I have a thousand favorite poets so when I cite Maya Angelou it’s not just because everyone knows and loves her work. It’s because I know and love her work. I was mesmerized by her reading of “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993:
“Here on the pulse of this new day– you may have the grace to look up and out and into your sister’s eyes, into your brother’s face, your country, and say simply, very simply, with hope… Good morning.”
On Monday, Richard Blanco becomes the fifth poet to contribute to our Inaugural history when he offers a poem for the nation and the President’s second term. He will follow some towering shadows cast by Dr. Angelou and Robert Frost. As a young Latino immigrant, his experience growing up in America will not doubt be reflected in his work.
But I decided you don’t have to be formally invited to Open Mic Day on the Capital steps to contribute to the body of Inauguration poetry. When I wrote my poem for President Obama on the occasion of his first Inauguration, I was moved by the profound historic significance of his election. It wasn’t chosen for the big event but I posted it here anyway and it has gotten thousands of hits over the past four years. Through the political battles, arguments, threats, criticisms, wars, animosity and divisions… I still have faith in America and our President.
So I am reposting A Poem for Barack Obama Upon the Inauguration of America, with the same hope of national unity that Richard Blanco and Maya Angelou and so many other poets envision for our country.
“I AM HOPE”
A POEM UPON THE INAUGURATION OF AMERICA
January 20, 2009 and January 21, 2013
Written for Barack Obama, the 44th and 45th President of the United States
By Kevin W. Riley
Hope has, even for America’s moment,
Brought more than this moment of redemption.
Though I am shackled and thrown upon the swollen deck,
Seaborne and riding the stench of slavery to some new world- lost to life.
Hope. Though I am asleep in Lincoln’s apocalypse.
I am Gettysburg and Manassas and Shiloh.
The dead stacked and shoveled into history’s silent pocket.
In the atrocities a war wrought, even the birds were lost for song;
their throats clutched
In witness of humans who could be so calloused and so cruel.
All in the name of Freedom.
I am innocence: Emmit Till and Little Linda Brown
and Addie Mae Collins and her three young friends.
I am the blessed martyrs. I am Medgar Evers.
I trust Malcom X with my fury.
I marched from Selma to a Birmingham Jail.
I ripped away the judge’s hood that silenced Bobby Seale
and enjoined the Freedom Riders to endure the flames at Anniston.
I heard the chilling voice of Bull Connor and the sting of riot dogs.
The fire hose.
I saw school buses ignite Roxbury and trigger decades of white flight.
And still I stand.
I am the preacher-prophet who foretold that we would reside one day
in a promised land.
He must be with us now.
Though the years have kept his visage young…
His eternal voice is crisp as fire
As he sings from the mountain top.
This morning I heard the sky rejoice-
like the deafening wail of 10,000 hurricanes.
I am Lazarus.
I have redeemed the blood of a beloved brother, gone 40 years.
(Bobby’s picture is still among a shrine of holy cards
in a little house in San Antonio
Where Abuelita says her morning rosary
To Cesar Chavez and a wall of popes whose names she cannot pronounce).
I am JFK for whom Ireland still weeps.
I am redemption for centuries of sorrow;
For a word so foul it sticks in civil throats like drying cactus–
Thistle and rust, decapacitating…
A poison elixir that not all our years combined can exorcise.
I am first Hope. Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Mashall.
I am the first black pilot, the first black principal,
the first black business owner, the first pioneer.
I am first to serve, first to play, first in science,
and first to sail deep into space.
And yet I am last.
I am Hope.
I ride a mighty wave.
I stand on shouldered giants, most for whom history has not reserved a name.
I am beneficiary of the wishes and the words and the blood of legions.
I rise by the toil of Chisholm and Jordon;
on the scaffold stairs built by Jackson and Charles Houston
and Andrew Young.
Hope– tempered, with no guarantee.
But if ever He loved a people
Surely now He has heard our prayers…
Whispered through days and years and generations–
Through all America’s time
To let us be who we must be;
To even once know what it means to be ONE nation.
I am only Hope.
My arms are thin.
I speak as if all of God’s angels have somehow filled my lungs
with righteous air.
I am your mouth. His voice.
That the promise of humankind might at last be realized.
But I cannot be who YOU will not be…
So now my name is nailed above Katrina’s door,
Above the Wall Street debacle and the house of cards.
My name is nailed to Iraq and Jerusalem, to all ancient Persia–
And to the suffering of Darfur.
And as I go, so go a hundred nations.
A loud bell tolls the moment.
We are astride a wondrous day.
History will remember us as giants…
Or it will not.
Redemption has a name.
I am Obama. And mine is a holy song.