Many years ago, when I was a college student in Pasadena, California, I did not own a car — but my friend Tim had a Dodge Charger 2.2. We referred to it, with perhaps a trace of irony, as the “graceful yet powerful Dodge Charger.” There was one time the two of us were out in the high desert one night, perhaps in Victorville or Adelanto, I don’t remember exactly where or why. Tim had driven us out there, and I was going to drive us back. “You can head back to Pasadena by taking the 138, the 14, and the 210,” said Tim, describing a route that goes counterclockwise around the San Gabriel Mountains. “Or you could take the eastern route, on the 15 and the 210” — clockwise around the San Gabriels. “Or,” he said, “you could take the Angeles Crest Highway. That would be a test of man and machine.” He handed me the keys.
I drove home that night on the Angeles Crest Highway.
Now, even as an 18-year-old boy, I was reasonably responsible. I’m sure I drove faster than I was really comfortable doing, but I probably was not being too unsafe. And yet I remember, as I drove home that dark night on those twisty mountain roads at the wheel of the graceful yet powerful Dodge Charger — I remember looking at the guardrails on the turns and thinking, “I don’t want to test those.”
I didn’t want to test the guardrails.
I have friends who voted for Donald Trump, and who recognize the aspects of his personality that are not suited for the presidency. But they expect that calmer minds in the administration will prevail; they expect that Trump’s worst excesses will not lead us off the road and into the chasm; they expect that the guardrails of our democracy will hold.
But some of these guardrails have been tested before. And they haven’t always held. Within living memory, a presidential executive order led to the incarceration of over 80,000 U.S. citizens and 40,000 non-citizen residents.
In recent memory, the September 11th attacks prompted the U.S. government to torture prisoners, in violation of international law and basic humanity.
My fear is that in the next few years there will be some kind of crisis — maybe an attack by terrorists, maybe something else — that will bring out the worst of America. And I am worried that the guardrails will not hold. What can I do with this fear? If you share it, what can you do with this fear? Is there a way that we can maintain some hope amidst this fear?
While I’ve been pondering these question, I’ve thought of two poems that have stuck with me this year, poems that have been floating near the surface of my thoughts for months.
The first of these is “Between the World and Me,” written in 1935 by the African-American author Richard Wright. The poem is about the poet being surprised, while walking through the woods, to come across a clearing where there had recently been a lynching. As he sees the evidence of what has happened there — the blood-stained clothes, the burned sapling, the lingering smell of gasoline, the bones — as he realizes what he has come across, the scene comes terrifyingly to life: “The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves into my bones. The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into my flesh”— and the poet finds himself reliving the scene, finds himself chased, caught, burned alive by a jeering crowd. It is an incredibly intense poem.1
It starkly captures the fear, and the rage, and the injustice, that is part of the American experience, much as we would like to forget or deny it.
The second poem is “Let America Be America Again”, written three years later, in 1938, by the African-American poet Langston Hughes. This poem begins with one speaker recalling themes from America’s mythological history, telling of a land
[…] where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
But a second speaker inserts himself into the monologue, first making quiet comments that complicate this naïve narrative of America, and then stealing the mic, so to speak, to give a more complicated history.
This history recognizes the fear and injustice that Wright’s poem expresses. It does not hide it, it does not deny it, it does not diminish it. And yet, the poem ends with hope:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath —
America will be!
But I think the key to the poem is that the hope for America that it expresses, the hope that we can rise above our past and truly become the land we claim to be, the hope that we can transform ourselves, miraculously — that hope depends on us.
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain —
All, all the stretch of these great green states —
And make America again!
How can this happen?
How can America rise above its past — indeed, how can we rise above our present — and live up to our values? It would take a miracle.
But that’s a miracle I can believe in.
The catch is that it is a miracle that we have to work for. And in the coming years, when we may need to rely upon the guardrails of our democracy, our work will be to strengthen our institutions, and to stand up for the ideals we hold dear. And it is hard to take courageous stands when you feel that you are alone.
So I would like to remind everyone reading this that you are not alone; that we are working together for deeper justice; that the weight falls not on any one individual’s shoulders; that when one of us is tired and needs a moment of rest, the others can take up the task.
I would like us to feel in our bones that we are working together, that we are stronger together.
So I am going to remind you — you, dear reader — that you are not alone. That there are thousands upon thousands of people who will help you.
Together, we will work for justice.
Together, we will fight for free speech.
Together, we will protect the earth.
Together, we will work to help those that are viewed as the least among us.
Together, we will protect the oppressed.
Together, we will build a society where all people can live with dignity.
Together, we will fight hatred.
Together, we will we proclaim that black lives matter as much as white lives.
Together, we will we support freedom for all religions.
Together, we will redeem all the stretch of these great green states.
And together, we will we work until justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Take hope, amidst fear and despair. Together, we can create a miracle.
Go in peace. We’ve got work to do.
(This post is adapted from the second half of a sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Univeralist Church in Pasadena, California, on December 4, 2016.)