Fifty years ago today, the grand event for justice—“the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation,” as Dr. King averred—that was the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place not too far from where I presently sit. My grandmother, then Donna M. Wilkinson, was my age: 23. Another 23-year-old was there, SNCC leader John Lewis. He spoke with passion, vigor and a moral seriousness—with a righteous impatience with the status quo.
As a 23-year-old myself, scarcely a bone in my body is not moved, quickened—hardly a cell in my body is not intensely warmed—by the video footage, memorials and recounting of that world historic day by those who were there, those who have made the chronicling of the movement their life’s work, and those others who, having been influenced by the courage, tenacity and passion of the movement builders and leaders, offer their highest encomia and appreciations.
My grandmother, the aforementioned Donna Wilkinson, related to me that she had no idea of Martin Luther King or his work until this day, some fifty years ago. She was born and raised in the greater Washington, D.C. area. Although discrimination was not uncommon here, she, very fortunately, was not subject to the same explicit, blustering violent expressions of racism visited on so many of her Sable brothers and sisters in the South. Thus, for her, the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, was her first real introduction to the cause and its leaders, a grand invitation to all those who make justice, freedom and equality their charge.
My grandmother, a young 23-year-old mother, was not able, owing to the exigencies of motherhood, to participate in the movement. And, as I reiterate, she was not subject to the fierce Jim and Jane Crow so common in the South. She could vote, she served her country in the Navy. She, and others I’m sure—in an admission I must concede with biting irony, and very grudgingly—was spared, blessed, favored (by God? the universe?) in this regard.
However, it wasn’t because racism was overcome in the mid-Atlantic region. She might have easily been the object of racist persecution had she found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Be that as it may…
The more I read, study, watch and reflect on the proceedings of the that day—and the work that lead thereto—the indefatigable passion, energy and effort to struggle for something so profoundly human and moral as civil and social rights, the more I feel myself—my very life, the blessings and opportunities which I have enjoyed—implicated in that struggle, in that day.
There is a tradition of Black struggle that has made possible so much of what I take for granted. And while we are nowhere near completing the work—and in any event, the work is ongoing and never really “complete,” is it?—I cannot be anything but emboldened, empowered and enthused about the purpose of the best of the Black struggle for freedom—a struggle chiefly moral, and never simply restricted to African phenotype—and its ramifications for my past, present and future, and the nation’s and the world’s.
I am the heir (and not only me)—and proudly proclaim it—of a precious movement, conversation, struggle and revolution about the most important consideration all human beings will ever face: that query of introspection What kind of human being will I be?
The tradition forged by Black people in this country—and not merely Black people, but Indigenous peoples, women, Latinas and Latinos, Asian-Americans and Jews and Whites, and many anonymous others—is one integrally ethical, proclaiming the miracle of the pricelessness and equality of all human beings. It is a tradition dedicated to meliorism—to the idea and life ethic that positive social change, reform and revolution can and must be effected by human beings.
It is the tradition that has produced the Richard Allens, David Walkers, Sojourner Truths, Harriet Tubmans, Phyllis Wheatleys, Frederick Douglasses, Jarena Lees, Harriet Ann Jacobs’, Jupiter Hammons, Garrisons, Wilberforces, William Stills, Henry Box Browns, WEB Du Bois’, Anna Julia Coopers, Mary Jane Pattersons, Kings, Xs, Fannie Lou Hamers, Ella Bakers and so many, many more.
It is a tradition whose mantle we all must assume, if we are to take seriously the unyielding imperative of living examined lives—cognizant that the unexamined life, as the ancient Sage once told us, is unfit for the human—that the compassionate heart—embodied in sacred and secular traditions the world over—is necessary, and that action, practice and struggle are indispensable to the human adventure, as is the refining of the mind.
It is a fundamentally human tradition, one that adumbrates and espies—with the vigor of prophetic, utopian rupture—a freer human being, more just sociopolitical arrangements, a deeper democratic commitment, and an unshakable solidarity of brothers and sisters caring for each other and the world they inhabit.
It is, for all this, intensely (though not in every inflection and expression) idealistic. It may fall on cynical ears a dead tradition, and as so much poetry as to be vacuous conceit. But as the Biblical admonishment instructs us—all of us—“where there is no vision, the people perish.” Dreamers, visionaries, planners, believers must continue to project that better time and place. There is no question that unless we can develop the moral faculty of critical and creative imagination, we jeopardize the possibility of social improvement, and we do so at our peril.
The voices party to this grand tradition don’t always agree. Univocality is not its mainstay. They don’t always share the same religious, political or economic commitments. However, they fundamentally believe in the human being, in the ethical impulse that—whether a divine gift, or sociogenic emergence—reposes somewhere in the depths of the human personality, and that, together, pace our sundry variances, we can and must make better the condition of our lives. Because, as King reminds us, “we must learn to live together as brothers, or perish together as fools.”
28th August, Wednesday — Reblog
Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.
4th July, Thursday — Reblog
— "What to the Slave is the 4th of July?", Frederick Douglass
Great streams are not easily turned from channels, worn deep in the course of ages. They may sometimes rise in quiet and stately majesty, and inundate the land, refreshing and fertilizing the earth with their mysterious properties. They may also rise in wrath and fury, and bear away, on their angry waves, the accumulated wealth of years of toil and hardship. They, however, gradually flow back to the same old channel, and flow on as serenely as ever. But, while the river may not be turned aside, it may dry up, and leave nothing behind but the withered branch, and the unsightly rock, to howl in the abyss-sweeping wind, the sad tale of departed glory. As with rivers so with nations.
4th July, Thursday — Reblog
— What to the Slave is the 4th of July?, Frederick Douglass
From that time, I resolved that I would someday run away. The morality of the act, I dispose of as follows: I am myself; you are yourself; we are two distinct person[s], equal persons. What you are I am. You are a man, and so am I.—God created both, and made us separate beings. I am not by nature bound to you, or you to me. Nature does not make your existence depend upon me, or mine to depend upon yours. I cannot walk upon your legs, or you upon mine. I cannot breathe for you, or you for me; I must breathe for myself, and you for yourself. We are distinct persons, and each are equally provided with faculties necessary to our individual existence. In leaving you, I took nothing but what belonged to me, and in no way lessened your means of obtaining an honest living. Your faculties remained yours, and mine became useful to their rightful owner.
14th March, Thursday — Reblog
— Frederick Douglass, Letter to My Old Master, 1848
Race, the power of an idea
I’m not sure if I’ve written about this or not—I may have.
I attended a training session for a volunteer exhibit guide for a new project here at the Rochester Museum and Science Center tonight. The exhibit is a product of the American Anthropological Association. It’s entitled: “Race: Are We So Different?” The event was phenomenal and I was able to engage people—young and old, of different races, ethnicities, sexes, genders, religious persuasions, etc—on an issue that is very important to me.
Race and racism may seem anachronistic for some—those, especially, who contend we live in a “post-racial” society. However, race and racism continue to beleaguer people all over this country in material ways. Education, housing, wealth, health care, income and a whole host of other indices of social thriving are colored—quite literally—by the effect of race and racism.
My interest in this issue finds its provenance in my own deep reflection on the concepts of race and racism. Fortunately, I have not been the object of racist oppression or denigration—not in any substantive way as, say, my grandmothers or my father might have been at some point during their lives. In this regard, I count myself a serendipitous exception to what seems like a rule in a country as race-centric as our own, even today: if you are a young man of color, chances are you have had some experience with this ugly concept.
However, on a more personal, introspective level, I have had what I think was a rather profound experience. It happened sometime last year when I was studying American Slavery and Freedom and taking a class on the thought and work of Dr. Cornel West. I found myself confronting, at least through the literature prescribed in these courses, this concept (and its history) of race.
I watched videos of James Baldwin on YouTube. I read Wikipedia and anything else I could get my hands on: David Walker’s appeal, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Ann Jacobs, etc. Race was all I could think about. I read about Drapetomania and the Civil War and all that I could; even a paper by one of our lesser known ‘founding fathers,’ Benjamin Rush, published in 1799, entitled, Observations Intended to Favour a Supposition That the Black Color (As It Is Called) of the Negroes Is Derived from Leprosy.
I remember stopping, though, one evening while in deep thought about all that I was learning, and asking myself: what if it’s true? What if they’re right? What if being black truly means being “less than”? What if it is the case that there are natural kinds called races? What if I am, by the color of my skin, naturally and eternally consigned to the lower echelons of the human species?
I actually sat there, profoundly confounded, wondering if I was less than human. Never had I ever even flirted with such a notion. Never. I thought I had a healthy self-image, a robust self-concept. My parents and my family, of course, educated me about the history; I read and learned throughout high school. But I never took the time to reflect on what that history meant to me—how I was part of it, and how it was connected to me.
So I took the opportunity, while enrolled in these germane courses at RIT last year, to seriously consider this history, this concept of race. That was really an astonishing moment for me. It was then that I realized the insidious potency of this idea, which before had never beset me with even a scintilla of self-doubt (not owing to race, at least). White supremacy, racism, these concepts have left an indelible history—with which we all are still contending—on the world.
And that moment, when I sat there wondering if somehow these narratives were true, I realized the power of an idea. No physical violence was necessary. No racial epithet was warranted. All that was required was an idea, which I took the time to read and learn about—and on which I intensely reflected (maybe longer than I should have). That was enough to bring me to such a watershed, introspective moment.
I know that I am somebody. I understand that I matter. I grasp my value as a person. I totally comprehend that the “rape of logic” (as Nietzsche put it) that is the idea of race is just that—a magnificent non-sequitur. But only after that conceptual nadir did this become incontrovertibly evident for me.
Now I don’t mean to make this moment sound like some world-historical juncture. It was something powerful for me. And I know something like what I experienced scarcely reaches the existential, physical, and spiritual suffering of those—my ancestors—who had to really coexist with brutal, explicit and violent expressions of racism and white supremacy. I’m not claiming that.
I’m simply claiming that there is power in an idea. There is so much power and energy there. I was challenged on the psychical and intrapersonal levels. But what are racism and white supremacy if not ideas of oppression that infect and affect us—all of us—at the psychical and physical levels? What if it is really a life and death matter?
1st February, Friday — Reblog