Monday, January 19, 2009

Today and Tomorrow

[video: creepiest yet catchiest MLK tribute known]
by J J Cohen

Eileen writes of time travel, and many of us feel like we are witnessing the touching of times decades removed. Martin Luther King's March on Washington of 1963 brushes against a gathering on the Mall in 2009. The sorrow born of a gunshot in 1968 curves into the hope of what comes tomorrow.

These commingled temporalities have their architecture in which to cohabit, and (in case you have not been watching TV, surfing the web, or reading the newspaper) that structure is the Lincoln Memorial. I've always felt an attachment to Washington's monuments, especially the Lincoln. Among the more vivid memories of my childhood is the remembrance of ascending its steep steps on a warm night, fireflies in the trees and gold light on the marble. My dad was a government worker whose business brought him to DC a few times a year. In the summer we'd make a family vacation of it, visiting the sites on days when the heat was almost unbearable. But there was something almost holy about seeing the monuments after sunset, when floodlights drench their white stone in light. A quiet that the day cannot possess descends.

The Lincoln Memorial is twenty minute's walk from my office at GW. Sometimes I've wandered from Foggy Bottom just to stare, or to read the words inscribed on its interior walls. That American acropolis is the closest thing I have to a church. I was among a generation of school children who studied Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech as if it were scripture. Lately some other words of King's have been going through my mind, words he delivered just before his death:
We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man.
Those declarations send a chill through me every time I read or hear them. Is it too much to say that it feels like the promise they describe is being realized, at least in part? Watching Barack Obama and his family serenaded on the steps of the monument yesterday, the statue of Lincoln towering behind them, made me feel so.

My son Alex and I spent this morning strolling Friendship Heights, the area of of DC very close to our house. We were gathering some last minute items that we'll need for tomorrow's big event: some snacks, warmer hats (when I tried one that I liked, Alex told me I was humiliating him, contemplating headgear more appropriate to a teenager, good god, how can someone so old even think about that?!), an extra Metro card, some cash. A motorcade perhaps thirty police cars long whizzed along Wisconsin Avenue. Tour buses filled with out-of-towners pulled up to restaurants where rooms are set aside to feed group after group of 30-50. The sidewalks were filled with residents and visitors, most of them (I imagine) thinking about the change in governmental power tomorrow, happy simply to be here as it unfolds. I don't think I've ever walked among such an elated collation of strangers.

So, for MLK and inauguration day, two pieces of writing. The first is an excerpt from the "I Have a Dream" speech delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. The second is a poem composed by the National Poet of Wales, Gillian Clarke, to honor the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States. Enjoy ... and happy MLK and Inauguration days to you, no matter where you live.


Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."2

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.


New Year, 2009

Venus in the arc of the young moon
is a boat the arms of a bay,
the sky clear to infinity
but for the trailing gossamer
of a transatlantic plane.

The old year and the old era dead,
pushed burning out to sea
bearing the bones of heroes, tyrants,
ideologues, thieves and deceivers
in a smoke of burning money.

The dream is over. Glaciers will melt.
Seas will rise to swallow golden islands.
Somewhere a volcano may whelm a city,
earth shake its skin like an old horse,
a hurricane topple a town to rubble.

Yet tonight, under the cold beauty
of the moon and Venus, something like hope begins,
as if times can turn, the world change course,
as if truth can speak, good men come to power,
and words have meaning again.

Maybe black-hearted boys in love with death
won’t blow themselves and us to smithereens.
Maybe guns will fall silent, the powerful
cease slaughtering the weak, the rich
will not gorge as the poor starve.

Hope spoke the word ‘Yes’, the word ‘we’, the word ’can’,
and a thousand British teenagers at Poetry Live
rose to their feet in a single yell of joy –
black, white, Christian, Muslim, Jew,
faithful and faithless. We are all in this together.
Ie. gallwn ni.*

*[Welsh, "Yes, we can"]


prehensel said...

Powerful post, JJC. I have also been struck by the Lincoln Mermorial--since my 8th-grade class tip there. But I have thought about ti even more so after someone on CNN (I think it was Gergen) noted that there's the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, and he stressed the difference in the names.

I found it fascinating that Washington has become static, monumentalized in his and our pasts. He is what we decided he was and hasn't really changed. He's become sort of a symbol for a set of amorphous, sacred ideas that are rarely questioned, and therefore rarely acknowledged in any significant way.

Lincoln, on the other hand, is memorialized: we are keeping his memory alive that way, so (and this is what Obama understands so well) he becomes a still-living, still-a/effective symbol. He's put to work by both Republicans and Democrats because what he's come to represent for us are issues that have not yet been seized by the rusts of dogma.

I find that fascinating and comforting at the same time.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for that, Prehensel: I thought about your comment this morning, as I sat with my son on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and we gazed at the Washington Monument.

I'm just back from the Inauguration, and I have to say it was great: so much joy, so much optimism, so much hope. I froze but it was SO worth it.