The Body Politic

September 2001

If democracy were a body--and it is, and we are--the body politic, asleep or awake--I saw her here these past few days, I saw him, getting up from a sickbed to walk. In the same rooms on this campus where I’ve seen her sit in separateness and silence, I heard her speak; in the rooms where I’ve seen him curled asleep in a corner, I saw him get up and dance. As Ray Seidelman pointed out, you could have been living these days in the dominant spirit of your generation and your time, listening to CDs in your rooms and making ironic comments; instead, when asked by Irene King on the second day, “How many people would like to discuss the revolution and wait fifteen minutes for lunch?”, almost all of you raised your beautiful hardworking hands.

I don’t think I’ve ever been more happy and proud to work at Sarah Lawrence than that same day Irene asked her question, when Sarah Cardwell facilitated the auction of values. An auction is an activity whose terrible historical echoes I can never get out of my head; but in its challenging context you committed yourselves to rid the world of unfairness, to find a solution to world hunger and a cure for cancer, to donate a million dollars to your favorite charity, and to rid the world of poverty, in that order. You wanted love and wisdom and financial security too, but not as much as you wanted those other things. But more; in the process of making your decisions, you turned to each other and put your resources together, without anyone telling you that was even permitted. Cathy Kramer said she’s done that exercise a dozen times around the country, and had never seen any group turn it into decision-making by collectives that way, before you.

The next day alumnus Donald Singletary was telling us about the days when radio stations were permitted to play only two songs an hour by black artists, and not back to back--because once you get back to back, who knows what might happen. Maybe transformation. For five days now you’ve been getting back to back--crossing that velvet rope he told you about, dividing the black and white dancers in Philadelphia one historical minute ago--breaking that rule of separation Komozi Woodard described, when he talked about white indentured servants and black slaves burning Jamestown in Bacon’s Rebellion. You’ve been breaking that cardinal rule against contentious, respectful union--and who knows what might come from your inventive stamina and your courage in the school year we’re just beginning.

In the rhythms of academic life, September is a time of beginnings; in the rhythms of the land, it’s a time of last fruits, of the beginnings of an end. On the wall in my living room is a photograph of Victor Jara, a man who died young almost thirty years ago, in September, a man whose beautiful hardworking hands yours made me think of this week. Our country made a brutal interruption in the dialogue about justice in his country, Chile, strangling their economy, overseeing the bombing of their parliament and the killing of their elected president, after our leaders decided that the consequences of Chileans getting back to back--the consequences of union--might not turn out in their favor. As Henry Kissinger said, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and permit a country to go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.”

‘The irresponsibility of its own people’--another name for which here is democracy. In the photograph Victor Jara is playing the guitar, surrounded by children, in the village where he was born--he was rounded up and murdered in the first terrible days of the September 11 coup--he was a folksinger--and beside the photograph are some words to one of his songs, called Cuando Voy al Trabajo, When I Go to Work. It’s addressed to his wife Joan, a dancer born in Britain and as dedicated to Chilean democracy as he was--and he describes them as ‘laborando al comienzo de una historia/sin saber el fin’--working at the beginning of a story/without knowing the end. Some of you these past days, during your arduous, searching conversations, have voiced the fear that the story is over; “I’d love to be part of a revolutionary movement,” one person said, “but it’s just not happening right now.” During Ray’s talk he described his eleven-year-old daughter learning a skewed version of her country’s history, while we listened and Lyde Sizer carried her newborn Nancy around the room; it struck me then and through all the days watching you that it is always the beginning of the story, for Ray who was active during the Vietnam War and has kept on until now--for Komozi who spoke of joining SNCC in high school and is still following the road toward liberation--for Lyde, as she said in her talk, “puzzling out how to live with integrity in a time of conflict and hopelessness”--for me, for you all sitting there in your particular beginnings, for Ray’s daughter, for Lyde’s daughter, just testing out her new voice. In some ways it doesn’t matter how old you are or what part of history you are both making and enduring; because the story isn’t individual, it’s collective, sometimes hidden and sometimes plainly visible from the corner of every street, beginning when it seems as if it had ended, beginning over and over, slaughtered in its beginnings and beginning again.

In a book called Empire As A Way of Life, historian William Appleman Williams wrote, “The important consideration is our lack of participation in the dialogue. In a republic or a democracy, we the citizens are supposed to order the priorities and relationships between the economic, the political, the social and intellectual, and the military aspects of life through an on-going discussion. We are supposed to be the Establishment. As it is, we limit ourselves to choosing between generally minor variations on one theme composed by others.” Living this way, in this lack of participation, requires that we be subdued and placated, that that restless hunger for the full dialogue be numbed or diverted without being fed; in these days I’ve watched you turn away from those false comforts and insist on something else. You refused to give up deep talking; near the end of one long session on the third day, someone was describing all the opinions shared and stories told as sacred, as constituting the fabric of democracy; she said, “This is it, you guys, do you know what I mean?”

In Beverly Fox’s morning reading she quoted Alice Walker: “During my years of being close to people engaged in changing the world, I have seen fear turn into courage. Sorrow into joy. Funerals into celebrations. Because whatever the consequences, people standing side by side have expressed who they really are, and that ultimately they believe in the love of the world and each other enough to be that--which is the foundation of activism.” As Emily Devine reminded us, “It’s not fair to ask other people to move unless you’re ready to move,” transforming the word ‘movement’ for this poet forever--and then she had us learn each other’s movements, without words, something this poet attempted with roughly equal parts of determination and terror. Pablo Neruda said once, “We must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence, in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song--but in this dance or in this song there are fulfilled the most ancient rites of our conscience, in the awareness of being human, and of believing in a common destiny.” Our bodies are at the core of that common destiny, at its beginning and at its end, as is the body we constitute in our union, and the body of the land that sustains us; and as Adrienne Rich says in one of her poems, “It is the body’s world they’re trying to destroy.”

So to lean a little against that destruction, I’ll end with one clumsy dance-- with help, I hope--making a grateful offering of my terror, as people who love justice are bound to do, and one sorrowful, hopeful song, a union song whose meanings you all in these days have taught me again. It’s been a joy watching you, laborando al comienzo de un historia--a joy watching you go to work. Keep on; there’s a lot to do. Thank you.