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I shall not be moved

I shall not be moved.

On my wall hangs a signed copy of Dr. Maya Angelou’s poem Our Grandmothers. I bid on the 8×11” piece of paper at an auction at Boston’s Institute for Contemporary Art in 1993 when it was housed in an old fire station on Boylston Street. The ICA was raising funds for AIDS relief and research. I was a grad student living off loans and hardly in the position to bid on art.  But the Angelou poem on linen resume paper got my attention. A voice inside me said, “Hold up your auction number already!” Meekly, raised my paddle. To my surprise I kept poking up my hand. Do I hear $10? Do I hear $15? In the end I paid $100 (and twice that for the frame).

She gathered her babies,

Their tears slick as oil on black faces,

Their young eyes canvassing mornings of madness.

Momma, is Master going to sell you

from us tomorrow?

The poem is placed above my framed doctorate degree. After 25 years both documents are faded and musty. Whatever they are worth today, emotional or otherwise, they remain symbolic. Maybe more so today as a daughter of an immigrant mother from post WWII West Germany. I am a first generation college graduate. My husband and I are now launching our girls into the world. Not without some reservation, I might add. They are young women living in rather strange times in the very land of opportunity to which my mother fled and my husband’s French Canadian ancestors settled to farm or work in textile mills. I find myself apologizing for the burdens their generation will bear in spite of amazing progress. It seems we are taking some steps back. But what’s a mother to do?

So I turn to wise elders. Every once in a while I stand before Our Grandmothers with my chin angled and eyes squinting. Angelou’s poem is strangely beautiful, fierce, heartbreaking yet hopeful. (You can read it in full.) The poem was inspired  by an old spiritual turned into a protest song. I look up at Angelou’s words with a kind of reverence and also a basic incomprehension of the plight of slavery, of black women, and how history can’t help but repeat itself. Many images arise. The German holocaust. The Rwandan genocide. Syrian refugees. How dare I, however, relate to a poem about black women and generations of oppression. I will never pretend to know. Yet, a mother am I. Empathy, after all, enables us to imagine ourselves into the lives of others.

Yearning to Breath Free by Barry Blitt (c) The New Yorker July 2, 2018

As I watched the news about the children being separated from parents at the borderland, I am drawn to her poem again. In the haze of the summer heat, Angelou’s words mesmerize. Several stanzas scream out.

No angel stretched protecting wings

above the heads of her children,

fluttering and urging the winds of reason

into the confusions of their lives.

The sprouted like young weeds,

but she could not shield their growth

from the grinding blades of ignorance, nor

shape them into symbolic topiaries.

She sent them away,

underground, overland, in coaches and shoeless.

There was another line of text that moved me recently in a news story on the 4th of July: “Therese Patricia Okoumou, of Staten Island, was arrested after scaling the base of the statue and taking up temporary residence on Lady Liberty’s right foot.”

I clicked the news feed for more. Sure enough. Upon the grand topiary of New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty, was a small human figure seated at the folds of her green copper cloak.

I shall not be moved.

Captivated, I watched the footage. Who was this person? Here was someone who embodied the spirit of many people today, like me, resisting the irrational policies of our nation but with much more nerve. That she would not be moved was a thrilling example of compassion in action.

Just days before, like many others, I had joined in yet another protest march, #FamiliesBelongTogether. Volunteers were handing out bottles of water. Local leaders gave speeches. Chants of “This is what democracy looks like!” could be heard in waves. I held my worn out sign from previous marches.  I poked my arm up and down like an auction paddle. Be Kind, Be Brave. Dripping in sweat I lamented, Will this march make a damn difference? In the center of my poster board is image of a black girl under the title Women are Perfect. It was created by muralist Jessica Sabogal in partnership with Amplifier.org for the Women’s March in 2017. My husband had made easy-to-carry sign for me then.  It seems to have multiple lives.

Will this march make a difference? The lament circled in my mind. Maybe it was the heat. It’s exhausting to bear witness to the creepy erosion of basic liberties, the seeds of fascism finding root. Moving along the crowds I found myself behind a young man waving his poster, History Teachers Against Repeating History. Another sign appeared in the far distance: And then the children.

and I shall not, I shall not be moved.

I hopped on a concrete wall looking at the crowds. Impressed yet not quite hopeful. Then a mother with her daughter asked to take a photo of my sign. “Do you know the child in your poster is Maya? That’s her name and she’s seven years old. She’s a friend of ours. Her name is Maya.” The mother was insistent. “Her name is Maya. Maya.” Thank you for telling me.

Women Are Perfect (c) 2017 Jessica Sabogal

Back home I looked up at Our Grandmothers and wondered if the child depicted in Sabogal’s protest poster was named after the poet. The mother at the march really wanted me to know the girl had a name. It matters. At a poetry reading given by late Dr. Angelou she implored us to love our ancestors for they named us and loved us before we were even born.

Children behind wired fences have names, too.

Like the woman at the foot of Lady Liberty. Therese Patricia Okoumou. She was asking us to care. She was showing us that when people go low, we can go high.  Our grandmothers demand this of us.

The Divine upon my right

impels me to pull forever

at the latch of Freedom’s gate.

The Holy Spirit upon my left leads my

feet without ceasing into the camp of the

righteous and into the tents of the free.

I reconsidered my doubts. Every human has a name. Every step makes a difference. Every chant breaks the silence. Raising your hand up in protest matters. It’s what Dr. Maya Angelou called the nobleness of the human spirit. It’s what democracy looks like.

Lay aside your fears that I will be undone, for I shall not be moved.



Appreciation for Maya Angelou


Featured Image:
Luke Stackpoole

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