“Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies?” — Rainer Maria Rilke
The first time I was in Savannah, Georgia — which was around the time Ruby Bridges was having difficulties in New Orleans — my parents drove along the streets that James Oglethorpe laid out in squares when he founded the colony of Georgia in 1733. Because of the layout, few streets ran in long straight lines; instead, every few blocks, they opened onto a square, so you had to slow down and go around half its perimeter before you picked up your street again. The squares were filled with trees, giving Savannah the nickname of “the Forest City,” and stately houses faced one another on all four sides.
I don’t know whether or not things are the same there these days, but the streets, the squares, the houses, imposed, then, what you might call a public demeanor that would, if you grew up there (like some of the kids my parents introduced me to), nurture a genteel forbearance, enforced by the scrutiny of neighbors who literally surrounded — enveloped — one another.
Another age, perhaps, but there’s some carry over, I’m sure. Regardless, aside from the “genteel forbearance” (though certainly related to it), there was the sense of community… which still exists with some demographics down there in select quarters. And that’s what I want to address for activists who are operating anywhere on the planet, especially in the U.S. today.
My parents used to drive to Atlanta every summer… long before there were any highways ringing the city. To visit my grandfather, Papoo, who owned and operated a market in the heart of the Peach State. Then and there was where I found a great sense of community that paralleled what I was growing up with in flower of the Garden State, Newark, New Jersey. And I was very clear on what they had in common, my birthplace and my summer place. The pace was different, but the spirit resonated the same during my formative years.
And I write this piece now — so very many decades later — to underscore for young concerned citizens the importance of a spirit of community if they are engaged in trying to make a difference. And want to be very clear that by “sense of community” I don’t mean folks getting together now and then to attend a soccer match to scream their heads off, or an annual gathering which brings together people who won’t cross paths for much of the remainder of a given year. Rather, I mean bonding that’s deep and caring and ongoing.
It’s not that I was recruiting citizens for movement in solidarity around the time of Ruby Bridges’ historic inroads; I did not at that time have the experience of drawing upon members of my community in Newark or Atlanta. I was too young for that. But I did see that a sense of community was important in order to make changes; perhaps my memory fails me here, and maybe I didn’t really see the importance of being a part of a loving community for activist purposes until much later.
That said, I did eventually draw upon members of my close-knit communities in the 1960s, when I went into high gear to make a difference in solidarity. And I humbly and respectfully submit that no matter what physical and psychological and societal changes have taken place since Ruby Bridges crossed that historic barrier in New Orleans, there’s still the need for us to bond intimately with other concerned citizens before we march in circles holding placards with them by our sides… screaming bootless cries.
What will make it possible for the “cries” to be heard will be their accompaniment by angels, their song. And the angels will sing if the song is composed by those who comprise a loving community. If the depth of Ruby Bridges’ youthful connection with God finds its counterpart in our connection with other citizens. If our relationship with them has grown out of an authentic sense of community.
Give us that… and the angels will sing.
Richard Martin Oxman is the founder of the Oxman Collective. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He believes that it would be worthwhile for select readers to check out the various translations of the quote by Rilke above.