Yesterday was the great Civil Rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s, birthday. I am fortunate that I get to spend my days in an institution of higher learning where the man’s life and his message is meaningfully celebrated—many places just cancel classes and call it a day. I am also fortunate that, in my teaching and my research, I get to focus on the liberation of African and African diasporic people as it is inextricably tied with the liberation of other groups and Mother Earth. As such, I’ve had the privilege of exploring Dr. King’s work over the past several years, especially in our Civil Rights Era unit.
But when I teach about that period of time I also bring in those who struggled alongside him; who supported him in getting his great message of equity and equality for everyone—at home and abroad—out into the world.
I teach my students about other great thinkers, leaders, artists, activists, and teachers like:
And The Little Rock Nine, to name a few
But I also teach them about those who came before them; women and men who sacrificed themselves for the gift of freedom when they had no reason to believe that they would ever achieve it.
One of my absolute favorite people to discuss every semester is Frederick Douglass, born enslaved but, by the time of his death, a best-selling author several times over, a statesman having served as U.S. Ambassador to Haiti, and a much sought-after speaker. I not only read his autobiography (available for free) with my students, but often share with them his famous speech delivered on July 4,,1852, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”.
So yesterday, when I was listening to Dr. King’s famous sermon, “Loving Your Enemies” I found myself recalling Douglass’ speech and reflecting on the country’s current state of upheaval that is eerily reminiscent of the U.S. post-Reconstruction era with its rabid white backlash and a large enough segment of the white population desiring to “take back the country”.
One part of Douglass’ speech that always sends chills down my spine is Douglass’ directive for the U.S. to live up to her potential, a task we have yet to undertake, let alone accomplish.
I was also reminded to the incredible 1965 debate between James Baldwin and William Buckley in which the question is asked “Has the American Dream Been Achieved at the Expense of the American Negro?”and which Baldwin won by a landslide. Baldwin, as usual, was razor sharp in his analysis of the condition of the African American in the deeply racist U.S.
The debate was held at Cambridge University in England and I could not help but recognize the irony of all those lily-white bodies giving Baldwin a standing ovation at the same time that they were treating their own “negroes” as second-class citizens.
These connections must be made between the distant past, the not-so-distant past, and the present moment across these artificially constructed boundaries and borders that we all blindly adhere to. For me, it is the only way that we can see clear to a way forward where Dr. King’s dream will finally be realized, rather than continuing to dry up in the sun like a raisin, festering like the untended wound that it is the American psyche, stinking up the world with its rottenness, and covering our hearts with its oozing crust and weighs us down before finally it explodes, leaving all of us with no more dreams to be had as the great writer and poet begged us to take note of many years ago.
By Langston Hughes
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Langston Hughes, “Harlem” from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (1995)
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