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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