On Election Day 2012, I woke up in Baker City, Oregon, reached for my phone and read these words: “Make me a grave where’er you will, In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill, Make it among earth’s humblest graves, But not in a land where men are slaves.” It’s the first stanza of a poem by a daughter of freed slaves who died a century ago, Frances Harper. I had never heard of Harper. I had never before read her poem, titled “Bury Me in a Free Land.” But there I was, on the morning of the presidential election, instantly connected by Harper’s words to the historic hugeness of the day.
True nerd confession: I like to start my mornings by reading a psalm and a poem. I have the Book of Psalms and a few poetry anthologies loaded on my phone now, so I can stick to my ritual on the road. I’ve been reading poetry all my life, but I grew up a white girl who went to mostly-white schools and either we didn’t have Frances Harper in our anthologies back then or we never turned to that page. So I was honored to make her acquaintance, on the morning I woke up wondering whether we would re-elect our first black president to a second term.
It seemed a good omen, somehow, that Harper’s poem was the one that happened to be waiting for me. I’m working my way through an American anthology and I’d just finished a few days of Walt Whitman, who was excellent company on our road trip through the West, with his rousing anthems like “I Hear America Singing,” an exuberant poem that reads a bit like a candidate’s stump speech, with its odes to mechanics and masons, carpenters and mothers.
Harper’s poem was a stark contrast, a reminder of the cruelty embedded in our history. Of how divided we were then and still are now.
Whatever would she think of this election day? Of our president, son of a Kenyan father and a white American mother; of his wife and children, descended, like Harper, from slaves?
As my husband and I drove home to Seattle, I liked feeling like Frances Harper was with me. Listening, with me, to stories on the radio of long lines in polling places—lines that included Americans of every origin, every one of them determined to exercise their constitutional right. Lines that included women, who still didn’t have the vote when Harper died.
That night, as we watched the results roll in, I felt such relief on her behalf and on my own: relief, that the trajectory of her work, as a poet and fervent abolitionist, was continuing, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, to bend its long arc toward justice. And I felt relief for myself that I would never have the sad task of explaining to my future grandchildren what went wrong on November 6, 2012.
President Obama is not perfect. He has made mistakes. For example, he could have been a lot more vocal on climate change. But despite what you may have heard during election season, Obama has gotten a LOT done—the Affordable Care Act, the auto industry bailout, the Lilly Ledbetter Equal Pay Act, just to name a few greatest hits—and he is poised to do even more in his campaign-free second term. By RE-electing him, we have ensured that his presidency cannot be viewed as some fluke, some aberration, some pause for diversity in the long history of white male control. That is a big deal. Frances Harper would be stunned and proud. And we did it. On November 6, 2012, we did it.
Our films, The Church on Dauphine Street; 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle and Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story are now available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.
Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.
Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.