On Wednesday, Oklahoma and Oklahomans figured prominently in the Inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. as the 46th President of the United States of America.
While so many conservative Oklahomans might feel defeated or denied a voice in a new, more progressive administration, the voices of Woody Guthrie and Garth Brooks proclaimed a different message: Oklahoma voices are American voices.
First, Jennifer Lopez performed Guthrie’s best-known song, “This Land is Your Land.” In elementary music classes, we heard this song as a kind of homegrown “America the Beautiful.” We usually heard only two verses in those classes, but “This Land is Your Land” is both a work of love for and a sharp critique of a nation, the rights to which are enshrined in the First Amendment.
by George Lang, opinion writer for Free Press
But for too many years, reactionary conservative voices in Oklahoma extended the hateful sentiments and intentions of the House Un-American Activities Committee so that his blacklisting extended beyond Guthrie’s own lifetime and into my childhood. Much like I rarely heard Guthrie’s name while growing up in Jenks, I also never heard about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre that took place about 15 miles from my home. We, as Oklahomans, swept inconvenient truths under the rug.
But then I heard Lopez sing Guthrie’s song from the steps of the Capitol, and I started crying. Much like R&B singer Sharon Jones’ transformative reading of “This Land is Your Land,” hearing a person of color sing that “this land was made for you and me” from a position of power magnified Guthrie’s message.
Lopez’ performance was a graceful and forceful pushback against the border policies and unfettered racism that poured out during former President (oh damn, that feels good) Donald Trump’s administration. It was the purest invocation of those words. Guthrie did not write the song with caveats. “You and me” meant every “you” and every “me.”
Following Biden’s swearing-in ceremony, Brooks performed “Amazing Grace,” and again I was thankful that one of Oklahoma’s favorite sons was standing alongside America’s new leaders.
Brooks, who was born in Tulsa and raised in Yukon, is a great and expressive singer — something I had to learn after my initial hostility as a young college student. He is a transcendent figure in country music, a man whose progressive values came full flower with 1992’s “We Shall Be Free,” a song of inclusion and a kind of restatement of Guthrian ideals.
Having Brooks sing “Amazing Grace” was not merely a recitation of one of Christianity’s best-loved hymns, but an outreach to the White, conservative middle Americans who are, most likely, currently feeling as though they are at an impasse. Brooks’ presence and performance felt like a salve applied to a bloodied and emotionally battered nation, including a home state that voted overwhelmingly for Biden’s opponent.
Those performances should be taken to heart by Oklahomans as an invitation to join America’s future. The regressive reverence toward the failed traitors of the Confederacy did nothing for the South. Indeed, White Southern hatred toward the North and toward Blacks in the wake of Reconstruction held those states back like a thicket of kudzu and drove Blacks to northern states in search of equality and opportunity.
A generation ago, young and progressive Oklahomans left this state at the earliest opportunity in search of new homes where they could prosper and feel as if they belonged. Through progressive policies in the urban centers, Oklahoma stemmed the tide of the “brain drain,” but if we do not embrace America’s future, our state will suffer the self-inflicted wound of isolation.
We must not let our regressive congressional delegation establish a new Jim Crow by silencing and disempowering Oklahomans who do not look or think like they do. On the last day of Donald Trump’s presidency, U.S. Senator James Lankford tweeted that we “should commend the men and women who serve the nation as ICE officers, not abolish the important work they do.”
Oklahomans have been refugees.
In Guthrie’s time, Oklahomans left this state in convoys of trucks and wagons, seeking refuge from dust storms and a devastated economy. They arrived in the West, where they were derisively called “Okies” and treated no better than opossums caught rummaging through garbage cans. They suffered malnutrition, poverty and the emotional devastation of having lost so much.
We must resist the hateful words of Lankford, who calls the separation of families at the southern U.S. border and internment of children in cages as “important work.”
We must repudiate Lankford’s inhumane attitudes toward immigrants and his worship of those who punish them for wanting better lives. It is not just un-American; if I read history correctly, both through the eyes of Guthrie and other great seers of our past struggles, it is un-Oklahoman.
At the Biden inauguration, Oklahomans were shown a clear choice. They can embrace a future in which this land was made not just for them, but for indigenous Americans, for the descendants of Vietnamese refugees, for first-generation immigrants from Central America, for young Black men and women and for the LGBTQ+ community. Or, they can go the way of Lankford and embrace the enemies of American ideals.
I sincerely hope more Oklahomans saw the inauguration ceremony as a signal to do what is right for their neighbors.
We will not get there by espousing the retrograde “rugged individualism” of seditionist Rep. Markwayne Mullin or by proselytizing cherry-picked Christianity like Lankford.
We can get there by embracing the true populism of Guthrie, the inclusivity of Brooks and the wise teachings of National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, who recited her work “The Hill We Climb” at the inauguration:
We are striving to forge a union with purpose
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and
conditions of man
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us
but what stands before us.
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