What Do I Expect From This Turn of the Historical Wheel: Barack Obama’s Election to the Presidency of the United States of America


By Alice Walker


Many years ago I wrote a poem that began: Expect nothing, live frugally on surprise. It was to remind myself of a difference between expectation, which is often unfulfilled, and openness, which holds a space for what is not only unexpected but almost unimagined. Boldly I open myself to the possibility of an increase in meaning for American culture, and for the world at large, and a decrease in our common suffering.


How is this likely to happen? It can happen in areas too numerous to count, if each of us embraces the opportunity to meet the challenge of living in a changed world, a world in which global warming is just as astonishing, with as much necessity to rise to the new occasion, as having a black president; but for me, what comes to mind with a certain relentlessness, is the necessity for all those who are held unjustly in prisons around the country to be freed. It is disturbing that so many of us are celebrating a sensation of feeling newly liberated from long years of political repression and societal hopelessness, while countless others sit in what has become a colossal gulag that should be an embarrassment to anyone who longs to think of America as a place of justice. I have visited women in prison, some of them incarcerated for two and three lifetimes, as if that were even possible, for having been involved in their husbands’ or boyfriends’ drug deals. Their children are growing up without them, wounded and alienated, awaiting their turn to explode into rage that will send them also into prison or jail. We can do better than this; and besides: we need all of our people who are not violent, and the majority of drug offenders are not, outside the prisons with us, working to bring about the changes, life-enhancing changes, of this brand new day. (Read Van Jones’ The Green Collar Economy for how some of this might be done).


There are also the political prisoners for whose release I, and others, have struggled (writing, rallying, speaking, marching) over decades: Leonard Peltier, the Native American activist who was accused of a crime he almost certainly did not commit, but imprisoned for life, regardless, as a lesson to the Native American people: Mumia Abu Jamal, a journalist and human being of such grandeur it is a grief that he is not outside the prison with us, but is rather locked up, and has been, for over twenty-five years. Then there are the prisoners from Cuba, who should have been received as our guests: Gerardo Hernandez, Antonio Guerero, Ramon Labanino, Fernando Gonzalez, and Rene Gonzalez, also know as the Cuban Five. These husbands of wives and fathers of families, came to the U.S. ten years ago to monitor terrorist groups in Miami that were infiltrating Cuba and harming Cuba’s fledgling tourist industry; killing or endangering innocent people in the process. Information they discovered they turned over to the F.B.I. only to be arrested and imprisoned for their troubles. They have been behind bars all this time since their arrest; their wives and families denied access to them. Who are we to treat anyone in this way? And how naïve or perhaps simply uncaring, to assume only Cubans suffer from the imprisonment of these men.


There is little meaning in a society that does not venerate justice and the peace that comes because a society, at the very least, aims to be fair. There is no end to suffering in a society, or a world, that finds the anguished pleas for justice and balance, respect and a proper hearing, ignored.


While contemplating Barack Obama’s election and the administration he is gathering around him, I have looked closely at each person being attracted to America’s urgent cause: that of steering us into a wildly uncertain future. Mostly I have seen people of good faces, people with an open look of humanity in their eyes. It certainly does seem possible, as it did not during the Bush years, that we could change our penal system in ways that honor the people we hope we can be. Only time will answer whether the Obama team will have the courage and compassion to hear our cries for justice and simple mercy for our brothers and sisters dying slow and unjust deaths behind prison walls. Our cries for their release will not cease, any more than will their challenges in prison stop: the daily dangers, frustrations, humiliations and fears. It would be a delightful relief to discover that our new leaders have humanity not only in their hearts and eyes, but also in their ears.

Copyright © Alice Walker 2009

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