Power in words

At lunch this past Sunday, former Civil Rights Commissioner Dr. Mary Frances Berry spoke to incoming students in the University of Penn’s Africana Studies Summer Institute. Coming to campus from teaching Sunday School, I was late and sweating, having rushed, parked a few blocks away, and hiked across the under-construction campus. The young people’s faces looked beautiful, focused. They’d come from all over the country and from ancestors across the globe.  They attended to every word, a little scared, maybe, but game.

Dr. Berry’s talk centered around a book she wrote with her former student, Josh Gottheimer, who worked as speechwriter and special assistant to President Bill Clinton. Power in Words: The Stories behind Barak Obama’s Speeches, from the State House to the White House analyzes 18 addresses from the President’s time in the Illinois State Senate to his election night speech in Chicago’s Grant Park. Booklist praised the authors’ examination of Obama’s “consistency of message—one of unity, responsibility, and change.”

Berry talked about the nature of power, politics, and Washington, among other topics.  It was a primer on how the world works, and I wondered how many of Berry’s many layers of meaning these intelligent and attractive young people were able to take in.  They had the book, and I’m sure that many of them had read it—and will re-read it as a guide in years to come.  But on Sunday, in answer to their questions, she seemed also to be challenging them to claim their ambition.

The day before, at the Harlem Book Fair, I’d meditated on ambition throughout the 100-degree afternoon, and all the variations I saw: from independent young publishers to the accomplished poet who put his volume into my hands and said: “$10”;  to Omar Tyree publishing a new e-book at $1/chapter to Amiri Baraka, who got smacked upside the head by a woman who tried to take over a panel discussion in Thurgood Marshall College; we brought our ambitions to the day, some grandiose, some trivial. Writers pushed and sold and told each other what they hoped for. We hawked our wares.

The young folk waited in line to meet Dr. Berry at the end of the luncheon.  It sounded to me as if some of them thought that they had to decide everything very soon, before they let slip great opportunities.  They are right to think of this time as precious.  But I wanted to grab them and spin them around and dance.  I wanted to warn them to make the ambition their own.  Not just what should you do, but what can you do well, brilliantly, with your whole spirit?  Not just where is power, but in what ways are you your most powerful?

I thought of our older daughter, who had gone to Penn herself, and worked a couple of jobs including a promising magazine appointment in New York.  Just last December she left it, packed up the dog, subletted the perfect sunny start apartment in Brooklyn, and went to teach snowboarding!  She teaches with enthusiasm and soul: groups in the winter, and one special boy in summer. On the second or third day in Vermont, she rang to tell me that she was driving up the mountain.  The sun was rising gold and pink over the snow, and she said that she had almost forgotten that she could be this happy.

That, too, is an ambition, one we forget to tell the young people about. Dr. Berry and thousands of others did indeed win rights for them.  I hope they will use the gift, not just to grab and wrassle money and power, but also to find ways most fully to live.

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