Elizabeth Alexander, an African-American poet and artist, was asked by Barak Obama to compose and read a poem at his inauguration back in 2009. She followed a West African poetry tradition called “praise song” form. She called the poem Praise Song for the Day. This is it:
Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.
All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.
Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.
Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.
A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.
We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.
We cross dirt roads and highwaysthat mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.
I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.
Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,
picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.
Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.
Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?
Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.
In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,
praise song for walking forward in that light.
Copyright © 2009 by Elizabeth Alexander. All rights reserved. Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, Minnesota.
I recently read a reference to Elizabeth and her poem. Those of us of a certain age who are also political watchers will remember that inauguration in 2009—hard to believe it’s 11 years ago now; I remember the blessing, too, by the Minister rhyming about different colours coming together as one.
Maybe it was the reference to love at the end of the poem and the idea of walking in that light that stuck with me. Maybe it felt a bit like Paul in the marketplace in Athens making a case for God and Jesus, inviting people to consider the gift of love and the transformative experience of Jesus and the resurrection. Maybe the poem resonates with John the Gospel-writer, too, with his co-mingling of the divine and the created world, about living more fully the gift of love. As God is in us, so we are in each other when we speak and live from a place of love.
I liked Elizabeth’s reference to words… “we encounter each other in words,” she said. She’s realistic enough to know that words can be shiny and spiky. We’re beginning to hear some spiky words in this time of Pandemic. There are conservative churches in California who don’t care about what the governor says, they’re opening at the end of May. People are engaging in debates by attacking the character of others. People are inventing stories and then planting them on the internet as if they were fact. Some tech companies, building on the increased use of technology these past few months, want to leverage that into greater mainstream participation in human life and boost their profit lines; Naomi Klein wrote a piece in The Guardian about the governor of New York working with the former head of Google, Eric Schmidt, on “permanently integrating technology into every aspect of civic life.”
In writing her poem, Elizabeth talked about the importance of love in whatever religious tradition we find meaningful. And that leads to her last line about walking in that light. We walk in the light of love. What she was envisioning then in 2009, and what many of us are envisioning now in light of COVID-19, is kind of like a Great Awakening. It is time for us to be united as human beings to take care of each other better than we have in history, and especially the most vulnerable among us. It’s not a time for tech companies to exploit the fear that many are feeling. It’s not time for countries to employ power-over tactics in taking away human rights. It’s not a time to provide health resources only for those deemed to be acceptable and part of the in-crowd. It’s a time for an awakening to a new beginning where love is the guiding principle, where what we value is life itself—all life.
Jesus, through John, talked about the Paraclete being present to us as well as in us. The Paraclete, a technical term, is hard to define; it means Holy Spirit but so much more. It means helper, comforter, and advocate. Originally in the Greek tradition, a paraclete was someone who advocated on our behalf in court. The Paraclete, the Spirit, dwells in us and lifts us into the light to live fully the gift of love.
It’s interesting that Jesus links love and obedience in John’s Gospel. Love isn’t a feeling for Jesus; it is a conscious choice to consider another’s welfare and wellbeing. Love is to be there for others, to act for their benefit, to act for the benefit of a stranger even if it costs us something. That’s the unsentimental power of love, the ethic of choosing what is best for the world. Before crossing the Jordan at the end of the Exodus, Moses invited the Israelites to choose life. Jesus invites us to choose life also but invites us to love fully also—all in—for the welfare of all life. That’s the challenge of this COVID-19 world, we are called to be all-in with love for our human kin, AND to be all-in for love for all life. Full-stop.
 See Naomi Klein’s article at https://www.theguardian.com/news/2020/may/13/naomi-klein-how-big-tech-plans-to-profit-from-coronavirus-pandemic.
 See an interview with Elizabeth Alexander at https://faithandleadership.com/elizabeth-alexander-%E2%80%98i-wanted-talk-about-love%E2%80%99?utm_source=ni_newsletter&utm_medium=content&utm_campaign=ni_feature.