“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.

We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For


Toward A New Zeitgeist

Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

For the past eight years, inspired by their own dangerous, sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity, the Bush Gang has perpetuated myriad crimes against humanity and the planet. They didn’t do it alone, of course–the United States is, after all, a Democratic Republic, and its populace–us, we, I mean–stood by like inert zombies after the 9/11 attacks and let Bush and his cronies get away with an illegal war, openly spying on American citizens, detaining prisoners without charging them or giving them legal recourse, and even torturing prisoners. Walt Whitman said that there “is no week nor day nor hour when tyranny may not enter upon this country, if the people lose their roughness and spirit of defiance,” and surely many of us, most of us, were soft and complicit when we should have been rougher and more defiant. Not that many didn’t protest and fight, but the zeitgeist in America this decade was one of hushed zealotry, where the old American values of dissent, protest, and even curiosity were eschewed as the terrain of those awful liberal elitists who might actually, you know, ask questions.

The oughties, or the 2000s, or the noughties, or whatever we’ll call them, really began November 8, 2000, the day after one of the most contested elections in American history. A bad start, really, and many of us will always believe that the neocons stole the election. A year later, after the 9/11 attacks, it became evident that this would be a decade of fear and violence and repression and silence. By the time the neocons were ramping up their illegal war against Iraq–a war that they’d had planned for years before 9/11–many of us felt worn down to cynical little nubs, still in groggy disbelief at what was happening. A 2004 story in The Onion, “Nations Liberals Suffering From Outrage Fatigue,” perfectly captured how I felt, and also signaled that it would be satire and distance and cynicism that would communicate the extraordinarily dangerous ignorance and stupidity of this decade. Getting news of the Bush Gang’s malfeasance from satirical sources like SNL‘s “Weekend Update” or The Daily Show with John Stewart made the cruel realities of this decade somehow more palatable, but at the same time these sources underlined the disengagement that many of us allowed ourselves to fall into, the deep ironic defense reaction against a spirit of the age with which we felt unable to communicate. In short, many of us dropped out; our “Outrage Fatigue” could only last so long. Inertia and cynicism spiked with brief episodes of outrage slowly evolved (or, rather, devolved) into what I would call “The Bush Show,” a long, long cycle of events, each new episode topping the last in terms of its deviousness, ignorance, and stupidity. Am I just railing now, perhaps, recapping what you already know? Sorry.

Here’s my point: Right after the election, I stated in a post I wrote from my gut that the election of Obama shattered my cynical shell, that I felt open and happy and even positive about politics for the first time since I was a kid. I have not and never will lose my skepticism, but, as I pointed out in that post and repeat here, by simply choosing someone so different–and I refer here not to Obama’s dark skin but rather to his knowledge and intellect and openness (in contrast to Bush’s “sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity”)–by choosing someone like Obama, we have signaled a shift in the spirit of the age. And here is what I propose: Let’s end the decade today, or at 11:59 a.m. tomorrow. Let’s agree that the awful oughties are over, and that a new decade has begun. We don’t have to change any physical documents–calendars, etc.–we just have to all know that a new zeitgeist has been initiated. The New Dark Age of the Bush Years has passed, but we can learn from it as negative example, as an abysmal signal of what not to do ever again.