Audacity: The New Scarlet Letter
“Audacity: the quality or state of being audacious: as a: intrepid boldness b: bold or arrogant disregard of normal restraints.” –Merriam Webster Dictionary
As I type these words, it is 12:45 a.m. on Inauguration Day, and I cannot sleep. About an hour ago, I watched, giddy with excitement, the clock’s slow progress toward history. Granted, my being awake was in part due to a looming deadline for this essay and one or two espressos, but as it grew nearer and nearer to the stroke of midnight, I could not help but think of what the day ahead symbolized, and could not help but wonder if our President Soon-No-Longer-To-Be-Elect was also awake, and also typing away at his keyboard or his Blackberry, making those final edits for a speech that will forever be part of history.
I have been thinking about the word “audacity” a lot lately, and on this eve of change, it seemed an appropriate theme for our winter SalonZine issue. As an artist, one must embrace audacity. Audacious art is the sort Nita and I wish to see more of, and it is what you will find in the pieces in this issue. The audacious artist asks the question: what is missing? and creates. The audacious artist asks: whose story is not being told? and tells. The audacious artist does not ask: what will sell? but rather: what must be?
“For a very long time everybody refuses and then almost without a pause almost everybody accepts.” -Gertrude Stein, writer
Barack Obama has asked all of these questions, and the answers will lead him to the steps of the White House in less than twelve hours. Barack Obama had the audacity to think he could be our nation’s first African-American president, had the audacity to think that he could lead our country out of the quagmire of the last eight years, had the audacity to offer a message of hope and a belief in change, had the audacity to say, simply, “Yes, we can.” And millions of Americans had the audacity to believe him, to stand in line for endless hours in order to pull that historic lever.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.” -Margaret Mead, anthropologist
We, the American people, have doubted. For the last eight years, we have doubted. We have protested against a war that seems to have no end in sight. We have protested against human rights abuses at a prison whose doors remain open. We have seen our investments tank, our houses foreclosed, our jobs lost. We have seen the worst president in American history dismantle the ideas of freedom, of liberty and justice for all. We lost faith that change was possible. We lost faith in ourselves.
Then came November 4, 2008. An amazing and wonderful thing happened that night that none of us will soon forget. Collectively, we the people had had enough, and we, the people won the election, won back our lost hope, won back our belief in change. We individual tiny yet powerful ants, as the proverb goes, finally and irrefutably overtook the elephant and sent him packing.
Millions of people exercised their right to vote; thousands of people volunteered their time; hundreds danced and sang and played music on the streets with their neighbors late into the night; individuals greeted friends and strangers alike with hugs and an emphatic “Yes, we did!” Indeed, change had come to America.
“It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity and enclosing her in a sphere by herself.” -The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
Barack Obama enters the White House with his very own “fantastically embroidered and illuminated” letter “A.” He is an Artist, yes, but worse even than that, our new president is guilty of the crime of Audacity. Merriam Webster defines audacity as “bold or arrogant disregard of normal restraints.” Could anything be more true of our forty-fourth president?
Perhaps most compelling for purposes of this essay, Barack Obama has the audacity to write and speak intelligently, compellingly, humbly-not to mention in complete sentences and proper English. What does it mean to have a literary-and literate-president? One who is interested not only in politics but in arts and culture?
I hope it means that I don’t have to explain to quite as many people what a reading series is. I hope it means that I never again have to solicit book donations for a public school library in my neighborhood whose funding was cut. I hope it means bringing more teaching artists into our nation’s schools. I hope it means that students will be taught the value of artistic expression, will be taught that smart is cool, will be taught that their individual voices matter and need to be heard. I hope it means that artists will be given the resources to express the soul and spirit of our nation and our times. We useless artists can serve our country in this way-by standing with our new president and revealing the Audacity stitched into the very fiber of our beings.
Barack Obama is one of only four presidents who has included a poet in his inaugural ceremony. This is not a gesture of mere window dressing. Obama understands the complex power of words, a power which has allowed him to write himself into this chapter in this story of this America. In poetry, he is looking for not words alone, but history, all of history, encapsulated in a few lines. Poetry will stake its claim. Poetry will be heard. Poetry, he knows, will outlast us all.
The general lack of inclusion of an inaugural poet speaks volumes about the place of art in our society. Art is a second class citizen, it is useless, good for nothing. In these tough economic times, we need jobs and bailouts, not novels or poetry. Recently, I met a woman at a diner who works as a tax accountant. Our conversation went something like this:
She: And what is it that you do, exactly?
Me: I run a monthly reading series in Brooklyn.
She: A…reading series? What’s that?
Me: It’s where authors read excerpts of their work aloud to an audience.
She, exceedingly puzzled: To what end?
To what end, indeed. You can’t eat art. Art surely won’t pay your rent, or it at least has never paid mine. Yet, if you are reading these words, chances are you probably already know the answer to this question.
“What gave him the audacity of hope? You did….He saw that audacity in you.” -Van Jones, activist
Maybe it’s that thing that happens-you don’t notice something until you start thinking about it, and then you see it everywhere, you realize it has always been there. Barack Obama saw it in all of us before we recognized it in ourselves. And after November 4, we started to see it, too. A funny thing happened. People started to hope again, openly and with a sense of “we’re all in this together; let’s get to work.” Things started to shift.
The activist Van Jones knows how to get people’s attention. In a speech to a group of young inner city high school dropouts not used to paying attention and having attention paid to them, Jones told them, “Not only is Barack Obama not going to be able to save you-you are going to have to save Barack Obama.”
That got their attention.
They started to listen to this man. Through his many years of activism and innovation, this forward thinker recognizes that this nation of ours cannot be fixed by one individual alone. We must help Barack Obama. We must save him. Our duty to him and to our country does not end with his inauguration. Rather, it begins anew.
As Barack Obama pledges service to his country today, so must we all. We must all take up the work of fixing this nation of ours, one day, one person, one tiny step at a time. We must not let our forty-forth president down, and we must remember that our victories have come only through hard work and perseverance. We must never, ever forget that we are role models to the next generation, and the work we do now is for them. We are responsible for bringing change to our nation and to the world. We can each make a difference.
We are artists. We are teachers. We are activists. We are leaders.
We are audacious. And we are capable of anything.