By DENNIS HARROD
“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”
— Isaiah, 11:16
We should be ashamed.
Amanda Gorman wrote in the New York Times Jan. 20, 2022, that she almost did not recite her poem at Joe Biden’s 2021 inauguration because she feared for her life.
“I was terrified,” she wrote. “… at the inauguration I was going to become highly visible — which is a very dangerous thing to be in America, especially if you’re Black and outspoken and have no Secret Service.”
Friends “not so jokingly” told her to buy a bulletproof vest. Her mother was terrified as well. “My mom had us crouch in our living room so that she could practice shielding my body from bullets.”
In the end, Gorman did put herself in front of the multitude and recited her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” and gave a gift of hope to a nervous nation.
“… what I found waiting beyond my fear was all those who searched beyond their own fears to find space for hope in their lives, who welcomed the impact of a poem into protests, hospitals, classrooms, conversations, living rooms, offices, art and all manner of moments.”
Is this where we are? A 22-year-old poet, not even five and a half feet tall, is fearful of reading her poem in public. She’s afraid because much of America is afraid of her. Afraid of her and her words. Words that, God forbid, might make us think.
We should be ashamed, all of us, and not just those bad guys on the other side of the political divide. It’s all of us, hating and fearing “the other” and refusing to stop and consider that someone whose views are anathema to us may have more than one dimension, may have something to say. It’s too easy to hate and be done with it. And as we’ve seen with so many of our “leaders,” hate pays. Hate’s easy. Far easier than trying to see the other side as anything but a one-dimensional villain. And you don’t have to think.
Part of the problem is that we mistake the loudmouths and bullies who make their living spouting division and hate for the people they are talking to. Maybe the people they are talking to are listening because they don’t think anyone listens to them. Maybe if we listened for a minute, we’d hear something more than what we’d expected from the caricature we have created based on one aspect of their lives.
It can be done. It has been done. Daryl Davis, a Black blues musician, has for more than 30 years befriended members of the Ku Klux Klan. And in those 30 years, more than 200 of the Klansmen have recognized the irrationality of their hatred and have turned their robes over to Davis. And all because he sat down and talked to them, knowing who and what they were.
Back in the middle of the last century, Jesús Colón wrote a short piece examining how society’s prejudice affects us all and makes us less than human. Finding himself, a Black, Puerto Rican man, alone on a subway platform late at night with a white woman who was struggling with packages and three small children, Colón wondered if he should offer to help her. Helping others was second nature to him.
“Courtesy is a characteristic of the Puerto Rican,” he wrote. “And here I was—a Puerto Rican hours past midnight, a valise, two white children and a white lady with a baby on her arm [badly] needing somebody to help her, at least until she descended the long concrete stairs.”
But he hesitated as he wondered what she would think if a Black man with an accent approached her in a lonely, all but empty station late at night. Would she accept his gracious offer without a second thought? Or would she succumb to the prejudice of the age (and now) and be afraid and scream?
“Here was I, way past midnight, face to face with a situation that could very well explode into an outburst of prejudices and chauvinistic conditioning of the “divide and rule” policy of present-day society,” he wrote.
In the end, he walked quickly by the struggling woman.
“I passed on by her as if I saw nothing. As if I was insensitive to her need. Like a rude animal walking on two legs, I just moved on, half running by the long subway platform, leaving the children and the valise and her with the baby on her arm.”
And he never knew what might have happened.
“This is what racism and prejudice and chauvinism and official artificial divisions can do to people and to a nation!” he wrote. And he resolved that, if ever confronted with such a situation again, he would take his chances and be true to his nature and offer to help, whatever the consequences.
And Amanda Gorman decided to recite her poem. She stood before a nation because, she wrote: “What stood out most of all was the worry that I’d spend the rest of my life wondering what this poem could have achieved. There was only one way to find out.”
Now it’s up to the rest of us. Do we have the courage to lie down with the lions and the leopards and with those we fear? Do we have the courage to hear what they have to say and see if we can find common humanity? Do we dare climb that hill of which Amanda Gorman spoke?
“… to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside,” she wrote in her inaugural poem.
Dennis Harrod is a co-founder of Sense of Decency.