'On this New Year’s Eve, this watch night, I close my eyes and I see the darkness of my grandfather’s cell.'
This beautiful speech was delivered on NYE 2016 by Valerie Kaur of the Revolutionary Love project, at an interfaith service called after a series of hate crimes in California and Washington State.
The crimes included the murder of 68-year-old Amrik Singh Balm who was attacked while waiting on a public street for a ride to work. His attackers shouted "Why are you here?" during the beating, prompting Sikh Americans to share their stories with the hashtag #WhyWeAreHere. The interfaith service was part of this protest.
This is a speech that contains an incredible hinge. It’s themes through the first three quarters are the intolerance that has blighted America, and the rise of a new and dangerous form of white nationalism in the present day. Unsurprisingly, for an event galvanised by a hate crime, it’s a sombre and bleak beginning.
But then Kaur says this line:
‘What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?’
And the atmosphere in the Metropolitan AME Church catches fire. There’s cheering, there’s shouting, and Kaur lights up with the congregation, and it feels almost like Dr King is speaking, and it’s beautiful.
Below is the transcript to her interfaith speech, but it’s one you should listen to as you read.
Speakola has 6287 subscribers, and 190 who are good enough to chip in and pay $5 a month. Maybe you have a New Year tip for us? Or maybe just a New Year speech? Vaclav Havel’s one that I posted last year is my absolute favourite.
Valerie Kaur: "What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?", Interfaith Watch Night Service - 2016
31 December 2016, Metropolitan AME Church, Washington State, USA
On Christmas Eve 103 years ago, my grandfather waited in a dark and dank cell. He sailed by steamship across the Pacific Ocean from India to America leaving behind colonial rule, but when he landed on American shores immigration officials saw his dark skinned, his tall turban worn as a part of his Sikh faith, and saw him not as a brother but as foreign, as suspect, threw him behind bars where he languished for months until a single man, a white man, a lawyer named Henry Marshall filed a writ of habeas corpus that released him on Christmas Eve 1913.
My grandfather Kehar Singh became a farmer, free to practice the heart of his Sikh faith — love and oneness. So when his Japanese American neighbours were rounded up and taken to their own detention camps to the deserts of America he went out to see them when no one else would. He looked after their farms until they returned home. He refused to stand down.
In the aftermath of September 11th when hate violence exploded in these United States, a man that I called uncle was murdered. I tried to stand up. I became a lawyer like the man who freed my grandfather and I joined a generation of activists fighting detentions and deportation, surveillance and special registration, hate crimes and racial profiling. And after 15 years with every film, with every lawsuit, with every campaign, I thought we were making a nation safer for the next generation.
And then my son was born. On Christmas Eve, I watched him ceremoniously put the milk and cookies by the fire for Santa Claus. And after he went to sleep, I then drink the milk and ate the cookies. I wanted him to wake up and see them gone in the morning. I wanted him to believe in a world that was magical. But I am leaving my son a world that is more dangerous than the one I was given. I am raising — we are raising — a brown boy in America, a brown boy who may someday wear a turban as part of his faith.
And in America today, as we enter an era of enormous rage, as white nationalists hail this moment as their great awakening, as hate acts against Sikhs and our Muslim brothers and sisters are at an all-time high, I know that there will be moments whether on the streets or in the school yards where my son will be seen as foreign, as suspect, as a terrorist. Just as black bodies are still seen as criminal, brown bodies are still seen as illegal, trans bodies are still seen as immoral, indigenous bodies are still seen as savage, the bodies of women and girls seen as someone else’s property. And when we see these bodies not as brothers and sisters then it becomes easier to bully them, to rape them, to allow policies that neglect them, that incarcerate them, that kill them.