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2009-01-21

Novelist Alice Walker and Activist Grace Lee Boggs React to Obama’s Inauguration

Guests

Alice Walker, Pulitzer-winning author of The Color Purple.

Grace Lee Boggs, 93-year-old civil rights and environmental justice activist. She has lived in Detroit for fifty-four years and writes for the weekly Michigan Citizen. In 1992, she co-founded the Detroit Summer youth program, and her autobiography Living for Change was published in 1998.

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The Color Purple author Alice Walker shares a poem she wrote to mark the inauguration. And she speaks with legendary 93-year-old civil rights activist and philosopher Grace Lee Boggs. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Moments after President Obama gave his inaugural address, the poet Elizabeth Alexander took the stage to read her poem “Praise Song for the Day: A Poem for Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration.” Alexander is incoming chair of Yale University’s African American Studies Department.

    ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: “Praise Song for the Day.”

    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 highways that 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.

AMY GOODMAN: Poet Elizabeth Alexander, reading her poem "Praise Song for the Day" on Inauguration Day at the ceremony.

On Tuesday, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and poet Alice Walker joined me to co-host Democracy Now!’s special inaugural coverage. Associated Press had asked Alice Walker for an inaugural poem. She read it on our broadcast. She calls it "The World Has Changed."

    ALICE WALKER: A poem honoring the people who don’t believe this is happening. I wanted to write a poem for the people who are still saying, “Oh, no, this can’t happen,” you know, because all along the line of this struggle to get Barack Obama to the White House, people feared that something awful would happen to him, and so many people hold so many angers and pains that they just can’t believe today. So this is a poem for the people who basically don’t believe that it’s happening. It’s called "The World Has Changed."

    The World Has Changed:
    Wake up & smell
    The possibility.
    The world
    Has changed:
    It did not
    Change
    Without
    Your prayers
    Without
    Your faith
    Without
    Your determination
    To
    Believe
    In liberation
    &
    Kindness;
    Without
    Your
    Dancing
    Through the years
    That
    Had
    No
    Beat.
    The world has changed:
    It did not
    Change
    Without
    Your
    Numbers
    Your
    Fierce
    Love
    Of self
    &
    Cosmos
    It did not
    Change
    Without
    Your
    Strength.
    The world has
    Changed:
    Wake up!
    Give yourself
    The gift
    Of a new
    Day.
    The world has changed:
    This does not mean that
    You were never
    Hurt.
    The world
    Has changed:
    Rise!
    Yes
    &
    Shine!
    Resist the siren
    Call
    Of
    Disbelief.
    The world has changed:
    Don’t let
    Yourself
    Remain
    Asleep
    To
    It.

AMY GOODMAN: Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, reading her poem "The World Has Changed." Alice Walker co-hosted Democracy Now!’s Inauguration Day special. You can go to our website to see the full three hours.

During that broadcast, we called the legendary activist, ninety-three-year-old philosopher, activist, Grace Lee Boggs, to comment on this historic day. We reached her at her home in Detroit.

    GRACE LEE BOGGS: My eyes and ears have been glued to the campaign all these last couple years. And so, this is a kind of culmination, and I was very conscious of the differences and the complexity of the occasion. I think there was a great unity of joy and rejoicing in among the millions of people who were listening and there. I mean, it was an enduring [inaudible], of cold, the standing and all that sort of thing.

    But I was very struck by the grimness of Obama’s face as he walked onto his seat. It was very different from the kind of joy that you could feel in the audience and that he has, in us all, hope and, you know, a sense of possibility that had adhered all through the campaign and had really galvanized the audiences and people all over the country during the campaign.

    And his speech also, I thought, was — invoked leaders, that he felt compelled, becoming a president, to invoke George Washington and the folks of the past, and how different it was from [Elizabeth] Alexander’s poem that talked more of love and turning to one another, and Reverend Lowery’s closing, which invoked Woody Guthrie and scenes from the path of struggling joy and hope.

    And I think it — I felt that it was a reflection of the — almost of the difficulties, the complexities, the constraints of the Oval Office, that he is now commander-in-chief of the US Army, and he has to talk about war. He didn’t talk about the understanding that we need across — around the world. He talked about growth and leadership, an American leadership. But he didn’t have, it seemed to me, the opportunity that we have, that are not in the presidency, to create a new future.

    So, what do you think?

    AMY GOODMAN: Alice Walker?

    ALICE WALKER: Well, I can hear what you’re saying, and I am also somewhat concerned and troubled at the weight of the responsibility that he must be feeling, because now, after all, here he is, the President, and his word will have so much clout in the world. So I feel for him. I think that there should be some way that ordinary citizens could really show an understanding of what we are asking of this family. We’re asking a lot. And no doubt, this is some of what has to be going through his mind as he takes on this office of President of the United States at a time when everything is falling apart.

    GRACE LEE BOGGS: Alice, you know, I’m so glad to hear you say that.

    I’m not sure that I hear you. Do you hear me?

    ALICE WALKER: I hear you just fine, yes.

    AMY GOODMAN: Yes, we hear you fine, Grace Lee Boggs.

    ALICE WALKER: Yes.

    GRACE LEE BOGGS: You know, I’m thinking about him and about us a great deal, and I’m wondering how it is that we begin to — I mean, to give him what he needs. And I’m thinking about Martin Luther King and the last three years of his life and the kinds of struggles that he had to carry on in order to understand the challenges facing us. And he arrived at a point where, after very great internal struggles, he felt that the next step beyond the civil rights and the Black Power movement were engaging young people in self-transforming and structure-transforming enterprises and activities in their community. And I felt that the Obama — President-elect Obama, in calling upon people to do a volunteer day of service on Martin Luther King Day this year was trying to approach that. But I think we need to deepen service to understand what King was putting forward, that is, building community or chaos. And that’s building community, day in and day out, and year in and year out, and for decades, that we have to begin doing, and that that is the greatest support that we can give to Obama and to help him in this — it’s almost like a trap of the Oval Office, I feel, he’s in.

    ALICE WALKER: Yes, exactly. One of the things I love about him is that — and I hear this in every speech — I see that he looks at us as a people, as a collective — actually, as a world. And he sees the best of us. He sees the best, you know, that we have in us, the possibility. And I think, in some kind of magical way, we have to reflect that best that he sees in us back to him constantly, so that he will always live up to the best that he has in himself. Then I think we will feel much safer, even though he’s surrounded by people who are used to war, have made their life — livings by war. Then I think, you know, we will feel that we have someone who not only sees us, but we see them, and it’s interactive. We will be interactive with our leader, and that’s really important, because when we become disconnected from the people who are in charge, we just have disaster following disaster.

    GRACE LEE BOGGS: But I think that — I hear what you say, Alice, and yet I wonder if we — you know, one of the difficulties when you’re coming out of oppression and out of a bitter past is that you get a concept of the messiah, and you expect too much from your leaders. And I think we have to get to that point, if you know — that you’ve been making, that we are the leaders we’ve been looking for.

    ALICE WALKER: Exactly. I think that’s right. In fact, I have come up with a new slogan, which is, “Yo, we elect” —-

    GRACE LEE BOGGS: Absolutely. [inaudible] the people and -—

    ALICE WALKER: We elect —-

    GRACE LEE BOGGS: We need also a new interaction among ourselves. We have to replace that vertical relationship with a horizontal one.

    AMY GOODMAN: Grace Lee Boggs, you have lived and organized and been a part of so many movements. Do you see the movement now with Obama in office stronger or less strong than ever?

    GRACE LEE BOGGS: I think it’s more strong. I think it’s stronger than ever, because, in a sense, we have the ’60s to look back on and the contradictions in the ’60s to explore, to analyze and also to go beyond. I think we are now in a very incredible stage of the evolution of the human race through the struggles that we’re carrying on. I think we have to see it in that very long historical perspective, that evolution is not only the evolution anatomically of opposable thumbs and becoming erect, but it’s of our greater sense of our humanity and who we are and what it means to be human. And I think we have the opportunity to move forward in that direction, but it requires understanding how profound this period is, how profound a transition we’re in.

    I mean, the pageantry tends to -— you know, as I listened to the speeches, I knew — like as Dianne Feinstein said, we have to look at the ceremony in light of electoral politics. But I think also of how we look at the electoral politics of Gaza, so that when the people freely elect Hamas, we disregard it. I mean, there are so many contradictions. Yet, if we explore these profoundly enough and see who — and look at the evolution of the human race and what revolution really means — a great leap forward in this evolution — that we can come out of this in a very much greater place, not in the place of [inaudible] the world, as Obama’s new place [inaudible], but in terms of how you create partnership and a new kind of global citizenship.

AMY GOODMAN: Longtime activist, Grace Lee Boggs, ninety-three years old, speaking from her home in Detroit, Michigan, along with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, who co-hosted our three-hour inaugural special here in Washington, D.C., “War, Peace and the Presidency.” Again, you can go to our website at democracynow.org for the full three hours.

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