The American Flag, Alcatraz, 2016
I say this to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.”
Martin Luther King
Today, on this historic day; a day which will surely be taught in future history lessons as a day when a nation lost faith in herself following the UK’s own crushing despair but a few short months before her; a day when wounds which were yet fresh and tender were ripped open anew, when hearts which were trying to heal were once more broken to find that once again, fear and hatred had won out over hope, and love. Today, on this average day in the school calendar of an average-sized middle school in England, in a poetry lesson with a class of year 7 students, a poem was read, and this poem was called ‘Still I Rise’ by Maya Angelou.
I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t even given the lesson much thought, so wrapped up was I in the immediacy of my routine concerns. Yet, as we talked about the historical context: the civil rights movement in the 1960s, about Martin Luther King and about other issues of race and prejudice, I realised how significant it was that we were reading this poem, on this day. I wondered how Martin Luther King would feel if he could see what has become of his legacy; fifty years later and we are really no closer to finding the equality he dreamed of. I thought about how Maya Angelou would have felt today. Devastated, no doubt. If the children had questions about Trump and the future, they didn’t ask me. They listened and instinctively felt the power and importance of Angelou’s message. After all, it is more important today than ever. We watched this song version and they joined in as they worked, singing along. It was a positive mood, uplifting and life-affirming as this poem is.
My year 8 class, on the other hand, was more vocal. We are reading ‘A Christmas Carol’ and we came across the word ‘indignant’: “Many people are ‘indignant’, I said, about the results of the US election”. They were angry. They are angry because they know, instinctively, that it is morally wrong. Yes our young people are angry. Young people who are on the verge of adulthood. Young people who have questions, which demand our attention. It is my job – our job – not to answer their questions, because sadly, there are not always answers: whilst I can tell them what indignant means, or how to find imagery in a poem, I cannot alleviate their fears for the future. No. It is our job to listen and to encourage them to question. I will teach them about history so there is a chance they will not repeat our mistakes; I will teach them that words can have the power to unite, and inspire passion, or to divide and inspire hatred, but the most important thing I can teach them, is to ask questions. Because it is people like Angelou and Martin Luther King; people who dared to ask questions, who gave hope to those who were oppressed and did not have a voice, whose words were not heard. It is people who ask questions of those in power who themselves have the power to make people stop and think that maybe there is another way. It is people who ask questions and keep on asking them with dogged persistence and do not give up, who give us hope.
Today was a good day. Today I felt humble and at the same time as though my job was the most important job in the world. When I looked around at the eager, determined, inquisitive faces of the twelve and thirteen year olds before me, I felt proud. I felt a well-spring of hope rising up inside me.
Still I Rise
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.