Barack Obama must have heard Sweet Honey's version many times, and no doubt knows well the work of June Jordan, one of the sharpest and most politically conscious American poets of our times.
The line is the last one in her "Poem for South African Women," written in 1980, when the end of apartheid still seemed distant. Whether he got if from the song or directly from the original poem, Obama made it the defining call of his presidential campaign, and may its spirit guide his administration: "we are the ones we have been waiting for." To say it another way, it's up to us to make this a better world. The South African women and men were up to the challenge, and we had better be too.
June Jordan, unfortunately for all of us, did not live long enough to see this triumph. Her words still echo, though, in the minds of all of us who have read them or heard her read them in her rich voice. (You can hear that voice in a 2003 interview on Democracy Now!) Obama's campaign amplified them.
Here is the whole poem.
Poem for South African Women
June Jordan, 1980
June Jordan, 1980
Our own shadows disappear as the feet of thousands
by the tens of thousands pound the fallow land
into new dust that
rising like a marvelous pollen will be
even as the first woman whispering
imagination to the trees around her made
for righteous fruit
from such deliberate defense of life
as no other still
will claim inferior to any other safety
in the world
The whispers too they
intimate to the inmost ear of every spirit
now aroused they
carousing in ferocious affirmation
of all peaceable and loving amplitude
sound a certainly unbounded heat
from a baptismal smoke where yes
there will be fire
And the babies cease alarm as mothers
and heart high as the stars so far unseen
nevertheless hurl into the universe
a moving force
irreversible as light years
traveling to the open eye
And who will join this standing up
and the ones who stood without sweet company
will sing and sing
back into the mountains and
even under the sea:
we are the ones we have been waiting for.