(Note: Every Tuesday I write a piece for what I call “Tuesday Meditations” and send them out to those who want to receive them. In light of the brilliant performance of poet Amanda Gorman today at the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, I thought I would share this meditation on my blog because it was an interview of Gorman I heard a couple of days ago that inspired this meditation. I hope you enjoy it.)
Poet Amanda Gorman, national youth poet laureate who will read one of her poems at the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, remembers that Thomas Jefferson wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia that black people could not be poets. Miffed that Phillis Wheatley, a Black woman, was earning high praise for her poems, Jefferson expanded his beliefs about the capabilities of Black people, writing,”Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar oestrum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion, indeed, has produced a Phillis Wheatley [sic]; but it could not produce a poet” (p. 44).
Gorman’s description of how Jefferson tried to erase Wheatley as both a poet and a woman, hit a nerve. Is that what Black people and other oppressed people have been fighting? Their being erased as human beings, first, and secondly as human beings with worth, talent, and gifts?
If one feels erased long enough, one begins to buy into the narrative. Little Black children, who are as excited as is any white child to start school, learn quickly, in far too many schools, that their school buildings are in bad shape, with broken windows which go unfixed, no heat in the winter, and no air conditioning in the summer. They see torn and tattered books and too often have teachers who do not believe in them and who are in fact their teachers only because someone assigned them to this building and to these children as a sort of punishment.
Do the children feel…erased?
I was working in Texas when I decided to go to divinity school. When I got accepted, I told the publisher, as well as the editor of the paper and the city/metropolitan editor, because my acceptance meant I would be leaving the newspaper in a month.
A little later that day, the publisher came out of his office and asked me, as I sat at my desk in the newsroom, to what school would I be going. When I told him Yale Divinity School, he laughed out loud and said out loud, “Oh come on! You’re not smart enough to go to Yale! What was your GPA?
While I was taken with his reaction, I was not surprised. I was troubled. I was angry at his arrogance. And I think I was embarrassed. It seemed like all of the reporters stopped writing for a moment, in spite of us all having to meet the deadline for our articles. They stopped. Some turned around to look at me. Others acted like they didn’t know what was going on or what had been said. But they knew.
I felt a number of different emotions that I can remember. I realized that my worth as a writer was obviously not much to this man (though my work won high praise from my readers). Likewise, I realized that my worth as a woman, as a Black woman, and as a Black woman with talent and intelligence was very low. I was a body that wrote articles that helped get information to people. Period. I was an object.
But as I look back, maybe I felt erased as well. I had been a fearless reporter for that paper, walking the streets at night in the city’s red district to talk to prostitutes and find out why they ended up on the streets and walking those same streets during the day with Curtis Sliwa, the founder of the Guardian Angels, to find out why he did what he did. I interviewed Mikhail Baryshnikov and was allowed to cover sports because I loved sports so much. I managed to get interviews with Doug Williams and did the first interview (I was told) of Patrick Ewing.
I thought I had worth – until this man erased me like I was a word spelled wrong on a chalkboard. I could not put a name on that emotion until I heard Amanda Gorman’s words and read her poem.
In spite of getting erased through discrimination on the job, at school, or in life in general, Black people seem to have an ever-ready piece of chalk, something, that is taken out to redraw and reclaim ourselves. We refuse to be silenced, and we fight being erased, but as long as white supremacy exists, that fight will continue.
The psalmist wrote in Psalm 73 “Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped.” We fight our feet slipping from under us as we are erased on so many levels, in so many ways. We are, however, aligned with and connected to a God who is able to keep us from falling, or, when we do fall, is able to stand us back up and demand that we redraw the lines of our beings, once again claiming who it is God made us to be.
When we know who we are and Whose we are, we refuse to be erased,or to remain erased, no matter how many times it is done.
And we will continue to keep the chalk of mercy, grace, and truth in our pockets. We cannot and will not let anyone have that kind of power over us.
A candid observation …