“While I Breathe, I Hope”

Dum Spiro Spero is the motto of South Carolina. It is something that I have thought about a lot growing up there. I thought about what breath and hope mean and how it is possible to stand an eternity being ever watchful for something better over the horizon. I have had hope for a long time that my state, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, would be better– more equal, more racially aware, more financially prosperous, more like it looks on the outside. I love my home but it often seemed antagonistic towards me–it abused me. Even walking the streets of beautiful Charleston, I could not help but remember that most of the slaves who entered the U.S. came through this place. I understand what would have made Denmark Vesey want to kill and burn Charleston down to the ground. For many, it is a small thing–removing the confederate flag from the state house grounds, but for me it has reignited hope–hope that we will finally be free and feel that this land is ours. Nikky Finney, also a native daughter, captures my feelings aptly in her poem “A New Day Dawns”:

 It is the pearl blue peep of day. All night the Palmetto sky was seized with the aurora and alchemy of the remarkable. A blazing canopy of newly minted light fluttered in while we slept. We are not free to go on as if nothing happened yesterday, not free to cheer as if all our prayers have finally been answered today. We are free, only, to search the yonder of each other’s faces, as we pass by, tip our hat, hold a door ajar, asking silently who are we now? Blood spilled in battle is two-headed: horror and sweet revelation. Let us put the cannons of our eyes away forever. Our one and only Civil War is done. Let us tilt, rotate, strut on. If we, the living, do not give our future the same honor as the sacred dead – of then and now – we lose everything. The gardenia air feels lighter on this new day, guided now by iridescent fireflies, those atom-like creatures of our hot summer nights, now begging us to team up and search with them for that which brightens every darkness. It will be just us again, alone, beneath the swirling indigo sky of South Carolina, working on the answer to our great day’s question: Who are we now? What new human cosmos can be made of this tempest of tears, this upland of inconsolable jubilation? In all our lifetimes, finally, this towering undulating moment is here.

Nikky Finney


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