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Letter from America (5)

Source: George A. Adebiyi

Words! Words are potent and powerful, for good or for evil.

Sonia Sotomayor is today the 111th justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America.� She is Hispanic, and the only one of that racial minority group to ever serve on the Supreme Court. She is also only the third woman to serve on the highest court of the land. In a sense, she is a double minority on the bench of the apex court of justice in America. Americans must be proud of moving yet closer to the goal of a more perfect union that recognizes that “all men are created equal”, and that the ground is truly level for all its citizens. Yet, one thing stood out throughout the gruesome confirmation hearings, just a few words that Justice Sotomayor spoke a few times in motivational speeches to young Hispanics:

"I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

These words were repeatedly used by opponents to the confirmation of 55-year old Sotomayor as Supreme Court Justice. In the end, she was confirmed by a vote of 68-31, including nine Republican senators that voted for her confirmation. Our words can work for or against us as was the case with Justice Sotomayor.

George Wallace was elected governor of Alabama in November 1962, and in his inaugural speech he used a line for which he is best known:

“In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Later in life, Wallace professed being a born-again Christian and went on to apologize to civil rights leaders for his earlier segregationist stance.

While some speeches divide people, others bring hope to so many.� The opening words in America's Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776 are truly iconic:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”


In 1863, Abraham Lincoln in his famous Gettysburg Address began with the same proposition:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

After paying tribute to the heroes that gave their lives that the nation might live, Lincoln concluded with these words:

“… that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

What about the “I have a Dream” speech of Martin Luther King? He began the speech this way:

“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”

After hailing the Emancipation Proclamation issued in 1862 and 1863, King noted the sad fact that “one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free.” He vowed “there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.” The speech ended not on a note of despair, but one of hope:

“And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

… …
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

… …
“And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when allof God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

�Free at last! Free at last!
�Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

The speech was in 1963, and it has changed the landscape of America ever since. In 2008, the United States of America elected its first African American President, the leader of the free world.

Words are truly important! Most people of my generation will remember John F. Kennedy's rallying call at his inauguration as President of the United States of America, “... ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country." A nation was roused and lifted high during his presidency. That period has been referred to as the “Camelot” after the legendary King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

I tried to recall memorable speeches from Nigeria's archives. One speech maker that left a footprint for his humorous quotes was K. O. Mbadiwe, alias K. O. When he referred to “heavy weights” of Nigeria's politics, he called them “Men of Timber and Caliber.” Another of his famous quotes is "When the come, come to become, the unbecome, must become."

In equally humorous vein, many would remember the punch and counter-punch saga between Joseph Tarka and Godwin Daboh which brought about the quote, "If you Tarka me, I will Daboh you.”

Nigeria had its share also of statesmen who moved people with their speeches. I came across an Epitaph penned by Nigeria's first President, popularly known as Zik of Africa:

“When my epitaph is written
I should be happy if it could be shown
That I saw those who thirsted, and gave them water to drink

That I saw those who hungered and gave them food to eat

That I saw those who were naked, and clothed them
That I saw the blind, and helped them to see
That I saw the lame, and helped them walk
That I saw the deaf, and helped them to hear
That I saw the dumb, and helped them to speak
That I saw those in affliction, and succoured them

That I saw my country in chains, and helped to liberate it

That I saw my people in darkness, and helped to show them the light

That I tried to love my neighbour as I would that he should love me

That I tried to live by the side of the road and be a friend to a man.”

These words echo those spoken by Jesus about the Final Judgment of humanity. To those on his right hand, the “Son of Man” would grant the inheritance of heaven with these words:

“… I was hungry and you gave me something to eat,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you invited me in,
I needed clothes and you clothed me,
I was sick and you looked after me,
I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
No, the righteous would protest, when did we do all these?

“I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

To those on the King's left hand, this was the indictment:

“I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.

Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

You remember the song by Mahalia Jackson titled “If I can help somebody …” Here are the lyrics:

“If I can help somebody
As I travel along
If I can help somebody
With a word or song
“If I can help somebody
From doing wrong
My living shall not be in vain
My living shall not be in vain
My living shall not be in vain
“If I can help somebody
While I'm singing this song
My living will not be in vain”

I read Don Miguel Ruiz's book titled “The Four Agreements” not too long ago. One of the agreements is “Be Impeccable with Your Word”. Ruiz makes the point that “word is so powerful that it can change a life or destroy the lives of millions of people.” He cited the use of the word by Hitler, the manipulation of a whole country that led to a world war and convinced others to commit the most atrocious acts of violence. Ruiz describes word as power to create, the gift that comes directly from God.�He cites the Gospel of John in the Bible that begins with this rather profound statement:

“In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word is God.”

While the author of the Four Agreements did not write primarily from a Christian perspective, the principle enunciated agrees with Christian precepts. For example, the Apostle Paul addresses this injunction to Christians:

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

Jesus had this to say about goodness and the words we speak:

“The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.

“But I tell you that men will have to give account on the Day of Judgment for every careless word they have spoken.

“For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”

Our words can be uplifting, they can also destroy others. Currently in America, the debate is on Health Care, and what has transpired in several Town Hall meetings can aptly be described as “the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” There have been heated exchanges and a lot of name calling.�The situation has improved more recently, and the debates have been more civil and focused on the issues.

Nigeria's continuing experience with democracy will no doubt gain from embrace of civility in public discourse. In America, several CEO's of banks and other financial institutions were found culpable in the financial crisis that the country was plunged into these past two years or so. There was outrage, and there have been steps taken to get the situation under control. Nigeria is waking up to the fact that not just politicians, but private financial institutions have corruptly messed up the country's economy. The sense of outrage by Nigerians is understandable. More importantly, however, corrupt individuals must be held accountable and punished. In America, Bernard Madoff admitted defrauding thousands of investors of billions of dollars. Estimated client losses amount to over $50 billion. On June 29, 2009, Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison, while efforts continue to recover assets to be used to offset losses by investors. No society can catch up with all the thieves and pen robbers operating in it, but those caught should have justice administered to them!

We began this letter by asserting the potency of words. What better way to end than to reproduce the words of Nigeria's national anthem?

Arise, O compatriots, Nigeria's call obey
To serve our fatherland
With love and strength and faith
The labour of our heroes past
Shall never be in vain
To serve with heart and might
One nation bound in freedom, peace and unity.

Oh God of creation, direct our noble cause
Guide our leaders right
Help our youth the truth to know
In love and honesty to grow
And living just and true
Great lofty heights attain
To build a nation where peace and justice shall reign

George A. Adebiyi, Ph.D.
Professor of Mechanical Engineering