One River, One Boat: When Have We Ever Heard So Much about a Gubernatorial Inaugural Poem?

South Carolinians are used to hearing plenty of less-than-positive news about their state in the media, local and national. Some of it is condescending and smug, but much is well deserved for a state that continues to lag behind in most measures of human development and social cohesion—and whose leadership class often seems at best oblivious to poverty, corruption, violence, and inequality.

 

In the last few days, alas, another case of South Carolina in the news for all the wrong reasons. Organizers informed the state’s poet laureate that she would not be delivering a poem at Gov. Nikki Haley’s inauguration ceremony Wednesday morning, apparently citing a lack of time.

 

The poem takes maybe three minutes to read if you go reeeealy slow. And the inauguration program has no set length.

 

Forgive me for thinking there was something else going on here.

 

A more likely explanation is the poem’s content. As this story from NPR tells it, Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth, a Charleston-area teacher and arts activist, composed relatively “safe” poems for the last three gubernatorial inaugurations. But this one, coming in the wake of a year when the bitter legacies of American racism were too much in the national spotlight to be ignored, openly mentions the slave port of Charleston, homeless veterans, and migrant farm workers. It calls attention to the Confederate flag that still flies on the State House grounds, praises the judge who finally, in 2014, cleared the name of George Stinney, a fourteen-year-old black youth sentenced to death for murder by a kangaroo court and executed in 1944. (The NPR story includes the full text of the poem, entitled "One River, One Boat," reprinted with permission.)

 

I suspect that the poem was too much for Gov. Haley’s staff, who are likely well aware that the election, recent reelection, and continued political viability of South Carolina’s first non-white, first female governor have all depended on minimizing her racial “otherness” and pursuing policies that are congenial to the conservative older white people who currently make up a majority of the state’s voters.

 

In other words, according to this approach, you don’t successfully govern South Carolina—or, evidently, position yourself for national office—by giving white people in this state any extra reason to think about our ugly history of racism, poverty, and exploitation. Because that might make them remember that you yourself aren’t white, or at least not quite white enough. It’s evidently much more effective to inflate job creation numbers and ride the wave of an economic recovery for which you aren’t responsible, push for legislative ethics reform after deflecting accusations against yourself, and stoke resentments of a supposedly overly powerful federal government and—I will just say it the way my own state representative was frank enough to do a couple of years ago—of the "black guy in the White House."

 

In the meantime, South Carolina’s infrastructure and rural communities languish, and the Governor and the General Assembly actually work to circumvent a state Supreme Court ruling—the result of a twenty-year-old lawsuit that the legislature has had the temerity to fight every step of the way—that would finally require equitable funding for rural and urban school districts.

 

Obviously, the people of South Carolina should be able to expect better from their institutions of government.

 

I think Ms. Wentworth’s poem is touching and thoughtful, a call to action for building a better kind of multiracial society. And I think the themes it raises, eloquently, are ones that we desperately need to talk about and keep working on, in South Carolina and around the country. And thanks to the shortsightedness of the planners of this morning’s inauguration, it’s gotten a whole lot more atention than it would have otherwise. (Here, for example, is U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn reading it, with moving commentary, into the Congressional Record.) Let's hope the truth about South Carolina's history and the divisions that continue to hobble us get more attention in the process, too. 

 

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