Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Monday, January 21, 2013

"One, Today": Richard Blanco: Part II

Gay rights at the forefront 
Of Obama's inauguration speech

Obama’s inaugural address a few minutes ago made history, in that he linked the struggle for gay rights (Stonewall) with the women’s movement (Seneca Falls) and civil rights for black Americans (Selma).* It is assumed that this speech was heard by millions, and when gay marriage and gay equality were mentioned, those words received some of the loudest cheers from the huge crowd (the mall was at capacity, and authorities had to turn away many who were among the last to arrive).

*We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

Equality for gay Americans was mentioned several times*, and the icing on the cake was a poem – “One, Today” – written and recited (just after the public swearing in) by openly gay Latino poet Richard Blanco. I had to pinch myself, because a little more than four years ago I would have thought this unimaginable. Blanco followed in the footsteps of our first inaugural poet, Robert Frost, who was chosen by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, and Maya Angelou, who was chosen by President Bill Clinton in 1993.

*Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. 

I have already made a post about Richard Blanco, but I have since learned a little more about him. The roots of his writing began in 1968, when his parents fled Communist Cuba and went into exile in Spain. At the time, Blanco’s mother, a teacher, was pregnant with Richard, her second son. After five months in Madrid, where she gave birth to Richard, they immigrated to New York. As a boy, she said, Richard always had an interest in exploring his Cuban roots.

"I always had questions about Cuba, about the family we left there," he said. On his website he refers to himself as being “made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, and imported to the U.S.”

That sense of not belonging and trying to belong seeps through his books of poetry, which often feature his family and their efforts to hold on to their traditions. Richard got to visit the homeland his parents yearned for when he was growing up. His relatives, who feared he would not speak Spanish and would feel uncomfortable, were surprised when he picked yucca in the fields, jumped into the canals and danced a lot – just like everyone else.  That trip as a young man would shape the poet’s future work, in which he writes about his roots.

“I would say that poetry is the place we go to when we don't have any more words – that place that is so emotionally centered,” says Richard. “It is the place we go to when we have something that we can't quite put a finger on, that we can't explain away, that we can't easily understand with the mind. It's the reason I come to poetry as well. As I love to say in my writing classes: If you sit down totally convinced of what the poem is going to be, don't even sit down, because writing a poem is a discovery process.

I immediately found a reason for writing beyond the love of the words. I had something that I wanted to discover. All of a sudden I was twenty-something thinking: Wait a minute, I'm not as Cuban as I thought and I'm not as American either. That kind of trumped a lot of sexual identity questions.

My third book is sort of the book in which I came out of the literary closet. Its theme and topic was the intersection of these identities, or how they collided. What does it mean to be a gay Cuban man? Asking that really opened the door. It piqued my interest in that sense. And now I've been with my partner for twelve years, and I'm 44. It's almost like my mind couldn't handle negotiating both things at the same time, until this third book.

My work has to do with searching – searching within myself, but searching for what the universal experience is that poetry taps into as well.”

Or click on this link for video of Blanco delivering his poem during Obama’s inauguration:

The full text of Mr. Blanco's poem:

One, Today

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces of the Great Lakes,
spreading a simple truth across the Great Plains,
then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one,
a story told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper –
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives –
to teach geometry, or ring up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent today, and forever.
Many prayers, but one light breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues,
warmth onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.

One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat and hands,
hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm,
hands digging trenches, routing pipes and cables,
hands as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.

The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind – our breath. Breathe.
Hear it through the day’s gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony of footsteps,
guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.

Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across cafe tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me – in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives without prejudice,
as these words break from my lips.

One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.

One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always – home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country – all of us –
facing the stars.
Hope – a new constellation waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it – together.