On Aug. 9, 1978, June Jordan, the late poet and political activist, presented a poem at the United Nations titled “Poem for South African Women.” Jordan presented the poem in commemoration of the 40,000 women and children who on the same date in 1956 presented themselves in bodily protest against the “dompass” in Pretoria, the administrative capital of the apartheid regime. The dompass was a form of identification for different races in South Africa during the time of apartheid. On that day in 1956, women and children protested against the brutal and dehumanizing institution of apartheid that had so divided South Africa. Through her poem, June Jordan sought to honor their courage and sacrifice.
Every time I read Jordan’s poem, the words sweep across my spirit with hopeful and resilient tones–pushing me to a place where I am forced to confront my own contribution to struggles for liberation that beckon my participation. But it is the closing line in Jordan’s poem that has always challenged me to take a long, serious look at myself. She writes: “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. 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: Subconsciously, they knew that they were the ones they had been waiting for.
Historically, the African American struggle for justice, liberation and equality has frequently had charismatic leaders who sought to give vision and direction in times of political turmoil and social upheaval. Names like Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman often come to mind. These phenomenal figures, and many others like them, helped to inspire confidence and courage during times that were marked by despair and anxiety. In fact, bold leadership is necessary during times when timidity seems to be the order of the day.
But I’ve also come to realize that among historically oppressed people, a rich legacy of dynamic and monumental leadership can also have a somewhat negative impact. That vibrant legacy of historic leadership can also give birth to messianic expectations that can undermine personal possibilities for participation in liberating acts. In other words, it is possible to be so consumed with waiting for a messiah-like figure to lead the way toward salvation that individuals fail to embrace their own potential and power to engage in social and communal transformation.
June 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. 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.
I am not an alarmist who seeks terrify people into participation, but I know that we are in the midst of some very challenging times. I also know that there are many people who are waiting for the next Martin or Malcolm or Sojourner to show up, but maybe that is part of the problem. Instead of waiting to see who the messiah will be, perhaps each of us needs to embrace our own strength and potential. June Jordan once wrote, “In the process of telling the truth about what we feel or what we see, each of us has to get in touch with himself or herself in a really deep, serious way.” Times like these necessitate introspection, because it is my wholehearted belief that in this historical moment we are the ones we have been waiting for.