Hand on the Plow

We, as citizens, have work to do. It’s work at the same job we have had right from the very beginning: to form a more perfect union. It’s day-in-day-out, year-in-year-out, generation-in-generation-out civic work.

It’s not easy work: it always has taken and always will take all of the neighborly love and practical imagination we have in us to keep at it. It needs our sustained focus and routine effort.

We are too often led to believe that some looming threat – be it a foreigninvader or an insurgent demagogue – is what’s going to be our nation’s downfall.

But if we are to end, it will most likely come from something much less dramatic: our failure to sustain the work.

The greatest threat to the work has always been – as Roosevelt warned – fear, itself. It robs us of our greatest resource – each other – and distracts us from the tasks at hand.

Fortunately, the best antidote to fear has always been the work, itself. It turns strangers into neighbors, differences into gifts, and worry into curiosity, which is the seed of caring.

Perhaps the next bomb – from the hand of a terrorist or the mouth of a racist – is the specter that should keep us awake at night.

But perhaps our real specters look more like a trowel ungripped or a stranger unwelcomed; a prisoner unvisited or a neighbor unhoused; a child uninspired or a community unheard. Not the blasting of guns or the chanting of jerks but the withering of gardens, the rusting of gears and the fraying of a tapestry which, as Langston Hughes wrote in his greatest poem, has “All men are created equal” and “No man is good enough to govern another man without his consent” and “Better die free, than to live slaves” woven into its warp and woof.

“To the enemy who would conquer us from without…” Hughes wrote, “We say, NO!”

“To the enemy who would divide and conquer us from within…” Hughes continued, “We say, NO!”

“Freedom! Brotherhood! Democracy! To all the enemies of these great words: We say, NO!”

But after we’re done saying “NO!”, what did Hughes advise?

“A long time ago, an enslaved people heading toward freedom made up a song: “Keep Your Hand On The Plow! Hold On!” The plow plowed a new furrow across the field of history. Into that furrow the freedom seed was dropped. From that seed a tree grew, is growing, will ever grow. That tree is for everybody, for all America, for all the world. May its branches spread and shelter grow until all races and all peoples know its shade. KEEP YOUR HAND ON THE PLOW! HOLD ON!”

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