On Aug. 9, 1978, the late poet and political activist June Jordan read a poem at the United Nations titled “Poem for South African-Women.” She presented it in commemoration of the 40,000 women and children who, on the same date 22 years earlier, bravely gathered in the heart of South Africa’s apartheid capital to protest the brutal and dehumanizing institution that divided their country. Through her poem, Jordan sought to honor their courage and sacrifice.
The African-American struggle for justice, liberation and equality has historically had charismatic leaders who provide vision and direction in times of tremendous political and social upheaval. During Black History Month, we honor these phenomenal figures—men and women such as Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman—who inspired confidence and courage in some of our country’s darkest days.
It’s an incredibly vibrant legacy of historic leadership, but I fear it’s holding us back. I fear that we’re so consumed with waiting for a messiah-like figure to lead the way toward salvation that we’re failing to embrace our own potential and power for social transformation. How beneficial is it to only celebrate heroes from the past? If African-American greatness lives solely on the pages of history, then nostalgia does us a disservice.
“We are the ones we have been waiting for.” Jordan penned those poignant and powerful words when reflecting on South African women who, living under the restrictions of an oppressive regime, understood that only the oppressed can truly free themselves. The urgency of their moment and the pain of the oppression they experienced meant that they could not afford to passively observe their own demise. The women and children that Jordan pays homage to had to seize the moment and try to forge a new road toward their freedom. Those courageous women risked their lives and livelihood to not only protest, but to participate in their own liberation. They could not merely afford to wait for deliverance from the outside: They knew that they were the ones they had been waiting for.
It’s a lesson we’d do well to remember today. We’re in the midst of some very challenging times. Police brutality is tearing apart lives and communities; voting rights that had been hard won are being dismantled piece by piece; and the impact of mass incarceration is being felt now more than ever. Rather than waiting for the next Martin, Malcolm or Sojourner to show up, it’s my hope that each of us, myself included, will embrace our own strength and potential. That’s why it’s so important to celebrate not just our heroes from history, but also African-American leaders of today and the future leaders in our midst.
Jordan’s poem was not about a singular figure, it was about 40,000 women and children who embraced their personal call to participate in their own liberation. As we confront injustice and racial bigotry in our communities, it’s my hope that we all remember that we are the ones we have been waiting for.
The Rev. Michael Walrond is the senior pastor of the 10,000-member congregation at First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem.