‘Even As We Grieved We Grew’: Poetry and Promise at the Inauguration
“Oh my god, Black baby Jesus done shined on us today. The fascist is gone,” says Toure on this week’s democracy-ish. Meanwhile, Danielle sips Champagne. “I'm celebrating you, America,” she says.
The day we’ve been waiting for finally arrived: We witnessed the historic inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris at the U.S. Capitol, which was attacked by domestic terrorists just two weeks ago.
In his inaugural address, Biden urged Americans to unify around common values and unprecedented crisis.
It’s the message we need, but can we really unify with a racist, fascist-sympathizing right wing? And can the Biden-Harris administration right this sinking ship?
On Wednesday, under a bright blue sky on the very Capitol steps that were defiled by insurrectionists two weeks ago, Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris took their oaths of office in a cathartic, poignant and socially distanced inauguration for the ages.
“The QAnon fantasy did not happen,” says Toure. “Lots of tears flowed. Lots of happiness happened. Lots of Trump clouds moved away. It was quite the ceremony.”
It did have everything: history, music, poetry, fashion and, at long last, unmitigated joy.
Danielle had been crying happy tears since Tuesday evening’s COVID memorial, in which our new leaders led the country in mourning the over 400,000 Americans who have died since the pandemic began.
It was “unfathomable” that it was the first time we were “collectively able to grieve, shed tears, hold one another,” she says. “To feel held.”
“Inauguration Day exceeded my expectations,” she says. She had been worried about security and wanted the ceremony to take place indoors, maybe even underground. But she’s glad it took place in the light of a crisp winter day on the West Front, as it has for the last 40 years.
“I’m so happy to have the vision of a renewed Capitol and our renewed democracy following the desecration we all witnessed on January 6.”
Toure agrees: “The determination to perpetuate the important rituals and traditions is strong, and we saw its importance. I want the traditions and the continuity maintained.”
Oh, happy day. Pop a bottle and get ready for some unfettered optimism.
Episode Highlights –– Oh Happy Day
We can’t ‘unify with the oppressor’
Biden’s inaugural address was heartening –– and refreshing –– precisely because he did what a leader should: telling America he’ll be president for everyone, including those who didn’t support him.
“That should not be revolutionary,” says Toure. “But at this moment, it is. And I'm glad he's saying it. But I am not here for unifying with the violent, treasonous, seditious insurrectionists who tried to take over the government … with an entirely surreal approach to the world.”
Trump’s supporters are “not tethered to actual reality,” he adds, “but floating off in some other netherworld where Trump is good and he's a god and strong and powerful.”
“And 180 pounds,” Danielle chimes in.
“And Democrats are pedophiles,” says Toure. “And I'm not even talking about the QAnon maniacs. The right wing of America is crazy, racist or racist-adjacent, sexist or sexist-adjacent, homophobic … I don't want to unify with them. And I don't think that we should. You wouldn't ask somebody to unify with your oppressor.”
‘What democracy is made of’
Meanwhile, it seems that nobody on the maskless side of the aisle is repentant, says Toure.
“They are a cancer on the nation. And they continue to be aided and abetted by the rest of the GOP.”
Danielle isn’t looking to unite them either –– “the 75 million people who decided to vote for white supremacy, who wanted an extension of misogyny and hatred,” she says.
But President Biden's address, in which he called for the country to come together and heal, was “what democracy is made of,” she adds.
“We have the right to debate. But we do not have the right to insurrection, to incite violence … We deal with things we do not like in this country by voting, by protesting.”
She also thinks the speech was an important reminder of “the responsibility leadership has to bring us together –– to exemplify legacy, honesty, transparency, truth, history, all of those things. Symbolism, ritual.”
So Danielle doesn’t begrudge Biden for telling us we need to unite.
“Because we do,” she says. “Me as a person, though–”
“I don't have to,” Toure interjects.
“Right,” says Danielle. “I don't have to shake Mitch McConnell's hand or look at the fucking shit-eating grin Lindsey Graham had on his face, even though he had a mask on. I could see the bullshit underneath.”
Biden’s mandate: progress despite obstruction
The road ahead for President Biden will be rocky, even with a slim Democratic majority in Congress.
“Right now, the greatest foe to American democracy is a certain segment of America,” Toure says.
“Typically, we're used to it being either an abstract threat, like an economic problem, or a threat from outside the country. Not a group of Americans who remain angry about something that didn’t happen and want to go back to oppressing and just being supreme in their whiteness.
They're afraid of that slipping away.”
Danielle agrees that Biden’s mandate is enormous, but it “is incumbent upon all of us to extend [him] a grace we haven't had leadership extend to us over the past four years.”
Biden’s the man for the moment
Danielle thinks what President Biden and Madam Vice President Kamala Harris must do now is “to continue to be, who they have always been: great patriots.”
Even though Biden wasn’t her first choice for president, she now thinks he is the only person who can “usher us through this moment, because he’s been through such unspeakable trauma and has found his way out of it.”
And, Toure points out, he’s deeply institutionalist.
“He is a decades-long creature of the Senate and the former vice-president. So his experience in Washington, and thus the gravitas he maintains among those people, is so high.”
And because he came of age in a much more bipartisan Senate, he still seems to hold the belief (an anachronism now) that working across the aisle is normal and preferable.
“It's what the founders wanted,” Toure notes. He points out that Barack Obama, in his latest memoir, talks about his initial, erroneous belief that both sides operate in good faith.
“It will be interesting to see how long it takes Biden to realize that [they’re not],” he adds.
Exposing Republican ‘values’ through integrity
Danielle doesn’t think unity will prevail.
“But I also don't think Biden is naive,” she says. “I think what’s beautiful about him –– and how he will move forward, given his extensive knowledge of the Senate and dedication to public service –– is that he’ll make Republicans look bad by doing nothing.”
She foresees Biden extending an olive branch, calling for meetings and offering policies designed to roll back Trump’s destructive ones.
“He is going to show America exactly who the fuck the Republicans are. They're not just racist. They're not just misogynists. They're not just obstructionists. They are people that do not believe in the values and the foundation of this country.”
Amanda Gorman’s poetic justice
“You know who America is,” says Toure. “America is Amanda Gorman. Wasn't she just amazing, powerful and stirring and brilliant and just freaking awesome?”
“If that young, beautiful woman doesn’t embody the hope that is America, I have no idea,” says Danielle.
It was a stunning moment when 22-year-old Gorman made history as the youngest poet ever to speak at an inauguration. She recited her poem “The Hill We Climb” with a radiance and resonance that electrified the nation.
Danielle was struck by her “physicality as she was speaking the words she was presenting to the world, not just to America. When she said ‘even as we grieved we grew’ –– that’s been hanging in my heart since I heard her say it.”
Danielle thought, given that Gorman came of age in the era of Trump, it was exhilarating to hear her urge us to move boldly forward in the midst of crisis.
“I just hung on every single beautiful word she uttered,” she adds. “Seeing her sparkling luminescence, I was just like, this is what keeps me hanging on to hope. This is what keeps me believing that, as destructive as this country is, we are also equally possible.”
While she spoke, Toure couldn’t help but think about her “being in a spot that was so desecrated not long ago –– that she was “restoring a certain dignity and grandeur and sacredness to it.”
Passing the torch
Toure notes that none of this would be possible without the work of Stacey Abrams and other Black women “who stood in line, brought others and said: We have to vote. We have to get rid of this fool.”
Now, they can “pass the torch to a young Black woman like Amanda,” who embodies the “beauty and the brilliance and the dignity of the next generation,” he says.
“This is our country because Black Americans have been critical [of our government] throughout our history, demanding America live up to its promise of being a multicultural, multiracial democracy.”
It’s Black folks, he adds, who have “forced America, inch by inch, to be the best democracy it can be.”
Perfecting our imperfect union
Danielle invokes the novelist James Baldwin’s sentiment about loving America: I love America more than any other country in the world. And for that reason, I insist on criticizing her.
She insists on America making good on the promise inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: Give me your poor, yearning to be free.
Danielle thinks we should all “show up in a way that makes us believe in the possibility of this thing: this land, this project. I think it's important because the work of white supremacy seeks to make us believe those things are not true; that we stand apart and alone. That we are only here to be of service to them, not to our faith in what this country can be.”
That’s why she’s so joyful today: “Because we've spent so long criticizing this country, jokingly saying pray about it –– America may still be; it may not. But here we are, at the dawn of this new day, believing we can still perfect this very imperfect union.”
Biden’s executive orders: ‘Wiping away Trump’s BS’
Toure says we’re far from perfect, but the question is: Is America as good as it can be?
“We can only compare America to itself,” he explains. “And it is not as good as it will be if we apply the appropriate pressure and push it toward a more progressive, democratic and multicultural future. And we can do that.”
Although Biden has already signed “a raft of executive orders that just wiped away so much of the Trump bullshit,” he adds, “We will not move toward true equality in any administration.”