poured out on the Africans brought to this country in chains and their descendants who lived through slavery, official Jim Crow, and unofficial oppression, she also owned and possessed the strength that carried them through it all, forcing this country to slowly and painfully look at its past, decide to change, and actually make those changes begin to come to be.

But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
it can never be permanently defeated.
In this truth, in this faith we trust
for while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us.

This is the era of just redemption.
We feared it at its inception.
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour,
but within it, we found the power
to author a new chapter,
to offer hope and laughter
to ourselves so while once we asked,
how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?
Now we assert:
how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?

We will not march back to what was,
but move to what shall be
a country that is bruised, but whole,
benevolent, but bold,
fierce, and free.
We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation
because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation.
Our blunders become their burdens.
But one thing is certain,
if we merge mercy with might and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright.

And with these words, I thought immediately of John Lewis, the happiest person *not* on the stage today.

Gorman was not mindlessly repeating the words of an earlier generation of activists, but building on them. Just as the 23 year old John Lewis spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, so the 22 year old Amanda Gorman stood at the other end of the Mall, on the steps of the Capitol in which John Lewis served until he died, and she is taking this nation one more step forward. She isn’t asking permission to do this, or suggesting this be done. She is declaring reality: we will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation.

I am glad that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris defeated Donald Trump and Mike Pence. I am relieved that we have made it through the transition between the election and today. I am still shaken by the insurrection of January 6th and what may yet lie ahead on that front. But I am dancing in my living room right now, and am convinced that John Lewis is dancing in heaven today, because in Amanda Gorman we see that the good troublemaking goes on.

How could catastrophe possibly prevail?

And the Good Troublemaking Goes On

A Surge of Power” sculpture of Jen Reid in Bristol, UK, commemorating her stand with raised fist in place of a toppled statue of a British slave trader
[h/t Sam Saunders, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)]

I went to bed in tears last night.

They weren’t tears of pain or shock or outrage. They were the tears that college presidents cry at the retirement of the last of the teachers and professors who helped make them who they are. The tears sports figures cry at the death of the last player on their favorite great championship team. The tears you cry when the last of your grandparents “goes home.” They’re the tears of grief at the loss you’ve suffered, and the tears that say “It’s your turn now.” You have to tell the stories you learned at their knees, as you go on to make a difference in the lives of others as they made a difference in your life.

I’m still in tears this morning, because I’ve got lots of stories to tell. (That’s a hint, folks, that this might be a tad lengthy. But don’t let that deter you from reading. They’re good stories.)

As I noted in January after John Lewis announced that he had stage 4 cancer, John Lewis was not always old. He was young when he started making “good trouble” as one of the co-founders of SNCC, one of the first Freedom Riders, and one of the lead marchers on the Edmund Pettis Bridge on March 7, 1965. As the best storyteller at the Root, Michael Harriot, spelled out in a Twitter thread, this was a march with a purpose:

The Selma to Montgomery march wasn’t a symbolic demonstration. It wasn’t even an original idea. See, black ppl all over Ala. were attacked when they tried to register to vote. So local organizers would get large groups of people to march to their respective courthouses.

That’s how those marches started. They weren’t protesting. They were GOING TO REGISTER. And they figured: “If we’re in a group, they can’t beat us all.” But y’all know white people. They will definitely try their best. I think they call it “American exceptionalism.”

They were headed to Montgomery to confront the governor in person and demand their right to vote when Bloody Sunday happened. But here’s the part about the Selma to Montgomery marches most people are never told: It was NOT nonviolent.

Let me spell it out: the Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr, John Lewis, and others, was only non-violent from the perspective of the how those in the movement acted. On Bloody Sunday, Lewis and his fellow marchers may have acted non-violently, but Sheriff Clark and his fellow police most certainly did not.

It’s hard to type that without noticing the other big story in today’s news cycle, which puts the coverage of John Lewis’ life alongside this:

“What is happening now in Portland should concern everyone in the United States,” said Jann Carson, the interim executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon. “Usually when we see people in unmarked cars forcibly grab someone off the street, we call it kidnapping. The actions of the militarized federal officers are flat-out unconstitutional and will not go unanswered.”

The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Oregon on Friday also sued the Department of Homeland Security and the Marshal’s Service for “indiscriminately using tear gas, rubber bullets and acoustic weapons.”

One demonstrator, Mark Pettibone, 29, said agents who were in camouflage but lacked any insignia forced him into an unmarked van and did not tell him why he was being arrested. Deploying agents without any identification violates the protocols of police departments across the United States.

Mark Morgan, the acting secretary of Customs and Border Protection, said the agents did display signs that they were federal agents but withheld their names for their own safety.

You know what would keep these federal agents safe? Staying out of Portland in the first place. From the Oregonian, here’s more of the news from Portland:

During a news conference Friday with Police Chief Chuck Lovell, [Portland Mayor Ted] Wheeler said the city has no oversight authority on federal officers during downtown demonstrations. He reiterated that Portland officials didn’t ask for federal officers to be deployed and said local officers can end any violence that occurs on the streets without federal help.

“Mr. President, we see right through you,” Wheeler said. “So do us a favor: Keep your troops in your own buildings or have them leave our city.”

[snip]

U.S. District Judge Michael Simon on Friday granted the oregnization’s [sic] request to add the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Marshals Service to a temporary restraining order preventing police from dispersing, arresting or targeting journalists or legal observers at protests.

Meanwhile, the president and Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf have blamed state and city leaders for not doing enough to end violence that occurs during protests in Portland and in recent days have doubled down on their plans to keep federal officers on Portland streets.

[snip]

Lovell said although the police bureau’s main headquarters are sandwiched between the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse and the Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building, Portland police and federal officers have operated separately. He did say both jurisdictions do communicate with one another and know when the other engages in some form of action during demonstrations.

Lovell and Wheeler said they didn’t meet with Wolf while he was in Portland, but the police chief later said police union president Officer Daryl Turner did.

Of course he did. It seems police union leaders are following the lead of Catholic bishops like Boston’s former Cardinal Bernard Law, who would rather cover up violent abuse by officials in their organizations than address the actual problem itself.

James Gardner Clark, Jr. may be dead, but his spirit carries on. Unfortunately for Sheriff Clark, so does John Lewis’, and it’s a helluva lot stronger.

Now-Senator Doug Jones (D-Alabama) was the local prosecutor in 2002 (!) who finally convicted the last of the Klan members who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 (!!!), killing 14-year-old Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson and 11-year-old Denise McNair in the basement of the church as they awaited the start of worship. Doug Jones is not dead, and he’s still making good trouble.

[Note to Alabamans: If you want to make some good trouble yourself, voting to keep Doug Jones in the US Senate in November’s election would be a very good way to do it.]

But let’s get local. Last month here in metro Kansas City, students at a local school district made a bunch of school board members, administrators, and teachers in their school district very nervous as they responded to a simple call in a single tweet, put out because of some tone-deaf statements made by those same board members at the BLM protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minnesota:

Maryam Khalil @maryamkhaliki01 Jun 4

Okay LSR7 let’s talk about the racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, classism, homophobia, sexism and blantant [sic] prejudice etc we have experienced. I’ll start. #OurstruggleLSR7 (use this hashtag)

She did, and her classmates responded. They said out loud what they had experienced, and forced school and community leaders to admit to the reality of racism in their midst, and its impact on the student they claim to value so much. Even more powerfully, students in other local districts in the area picked up on the hashtag and started their own, to tell the stories of their own districts.

Some teachers and administrators reacted defensively, and others were noticeably silent. But then there were those who were not only shocked, but glad to be shocked so that change might happen. All across metro Kansas City, young people forced adults to own their actions, or more critically, their inactions, by telling stories like these (from the KC Star):

In Lee’s Summit, more than 100 students, teachers and residents gathered for a rally at the administration building, saying they were “fed up” with as lack of response to complaints of racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia.

The chanting quieted as Yonny Astatke, a 2019 graduate, shared the racism and fear he faced during his days in the district.

He was a sophomore at Lee’s Summit High School when he posted his political viewpoints on social media. Another student replied with a threat of violence: “Black Knives Matter.”

“I was terrified,” he told the crowd. He reported the incident to school leaders. “They made me shake his hand. They made me shake the hand of the person who threatened violence toward me,” he yelled through a megaphone. “I complied because I was afraid. I am vehemently frustrated with our school district.”

[snip]

In Blue Springs this month, students created the hashtag #BlackatBSSD on Twitter and posted about their experiences: Many have been called the N-word. One said a white classmate told him he wouldn’t mind dating a Black girl but wouldn’t marry one.

“That is why we are taking action,” a Blue Springs statement said. “We are reviewing and changing policies, addressing teachers with violations, creating an anti-racism campaign and so much more.”

[snip]

The Black Student Union at Blue Valley Northwest High School in Overland Park, organized a demonstration last week as well. Parents and students said they faced discrimination in the district, or pointed to a lawsuit filed last year in which a Black student said she was told that her skin was “too dark” to perform with the school dance team. She sued the district for racial discrimination. The dance team’s coach, Carley Fine, was fired.

[snip]

“They don’t feel seen,” [Shawnee Mission school psychologist Brandi] Newry said. “They don’t feel respected. There are Black children in a building where there is no one, no one, who looks like them. It just about makes me cry.”

These kids made good trouble last month, just by recounting what they had had to deal with. They made lots and lots of good trouble. [Edited to add: These kids also did more than just talk. They put together a list of changes they want the district to make in terms of teachers, administrators, and curriculum, and submitted these to the school board at the same meeting the first African American was seated as a member of the school board.]

I wonder what lies ahead for these students. What will the reactions be when they come back to school (in person or virtually) and have to deal with these teachers and administrators again? What will they do as they go to college or enter the workforce, and face racism in other settings?

And which one of them will end up making good trouble as a member of Congress?

Rest in peace, my brother John — your good troublemaking goes on.

image_print