Sunday, December 1, 2013

Keeping Our Seats and Our Eyes on the Prize

On this day in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger. This act is often given credit for launching the Civil Rights Movement, but what many forget is that various communities had begun planning for the launch, even before they could see or know what it would look like.

In fact, for generations, people had prepared for just such a moment. They had gotten training in nonviolent resistance. They had come together in community in a variety of ways. They were prepared.

Someone asked me once how I had come to be such an optimist. I've always had an optimistic streak, but frankly, my whole world view shifted when I watched Nelson Mandela walk out of prison. I fully expected him to be killed, but again, my worldview shifted when I watched South Africans stand in line for days (days!) to elect him president. And he was ready to be president because he had spent those decades in prison thinking about how he would run the country and making plans.

I have seen enormous social change happen in my lifetime--in the face of such evidence, I must agree with Dr. Martin Luther King, who said the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.

Today is also World Aids Day, a somber day that recognizes that this plague has been one of the most destructive diseases in human history. We don't have a cure, although we do drugs that make the disease manageable. We don't have a vaccine. Happily, so far, the disease is fairly preventable. Imagine how this disease would shape us if it was airborne, not blood born.

Those of us who work towards social justice and human dignity for all know how long the struggle might be. We are similar to those medieval builders of cathedral: we may not be around to see the magnificent completion of our vision, but it's important to play our part. In the words of that old Gospel song, we keep our eyes on the prize, our hands on the plow, and hold on.

The same is true in many arenas. Think of our lives as artists: we write poems, not yet knowing how they will work together in a collection. We publish our early poems, even though they may embarrass us later. We hold before us the vision of poets from past generations, hoping that we can rise to their power.

I look at my collection of poems and realize I haven't written many poems that deal specifically with AIDS, although it's a disease that's shaped and haunted me.  Here's my favorite.  It was published in The South Carolina Review:

Lying in State

On the day that Ronald Reagan dies,
in the shadow of the Interstate, I offer
a homeless man a loaf of banana bread
which he grabs, as if afraid
I’ll rescind my offer.

Reagan’s body flies across the continent
to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda,
that branch of government which made policies
he tried to evade.
I report to work, teach English to the children
of families who fled Reagan’s foreign
policies, Cold War containment and interference.

On the day of Reagan’s funeral, I plant
a tree and remember his claim
that creatures of this leafy clan cause pollution.
I think of ICBMs fertilizing far away fields
and Adam dead of AIDS these twenty years,
his bones blending into the earth.

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