Seneca, Selma, Stonewall.
Could there be a better alliteration to capture the purest moment of American democracy on display this week?
I’m incredibly moved by the linkage of these three civil rights movements. And incredibly grateful to live in a time and a place where the President – MY president – can invoke them in his inauguration speech.
I have spent most of my life caring about and fighting for reproductive rights and a woman’s right to choose. The images of the Seneca Falls convention, and the suffragettes, have always guided my view of the world. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a feminist. Like my mother before me, I have marched, and rallied, and given money, and worked for the rights of women to live lives free of patriarchal derision, injustice and oppression.
As for Selma, I was born the year Dr. King gave his iconic speech on the Mall, and only two when he led the march to Selma, Alabama, during which the Jewish spiritual leader, Abraham Joshua Heschel, described his feet as “praying.” Whenever I pray, Heschel’s image, linking spirituality with activism, resonates.
The civil rights movement was an integral part of my lessons growing up. I was raised in a Brooklyn neighborhood where I was one of only a few white kids – most of my friends and neighbors were African American. I understood -- in reverse -- what it meant to be the minority in the classroom. I memorized Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son" (Life Ain’t No Crystal Stair) poem for a choral speaking contest, and sang the black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” for Black History Month. When my parents shipped me out of my neighborhood to a white enclave for the rest of junior high school, it came as a culture shock.
Of course, I didn't really experience the civil rights movement from the perspective of the oppressed -- I understand that. But what I did take away from my experiences was a particular sensitivity to the issues of being the other. And what I know today is that our society has changed dramatically around the issue of race since I was a kid, in a way that makes sense to me and my world view, which was formed by color lines and demarcations at a young age.
Today, my children are growing up in a multi-racial community. They have friends whose skin tones range across the color spectrum. They have friends from all over the world. Barriers have broken down. My kids glanced at the television (or their computer screens) yesterday and saw our nation’s first black president take the oath of office for the second time. And they didn’t think twice about it – we were all rooting because Obama is our candidate of choice because of his policies and sensibilities, and not because he is black.
And finally, Stonewall. The Stonewall riots took place in 1969 – I was only six years old. They did not permeate my consciousness at the time. But I was fortunate enough to attend an experimental and very progressive high school in Brooklyn in the 1970s, and I had friends who were gay and who were already out. It was a safer place than most at that time to experiment and experience and figure out who you were. As a result, it didn’t occur to me that living a life as a gay person in the closet could be painful.
I learned that lesson quickly after college when I lived in New York in the 1980s, during the beginning and height of the AIDS crisis. Working in the arts world for even a short time was a brutal introduction to what it meant to have to live a shadowed life.
In contrast, nearly 30 years later, my state – the mighty state of Maryland – just passed the Civil Marriage Protection Act in November. My kids still can’t understand why it's not possible for everyone they know to get married. It makes no sense to them that the families they know where there are two moms, or two dads, can’t have the same kind of sanctioned relationship that their dad and I do. I was a huge advocate of Proposition 6, and was as excited about its passage as I was about re-electing Obama. We worked hard, gave money, and it made a difference.
Yes, I know, there’s still so much to do. We can’t rest. We have to get back in the trenches on Roe v. Wade. We have to make sure that Obama is not the first and only president of color. We have to elect a woman to the highest office in the land. We have to pass marriage equality in every state across the country. We have to protect the Court. We have to make sure that my friends in the GLBT community have every privilege I do in my partnership. We have to work to make the world a better and safer place for our children, and that of course, includes working on climate change issues too (which didn’t have an easy “S” to add to the three biggies.)
As folksinger Si Kahn sings in his beautiful “Companera”:
It’s not for
you and me to finish up the job ourselves.
Each generation does the work again.
But neither are we free to leave it all to someone else.
It’s not for us to end but to begin.
So with all this work ahead of us, it was pure pleasure to take a day to stop, to assess, and to hear the poetry of our President:
Seneca, Selma, Stonewall.
We’ve come a long way, baby.
Photo by teamstickergiant via Flickr