“Early Cinema” — Elizabeth Alexander

“Early Cinema”

by

Elizabeth Alexander


According to Mister Hedges, the custodian
who called upon their parents
after young Otwiner and young Julia
were spotted at the matinee
of Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik
at the segregated Knickerbocker Theater
in the uncommon Washington December
of 1922, “Your young ladies
were misrepresenting themselves today,”
meaning, of course, that they were passing.
After coffee and no cake were finished
and Mister Hedges had buttoned his coat
against the strange evening chill,
choice words were had with Otwiner and Julia,
shame upon the family, shame upon the race.

How they’d longed to see Rudolph Valentino,
who was swarthy like a Negro, like the finest Negro man.
In The Sheik, they’d heard, he was turbaned,
whisked damsels away in a desert cloud.
They’d heard this from Lucille and Ella
who’d put on their fine frocks and French,
claiming to be “of foreign extraction”
to sneak into the Knickerbocker Theater
past the usher who knew their parents
but did not know them.
They’d heard this from Mignon and Doris
who’d painted carmine bindis on their foreheads
braided their black hair tight down the back,
and huffed, “We’ll have to take this up with the Embassy”
to the squinting ticket taker.
Otwiner and Julia were tired of Oscar Michaux,
tired of church, tired of responsibility,
rectitude, posture, grooming, modulation,
tired of homilies each way they turned,
tired of colored right and wrong.
They wanted to be whisked away.

The morning after Mister Hedges’ visit
the paperboy cried “Extra!” and Papas
shrugged camel’s hair topcoats over pressed pajamas,
and Mamas read aloud at the breakfast table,
“No Colored Killed When Roof Caves In”
at the Knickerbocker Theater
at the evening show
from a surfeit of snow on the roof.
One hundred others dead.

It appeared that God had spoken.
There was no school that day,
no movies for months after.

“Praise Song for the Day” — Elizabeth Alexander

“Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander (Obama 2009 inaugural poem)

Praise song for the day.

Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others’ 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 someone 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 thy self.”

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 preempt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp — praise song for walking forward in that light.