who first said “We are the ones we have been waiting for”?

I love the phrase “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” Barack Obama didn’t coin it and never said he did, but its origins seem a little obscure. Some websites call it a Hopi elders’ phrase, but I see no evidence that the Hopis were using it long ago. David Mathews, president of the Kettering Foundation, calls it “an old song from the civil rights movement” (Is There a Public for Public Schools, Kettering Foundation Press, 1996). But David may have heard it sung by Sweet Honey and the Rock, and Alice Walker explains, “It was the poet June Jordan who wrote, ‘We are the ones we have been waiting for.’ Sweet Honey in the Rock turned those words into a song. Hearing that song, I have witnessed thousands of people rise to their feet in joyful recognition and affirmation.” (Walker, The Ones We Have Been Waiting For, The New Press, 2007, p. 3).

I have tracked down the line in Jordan’s “Poem for South African Women,” which she presented at the United Nations on August 9, 1978 in “commemoration of the 40,000 women and children who, August 9, 1956, presented themselves in bodily protest against the ‘dompass’ in the capital of apartheid.” So Jordan may have invented this phrase in, or not long before, 1978. That would make it a song of the late civil rights movement. But the sentence is italicized and typeset as its own stanza, as if it were an epigraph. So maybe Jordan quoted it from anonymous predecessors, which would certainly be appropriate in a poem. Both Senator John Edwards and Sojourners CEO Jim Wallis quote the late activist Lisa Sullivan (1961-2011) as their source for the phrase. See Edwards, “Ending Poverty: The Great Moral Issue of Our Time,” Yale Law & Policy Review vol. 25, no. 37 (2006-2007), p. 348 and Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (HarperCollins, 2006), p. 374. Either Sullivan quoted Jordan, or both had older sources.

I sort of wish the phrase had an anonymous, folk origin, because that seems to reflect its spirit. Also, June Jordan is not really my hero as a poet. I enjoy her wry humor and endorse her fierce expression of identity and solidarity as a Black, bisexual woman in the 1970s. But her very direct, literal, informal poetry now seems dated. The political moment has also passed. Consider, for example, her “Poem of Personal Greeting for Fidel on the Occasion of his Trip to the United Nations, 1979″:

      el norteamericano media …

dismiss the grace of your arithmetic

transliterating bullets into butter

hospitals and books for children

The same collection also includes a welcoming poem for Khomenei. Castro and the Ayatollah strike me as a couple of macho megalomaniacs dependent on mass imprisonment and judicial murder for their power–but that is easier to see in 2011 than in 1978. Anyway, in case Jordan is the original author of my favorite political slogan, let me say that her “Poem for South African Women” is a striking work with several strong images, especially: “the babies cease alarm as mothers / raising arms / and heart high …”

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  • Tiffany

    It is my understanding that this quote originally came from an unnamed Hopi Elder from the Hopi Nation.

    • Bokwe108

       I’m sure the Hopi Elder was named Wise Feather!

    • shayneo

      It was by chief R U Gully Bull.

  • Lpcary

    I suspect it comes from having smokes too much Cambodian red.

  • 17_woods

    A whole bunch of us out here, Pete, are waiting for the November election so we can vote this dope out.

    • StevenAK

       For a bigger dope with no ability to tell the truth?

  • http://www.lyssanda-designs.com/ Pegi Eyers

    Alice Walker sourced the origin of the expression in her book titled by the same name, “We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For”:  “It
    was the poet June Jordan who wrote “We are the ones we have been
    waiting for.”  Sweet Honey in the Rock turned those words into a song.
    Hearing this song, I have witnessed thousands of people rise to their
    feet in joyful recognition and affirmation. We are the ones we’ve been
    waiting for because we are able to see what is happening with a much
    greater awareness than our parents or grandparents, our ancestors, could
    see.”http://www.feminist.com/resources/artspeech/genwom/wearetheones.html

    • PeterLevine

      I know–in fact, I quoted that page in my post (first paragraph). And there is no question June Jordan used the line and Sweet Honey sang it. But that does not mean that June Jordan invented the line; it may be a quote from an old Civil Rights saying, as several knowledgeable people believe.

  • Jerry Gnoza

    WE said it. Of course!

  • Micromeria

    Hello, the anti-colonial struggle is not over. What would happen if the the US was not in Afganistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria…uh, most countries in the Middle East not to mention Africa (and Asia and Latin America too…) the big bully with all the guns and bombs? America is fighting like a dog to hold on to those oil and other resources. Times up baby.

    The fighting may appear to be some religious argument, but it gets down to self-determination – people having a right to control their own lives and resources.

    People who accept a world today as status quo are obviously exposing their own material stake in the current political economy – where most the world is in poverty and suffering. The US hordes something like 80% of the worlds resources. Incredible arrogance and brutal blood-sucking destructiveness all in the name of profit. June Jordan’s politics are right on in my book: African will be free.

    • Dan

      You think like a little child. The phrase “we are the ones we have been waiting for” is perhaps the most self centered, narsacistic phrase yet spoken. Plese grow up before you post again.

  • lindarising

    I believe it came from a speech given by Hopi Elders to the United Nations sometime around the 1990s, by Thomas Banyanca if I recall correctly.

    • PeterLevine

      It has to be older than that, because it’s in June Jordan’s poem from the 1970s.

  • Centrosphere

    I have no evidence, but it seems to be echoing some ancient wisdom tale. Actually, the legend of the Simorgh, or the Conference of the Birds, where some number of birds leave in search of the godlike bird Simorgh, then… ” Eventually only thirty birds remain as they finally arrive in the land of Simorgh – all they see there are each other and the reflection of the thirty birds in a lake – not the mythical Simorgh. It is the Sufi doctrine that God is not external or separate from the universe, rather is the totality of existence. The thirty birds seeking the Simorgh realise that Simorgh is nothing more than their transcendent totality. The idea of God within is an idea intrinsic to most interpretations of Sufism. As the birds realize the truth, they now reach the station of Baqa (Subsistence) which sits atop the Mountain Qaf.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Conference_of_the_Birds

  • Dan

    The phrase strikes me as utterly self righteous. It’s a purtianical salute to ourselves.

    • Satan Claus

      Dan, Dan, Dan… With spelling like yours, I suspect that I’m the one you have been waiting for… (I’m sorry I’m late, by the way. All that NSA traffic in the ether, you know?) Anyway, given the logic and knowledge of history you fail to display – and the completely unself-righteous way you in which you display it (respek, man!), I fear the crayons I was going to get you this year may be far too advanced. Sorry. Better luck next year.

  • Satan Claus

    What?! Mr Obama is German?! But his hairstyle is not silly and he’s not packing a moustache – let alone a Charlie Chaplin number! Are you sure he’s not an Irish gentleman?