America 2008 by Ananda Leeke
(an excerpt from That Which Awakens Me: A Woman's Poetic Memoir)
Copyright 2008 by Madelyn C. Leeke.
My fingers are typing rapidly. They are trying to capture and transform the thoughts in my head into sentences that make sense and hopefully offer insight to those that read them as Otis Redding sings: “It’s been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come. Yes it is.” His soulful voice echoes what America knows and hides from all at the same time: a message of truth and hope that I believe Senator Barack Obama was born to lead. Barack’s presidential campaign has raised many issues in the lives of Americans. It has revealed the way America understands, manages, and values race and gender. Our dirty laundry has been brought out into the open for the world to see. Many folks don’t like looking at it. Some deny its existence, but the change that Otis sings about and Barack offers as a leader is here and happening now. Folks from various walks of life are actively engaged in dialogue that questions racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and so much more. The volume is getting louder every day. It is getting difficult for us to ignore. Diverse communities are coming together. They are recognizing that they can’t go it alone. Unity is spreading. The energy and power of citizens making their country their own is manifesting faster than we all can see.
All Souls Unitarian Church, my spiritual community in Washington, DC, represents that energy and power to me. Each Sunday I walk up 16th Street to gather with a group of progressive people from all walks of life who are committed to honoring the divine spark within, valuing the worth and dignity of all, appreciating diverse spiritual paths, building community, honoring Mother Earth by going green, and expressing their faith through acts of justice and compassion. I make the walk each week because All Souls has become my sanctuary that offers me refuge, a balm in my own Gilead.
This past Sunday I was feeling a little out of sorts due to the increased political drama from the campaign efforts of Senator John McCain and Governor Sarah Palin. My soul needed a message of hope. So I walked up 16th Street to All Souls to hear Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Associate Professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton University and author of Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought, speak about race, gender, and the future of America. The All Souls Choir opened the service with a spirit-filled rendition of the Negro spiritual, Wade in the Water. Reverend Rob Hardies offered the morning prayer by inviting us all to wade in the water of race, gender, and politics in America. I accepted Rob’s invitation and opened my heart to Melissa’s message.
Before Melissa spoke, the worship associate Gregory Ford introduced her. That’s when I learned that she grew up as a Unitarian and is currently a student at Union Theological Seminary while raising her daughter Parker as a single parent and writing Sister Citizen: A Text For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Politics When Being Strong Wasn’t Enough. What a dynamic woman! As she approached the podium, I noticed her hot pink fuchsia sheath reminiscent of Michelle Obama’s classic style and matching high-heeled sling back sandals that would make any fashionista smile from cheek to cheek. Silver hoop earrings decorated her ears. Her braided hair was pulled back into a simple, elegant ponytail. It made it easier for us to see her facial expressions as she shared her thoughts.
Melissa began her talk with a greeting that ended with two familiar words: Amen and Ase. They are the same ones that I use to end my prayers. When she introduced the text, Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct, that she was preaching from, the congregation’s laughter applauded her efforts to keep her message real and close to her heart as a mother of a six year old. She confessed that while she was reading the book to her daughter during her first year of seminary, it taught her the importance of balancing rationality and faith, and having someone listen to us. So I opened my ears wider to listen.
Melissa informed our congregation that Edwina was a dinosaur who played with the children, did favors for anyone who asked, and baked chocolate cookies for everyone in her town. Everyone knew and loved her except Reginald Von Hoobie-Doobie. One day he gave a lecture about dinosaurs being extinct. The town members attended, but failed to pay attention to him. Reginald became upset and cried out that no one would listen. Edwina heard him and agreed to listen. Reginald was so excited as he gave his speech. After listening to his speech, Edwina was convinced that dinosaurs were extinct, but she didn’t care. Reginald was so happy to have someone listen to him that he no longer cared either. They ended up eating some of Edwina’s chocolate chip cookies together.
Melissa used Edwina’s extinct dinosaur story as a metaphorical refrain in her efforts to illustrate how Black women are extinct dinosaurs with no value in modern day democracy. She began by sharing the story of Eliza Galley, a free Black woman who was a financially independent property owner living in Virginia during the 1850s. Eliza was arrested for allegedly stealing cabbages. She hired good attorneys to represent her in court. Unfortunately, a white male confederate judicial system found her guilty. Eliza was whipped publicly. After Melissa finished telling Eliza’s story, she chanted a mantra: Dinosaurs are extinct. Democracy is dead. There is no benevolent spirit of life that hears our prayers.
Melissa continued her talk with reminders about Hurricane Katrina and the images of Black women and their children that were used to illustrate the fact that the U.S. government turned its back on Black people. She made us aware of the shocking statistics regarding Black women’s health, housing, economics, and safety. She paid homage to Black women who were heroines in the anti-slavery and civil rights movements: Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Ella Baker, an 83 year old woman who was a critical element of change in the NAACP, SCLC, and other organizations. After each statement of fact, Melissa repeated her mantra: Dinosaurs are extinct. Democracy is dead. There is no benevolent spirit of life that hears our prayers.
Suddenly Melissa’s talk turned and went in the direction of hope. She delivered examples of humanity’s capacity to live from a place of hope. The first example discussed how the U.S. government allowed New Orleans to drown, but its residents came home anyway. The subsequent examples covered the movement to legalize gay and lesbian marriages, her personal experience of waving an American flag during Barack’s speech at Mile High Stadium, young people working for nonprofits and conserving energy to save Mother Earth, and a Unitarian man laying down his life for others when a gunman opened fire in a Knoxville church.
Melissa concluded that these examples show that democracy is not dead and our actions represent the spirit of life that hears our prayers. Her final words urged us to keep faith and not rely solely on our rationality as we hold a vision for and manifest an America we have never seen before. In short, Melissa told us the truth many of us may not see: We are the ones we have been waiting for. We are the answers to our own prayers. As she stepped down from the podium, my heart felt connected to Edwina. She had become a symbol for living with faith, hope, and commitment in the work I do to help transform my America into a country that honors, respects, and takes care of all its citizens.
To hear Melissa’s sermon, visit http://www.all-souls.org/spirituality/pastsermons.php. To learn more about Melissa, visit http://www.melissaharrislacewell.com/. Read her blog Kitchen Table: http://princetonprofs.blogspot.com/.
About Ananda Kiamsha Madelyn
Causes Ananda Kiamsha Madelyn Leeke Supports
-Senator Barack Obama's Presidential Campaign
-People living with cancer who are served by Smith Farm Center for Healing and the Arts and Howard...