for Mayor Steve Benjamin’s State of the City address, 29 Jan 2019
Hanging on my sister-in-law’s wall
is a print we’ve all seen: an angel
hovering over two kids walking across
a rickety bridge, kids sure to fall
if she weren’t there—there’s a board
missing at their feet, the rail gone
on one side. The poor kids are barefoot,
the girl’s got a basket, she’s got her arm
round the boy’s shoulder. Neither sees
the angel, who floats above the bridge, lightning
in the distance. The angel reaches out
as if she’s blocking trouble on either side,
as if she wants to gather them up in her arms
and wrap them in her robes. She hovers over,
unable to do either. In 1861,
Lincoln asked his secretary of state
for help with his first inaugural address.
South Carolina had already done its part
to start butchering up the map of who we
were, and it was about to get worse.
What could he say, given the state of the union?
Sewell was glad to help, gave the president
seven pages of suggestions and wrote up
something pretty for the end, calling on
the guardian angel of the nation.
Lincoln didn’t use that phrase.
Instead, he said, mystic chords
of memory would swell a chorus of unity,
of union once again, if touched, he said,
as surely they will be, by
the better angels of our nature.
No, for Lincoln, the answer wasn’t
some agent, some angel outside us
or beyond, but here, among us, within us.
He wasn’t thinking about angels
and demons sitting on our shoulders.
He was thinking about a message,
something we can almost hear
now, a century and a half later.
In the empty lot next door, daffodils
are coming up—a message from the past,
drawing the lines of a house no longer there.
That image of the guardian angel was first
a German postcard. The print in my in-law’s home
hangs in homage to a Mississippi grandma,
who’d hung it with a light shining on it.
In ancient scripture, an angel was just a messenger—
sometimes divine, sometimes human—the same
word, mal’ākh, same task. Scripture tells us
when we feed the hungry, welcome the stranger,
whatever we do to the poorest among us, we do
to the divine in all of us. Is that her brother?
Is that his sister? Am I my brother’s keeper?
What’s in her basket? Loaves and fishes?
What if the boy wore a hoodie and carried
a bag of Skittles? What if they were tired
and tongue-tied kids wrapped in silver
blankets? What if she were wearing a hijab?
What if he were wearing a prayer cap?
Or what if he already knows his difference, hers,
and they will come back to that bridge
years later to look down into the dark?
The angel hovering over is not the angel
of history, winds of catastrophe caught in her wings,
blowing her back. No, she’s looking at what’s
in front, not what’s behind them. The angel wants
to fix the bridge, the missing step, the broken
rail, but she knows she can’t. To do that
takes something better. It takes human hands.