A Tribute to Dr. King

I have just been listening to a couple of African American guests on a talk show. Both, as far as I could tell were perhaps in their 30’s and roughly comparably educated.
The first identified many ways that our U.S. society has been structured to maintain an inequitable and unjust system that uses race as a lever for applying power. He suggested that we must change the culture, and suggested some broad ways this might be done. Our culture – a complex cultural milieu, I would say, as there is no uniform cultural state for all the people – is the ultimate driver of any systemic or institutional change. Changing culture, under the best of circumstances, is a challenge.
The second speaker spoke about the inequities, largely in access to realizing aspirations, and generally economically expressed. Her general message seemed to be that things were worse now than they had been in her past – presumably the 90’s, and that it felt very defeating. Whether she got to what should be done to change things, to stop and perhaps reverse the decline, I don’t know. I was frankly unimpressed by what sounded like a complaint against not having gotten the fortune she deserved from life. This was a seemingly healthy, educated young woman who had recently had a book published, but the closest she came to speaking out for those very oppressed by conditions was her use of the first person plural pronouns.
When I was teaching, roughly half of my students were African American, many from low income or homeless/highly mobile situations. I sought readings by writers whose backgrounds were not unlike my students. I once asked if, in their experience, the students thought things were getting better, worse or staying the same for people of color. I didn’t ask this question again, however. Most of the students said nothing, but a couple took angry exception to having such a conversation.
I didn’t pursuing the topic. It was moving farther from our academic goals, but I wonder now about the reticence. Was I out of bounds for opening this discussion? I enjoy (albeit ashamedly) white male privilege. There are many accidents of birth that burden us with guilt. Or was their reluctance from a sense of pointlessness, bitter resignation to society’s chains? Or was it something else? A fear that it could become an avouchment of the guilt of their “accident of birth?” Was it that, as a representative of the system, I held power, not to be relinquished, and therefore not of any benefit to the African American case, and possibly a harm. Yet I was really, perhaps selfishly seeking affirmation of my observations from outside the situation that things really were, or seemed to be in decline.
Open forums are of course necessary, complex and difficult. But recognizing that a problem exists certainly is a good first step. Better still is envisioning a goal – one that is rewarding, but realistically achievable, generally legitimate and challenging enough to engage thought and energy. Then the problem becomes more clearly definable as what is keeping us from that goal. After that, developing and carrying out a plan to resolve the problem and achieve the goal become the hard work of positive change.
These are ancient algorithms, and on this day after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2019, it seems a blind miss not to point to the great leaders of our Civil Rights Movement were by whatever avenue informed on moving against the problems that kept people from that mountain top. It was an historic period of our history as well and a significant and powerful action. Where has it left us though?
Perhaps we should stop worrying about whether things are better or worse; they’re not there yet. Perhaps it’s not so important that life isn’t fair or that the tangibles of injustice spring from the ephemerals of culture. Perhaps having a plan isn’t enough if we haven’t defined and generally agreed to a clear destination. Dr. King moved the plan forward toward a destiny. Yet that plan lost steam when the destination became increasingly unclear, fragmented and divergent. We make our own destinies, but when those are unaligned, we’re on the way to destiny in a bumper car ride.
Right now, it seems like more than anything, we need to get our destiny, which is not just the destiny of Black people but of all people, back to a rewarding, achievable, legitimate, challenging and defined destination. If it holds all of these conditions, its attainment will be so empowering that it could spark the further march to solving some of the even more daunting problems, such as saving the planet. The hardest part will be effectively redefining and agreeing upon our destiny, our mountain top. This will probably require another charismatic leader. When has this not been the case?

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