The weather was just below the freezing mark, and three thousand blue blankets were handed out to the crowd that turned out for Bill De Blasio’s inauguration as mayor on January 1st. The people furthest down in the city felt vindicated against the “3%.” Dismissed by Romney as the “takers” and by Wall Street as “irresponsible spendthrifts,” the have-nots’ hopefulness cut through the cold. Optimistic pop songs maneuvered by DJ M.O.S. blasted out promises like Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” and triumph in McFadden and Whitehead’s “Ain’t no stopping us now.” De Blasio smiled, former mayor David Dinkins had a look of relish, and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg looked like he was sucking a lemon.
In 2002 Bloomberg had come into office with a benediction by a Catholic Cardinal. De Blasio had blue-collar union chaplains: a Protestant pastor for sanitation workers; a Catholic priest for the police; a Muslim imam for the people working or jailed in the prisons; and a Jewish rabbi for the firemen. The Rev. Fred Lucas of Brooklyn Community Church fired up the audience with a controversial invocation: “Let the plantation called New York City be the city of God, a city set upon the hill, a light shining in darkness… Through your divine leadership,” he asked God, “emancipate every New Yorker from the shackles of fear, futility and frustration, from poverty, homelessness, helplessness.”
The faith-based supporters of De Blasio were heartened with his promises to be more friendly to their concerns about the fairness of the city government toward religious people. They recalled that the new mayor had marched with them to protest Bloomberg’s prohibition against renting school space to religious groups in the off-hours. In response to De Blasio’s solidarity the evangelicals and Pentecostals turned out the largest voting block for him in the Democratic primary.
For them the inauguration was about defining the city as a different sort of place from Bloomberg’s “Luxury City” idea with the poor and the religious huddled in unheated basements. Besides the new mayor, the star of the whole inauguration was a young religiously-guided daughter of immigrants who delivered a vivid glimpse of the new New York City. The New York Times reporters observed that “the most showstopping performance was that of Ramya Ramana, New York’s Youth Poet Laureate.”
Ramana stepped up to deliver a poetic definition of the new city. As her voice cut through the frigid air with stark enunciations on the City Hall steps, her eyelids fluttered back and forth from a thin stack of papers containing her poem “New York City” to the audience in front of her listening intently to discern what will be the new meaning of New York City with its first new mayor in twelve years.
The listeners included one former President, Bill Clinton, two former mayors, and entertainment stars like "Sex and the City" actress Cynthia Nixon and actor Harry Belafonte. The poet blew her anxieties away and delivered the message.
Her poem conjured spiritual images of the city for her audience. She portrayed skyscrapers dropping their shadows on the streetlights like darkness covering the songs of hymnals -- "A constellated skyscraper ... gripping the street lights like an eclipse of hymnals.” But she reminded the audience to keep heart because dead dreams can rise again like Jesus' resurrection – “It is the faith in the heart that makes a dead dream worth resurrecting.”
She enjoined her audience to take ahold of the idea that the city calls its citizens to change for the better: “It is a constant baptism to remind us of our holy…” The city, Ramana promised, is a tough Mama who cares for her children. It is a “single mother donating her last meals worth of money to church … This, we call holy. This we call tough skin. Thick boned. This is New York.”
“And the congregation says, ‘Amen!’”
"This is a prayer, a new beginning, this is how I feel," she told A Journey through NYC religions regarding the poem. "I was trying to voice the people." Weaving Biblical metaphors with issues of inequalities, she made the case that a fragmented city is on a holy mission to ameliorate its divisions and build a unified community. Ramana welcomes Mayor de Blasio's promise that he will tackle such social dilemmas with a faith-friendly touch.
Ramana’s poem also fits within the tradition of NYC writers weaving a sense of God’s purposes with democratic values. Jewish writer Israel Zangwill called this process “the melting pot.” In his 1909 famous play by that name he wrote, “America is God's Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming... Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians - into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.”
New Yorkers have seen their city as an iconic representative of the democratic good, the way that diverse peoples come together for the betterment of each other and their communities. (In his support for Jews immigrating to Galveston Zangwill also identified such iconic hope with Texas.)
Chirlane McCray, the mayor’s wife and a poet herself, arranged with Urban Word NYC (a nonpartisan, nonsectarian organization) for Ramana to give the oration at the inauguration. McCray is a supporter of Urban Word, which is a not-for-profit youth advocacy group that has mentored Ramana in spoken word poetry since her senior year of high school. Ramana currently sits on the Youth Leadership Board.
When the group called the young poet, she was doing what she loves to do: helping people. She was on the phone consoling a disheartened friend. Once she hung up, she checked her voicemail. "I listened to the voicemail and I was like 'What?!' I was in shock," Ramana said about her response to the invitation to perform at Mayor de Blasio's inauguration. A Journey reporters noticed that her poem used religious metaphors and wondered if they were a sign of a deeper spiritual interest. Pretty quickly, we found out how deep that was.
Five days after the inauguration Ramana asked if a reporter from A Journey would like to join her for a noontime service at her religious home, Hillsong Church at Irving Plaza. Afterwards, we went for a sit down at a local cafe in the Gramercy neighborhood of Manhattan to talk about her Christian faith and its effect on her activism expressed in poetry. We discovered that the meaning of the city can come out of a religious encounter.
Finding one's voice among bullies
While growing up in Stonybrook, Long Island, Ramana never felt like she really fit within the mostly White, well-to-do community. Although her parents had immigrated to the United States from southern India, Ramana and her older sister are first generation American-born. However, their coffee colored skin and jet black wavy hair still set them apart from their White friends. Ramana was usually one of a handful of minority students in the public schools of Stonybrook and sometimes suffered malicious teasing because of it. Racial prejudice constantly recurred in her interactions during her middle and high school years.
One instance occurred in middle school. A so-called friend created a character of Ramana on a Wii board, a Nintendo console for games. "She was fat with unibrows and dark skinned,” Ramana recalls with a wince. “It was really ugly.” Her “friend” added to the caricature a recorded voice clip of Ramana singing opera completely off tone. Then, to stamp Ramana with shame, her friend electronically sent the cartoon around the school with a chain message to pass it on. Devastating is how Ramana talks about the incident. She was emotionally up and down and not doing well in school. She needed help.
In the eighth grade Ramana’s insecurity and isolation took her downward until she had an encounter with Jesus that rescued her from an abyss. An intense direct experience convinced her that God is real and gave her tangible solace during her teenage years. However, sensitive to the religious diversity of her family she avers that she is "not in a place ready to share ” the details. Her father became a Christian when Ramana was a toddler, but her mother remains Hindu.
After her classmates found out about her Christian conversion, they buked her, "You can't be a Christian because you're Indian.” Religious ignorance was mixed with racial bigotry into a toxic cocktail imbibed by the meanest of kids. "I was numb," Ramana says of that period of her life. She tried to maintain normalcy by shrugging off offensive acts but they seemed to rear their ugly heads again and again.
Ramana's road through school remained a rocky one. She started writing more poetry as an emotional outlet. And she became a difficult kid for schools to manage. By her senior year, she had attended seven schools and ten educational programs. "No one thought I would graduate," she said.
Ramana's parents decided to reinforce the strength that Ramana was getting from her faith and enrolled her in the Upper Room Christian School in Long Island for her last year of high school. The school was also more ethnically diverse than the public schools. Ramana says that at this "school for minorities she felt comfortable. The school advertises that because “God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34), … neither should we, His servants, be. Therefore, racism, prejudice or an elitist philosophy has no place at Upper Room Christian School.” The teenager thrived in the new school.
In addition to changing schools, she met a team of supportive poets and mentors through Urban Word NYC's youth program, a group she found online through an Internet search. Urban Word helped her pinpoint issues like the social injustices she experienced through bullying. Her confidence rose, and she began to construct a distinct poetic voice that was deeply personal and raw.
Interestingly, the young immigrant’s experience parallel’s the situation of the mayor’s wife. As an African American girl in a majority White neighborhood, McCray says that she was mocked by Whites in her school. She recalls that her family was the second Black family to move into Longmeadow, Massachusetts, a suburb of Springfield. A petition was circulated to stop them, and their house was marked out by racist graffiti. She wrote poems every day to cope with her isolation and anger.
“I had never had a deep sense of belonging anywhere,” McCray said. “I always felt I was an outsider.”
In April 2013, Ramana took her poetry to new heights by receiving a full scholarship from the New York Knicks Poetry Slam to attend St. John's University in Queens, where she studies Philosophy, Government, and Politics. About six months later, Ramana competed in the 5th Annual Youth Voter Poetry Slam Finals held at Lincoln Center and won with a poem titled, "It's Not Your Problem." The poem discusses gentrification, White supremacy skinheads, crack, and other topics of NYC's distressed counterculture.
Jesus as inspiration
At Hillsong's Sunday service in Irving Plaza's main dance hall, Ramana's slender swaying body was a gentle contrast to her troubled teen years. With her palms up and elbows bent, her chest-leveled hands looked like miniature flying saucers in the dim lighting as they moved along with her torso.
Her brown eyes softly gazed forward and her lips worded the lyrics to the song "Oceans," performed by the band of Hillsong Church about forty feet away. "Spirit lead me where my heart is without borders," she sang while standing in the audience. The words indicate one of the attractive powers of the fast growing church to the city’s multinational youth.
New York City is probably the most diverse major city in the world, according to the city’s statistics. Immigrants and their children make up almost two-thirds of the city population. There are about 76,500 Indian immigrants in the city in 2011 with their children mostly born here. The future of the city and its religions is tied to the faith trajectories of the large cohort of children born in immigrant households.
"Let me walk upon the waters where ever you would call me," she sang as if she was calling to God her willingness to be a social activist. Indeed, the poet believes that the Spirit is calling her to follow Jesus to care for the downtrodden.
"When you look at the life of Jesus, he was an activist and revolutionary," said Ramana. "He was an advocate of the oppressed and loved human beings." She spoke slowly as she picked her words carefully. "I don't want to be Jesus because I can never be that, but I strive to have similar characteristics as he does," she continued.
One characteristic of Jesus admired by Ramana is his love for humanity. A hand written note on the cover photo of her personal Facebook page reads, "I want to love like Jesus loves." In her professional Facebook artist page for her fans, she regularly thanks Jesus and states in her bio that she is a "believer of God." On Twitter, an image of a bloody, suffering Jesus nailed to the cross is the backdrop of her profile headshot. Across the picture reads the text, "Jesus. Humanity. Art. Revolution."
Another characteristic of Jesus that Ramana values is how he became a voice for the voiceless. "As a woman of color, I fall into that category," she said, emphasizing her Indian heritage. Yet, she finds it amusing that a report published on the inauguration by Democracy Now!, a leftist independent news media, deemed her an activist. "Oh snap!" she thought to herself when she read it. I asked why she had that response, she replied, "I always held activism to a high standard and didn't call myself that. Who am I?" Instead, she points to her heroes as the real activists: Tupac Shakur (because he "used art for activism"); Martin Luther King; and James Baldwin.
Looking at the future through the past
When Ramana looks back at the bulling which she experienced, she wonders, "What is going on in their lives that I was such an instant target?” She believes that the bullies may themselves have been damaged by others. She recited the parable, “Hurt people hurt people." As her voice took a tone of compassion, her countenance seemed to settle into an attitude of strength and resilience. She added an explanation, the torments have “made me stronger as a person.”
Perhaps too, compassion is a bit easier when one is busy thinking of their next writing project, the next poem, or the next bit of activism.
As the New York City Youth Poet Laureate, Ramana plans on working on a book for Penmanship Books. Her current interest in childhood development gives a glimpse of the some topics that she might cover. "When I was little, my world was a poem," she said whimsically. "I hope I can take my poetry to more children." She admires Dr. Seuss as a children's poet. She is also collaborating with Indian American artist Asha Sing, the first Desi (Indian) woman to ever have a single hit in the Billboard charts, on a series of gospel-related music.
As for as poetic social activism, she is planning to work with the New York City Campaign Finance Board on poetry slams that encourage young people to civic action and voting.
Despite the increased attention due to her performance at the mayor’s inauguration, Ramana is determined to keep humble with an awareness of her imperfections and need for help to deal with her struggles. Prior to her poetry reading on January 1st, she did a little ritual that she plans on continuing. "Before I go up, I say 'God, be with me,'” she says. “That gives me the strength." Such cherished blessings occur invisibly in our city and then come out into the streets in beautiful ways.
“New York City: Dedicated to Mayor Bill De Blasio”
A constellated skyscraper, moving gracefully to jazz beat,
Finding the Gil Scott Heron in her footwork.
Gripping the street lights like an eclipse of hymnals.
This, is home.
The lost voices, the heart’s devotion to beat and pulse, slow dancing kernels.
Home to hustle. Home to work hard, dream harder.
Home to move in silence- let success shatter the glass of hostage echoes.
New York City- not lights, not Broadway, not time square,
It is single mother donating her last meals worth of money to church-
It is the faith in the heart that makes a dead dream worth resurrecting.
It is coffee colored children playing hopscotch on what is left of a sidewalk.
It is chalk outlined, colonized map on a street as dark as the bones of the dead.
This, we call holy. This we call tough skin. Thick boned.
This is New York.
We will no longer stay silent to this classism.
No more brownstones and brown skin playing tug of war with the pregnant air
Hovering over them like an aura of lost children.
No more colored boy robbed off their innocence.
This city- always will be the foundation of this country.
We are root. We are backbone. We brown, we black, we yellow, we white, we young;
We collage of creatures stomping to be reminded of the mammal in us.
We, chance. We deserve. Us opportunity.
Us New Mayor. Us New beginning like dancing cocoons.
Us hope. Us fight. Us happen. Us love us some good human.
Us happy. We happy. We happy with change- it is a constant baptism to remind us of our holy.
We welcome. We family.
We, congratulate Mayor Bill De Blasio.
We are so very honored and pleased to have you.
And the congregation says, “Amen!”
Read part 2 of series Jesus the New Yorker : "Jesus the New York Jew"
Sidebar to part 2: Searching for the Messiah in New York City
Read part 3 of series Jesus the New Yorker: "Jesus the New York Networker"
Read part 4 of series Jesus the New Yorker: "Young Jesus the New Yorker & the future of the city"