My two children are the gravity that keeps me in orbit. They keep me vigilant and present and compassionate. I keep them well-aware of their African American heritage via our history, our heroes, and our contemporaneous concerns. Of the last of these, there are many, so it’s only right that we keep close to our hearts the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. today, especially in this newly-christened post-truth era. It’s crucial that we celebrate and reiterate the truth of Dr. King’s legacy given our current American socio-political climate.
Because I’m a writer and activist for social justice, my children have seen me argue about, cry for, and pray on America’s pathological dependence on race-, class-, and gender-based iniquities. My kids are both tweens, just now blossoming into the developmental “age of reason.” The discernment of right and wrong, justice and injustice, and the awesome responsibilities that come with that growth are becoming clearer to them.
It’s a discernment absent in the apologies that normalize the campaign of fear and hatred characterizing the last year and a half of American politics. That knee-jerk denial shocks me but no longer surprises me. The deniers question my agitation for protest, but their questions presume there’s no context, no reason for my outrage. They act as if I’m an alarmist.
I discuss with my kids how troubling it is to hear politicians utilizing fear and hatred as campaign tactics. I encourage their questions. Why reference Japanese internment camps as an affirmative precedent for immigration policy? How is it okay to ignore outright misogyny? Why isn’t it more unsettling that a white supremacist is in the White House cabinet?
In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. King insisted on digging deeper with these kinds of questions. He said we cannot “rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.” And the causes of so much American disharmony are real and deep-seeded and will only explode if left unexamined much longer.
I am still willing to hear the stories of those who sympathize or cheer on our new president and his cabinet and their policies. Hearing their stories may help me humanize their personal history and see what brought them to this moment we share with such polarized perspectives. But I ask—I demand—they begin to listen about blacks’ lives as well.
In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin observed, “It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate.” My love for my children outweighs my outrage and my outrage, because it is moral, will never curdle into hate. Sadly, my children are privy to an overabundance of hateful referents in the law, in politics, in the brokenness of our cultural systems and our spirit.
Some may ask, why do I “expose” my children to America’s ills? And it’s simple: they will inherit them in an even worse state if our current generation of parents, teachers, and leaders doesn’t address them. Dr. King’s Letterinsists “Injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion, before it can be cured.”
That’s why we have to swap stories. I yearn for folks with zero points of reference to listen to black history and hear about black lives. Not just in a brief February news segment or homework assignment. I want them to imagine our fictive kinship: to sympathize with blacks who faced the lash under slavery; with blacks lynched and disenfranchised during Jim Crow; with blacks who fought for Europe’s freedom while still living as segregated Americans; and how blacks were fire-hosed by police and mauled by police dogs. I also want them to hear how we black folk celebrate our lives via dance and song; invite them to eat our food and hear our prayers; and experience the resilience and joy that has come despite the darkest chapters of our American history. I hope, having humanized us as a people, that they would come to understand our families, and our being horrified by our killers’ repeat exonerations. I hope they see the particulars of black history and how it is so personal, yet is to be shared and not denied. Our African American history does more than inform me; it motivates me, activates me, enrages, and outrages me.
I appeal unabashedly to my non-black neighbors to help us transform our country’s very spirit, which encapsulates our culture, our education, our philosophy, and our understanding of history. This is not merely an academic request, though we must, too, relish academic facts, and the depth of science, and the breadth of the arts, and the experience of history. Look at all these tools, these gifts, which can raze the stubborn myths in our culture! Our transformation isn’t going to be easy but it is possible.
Last summer, after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were executed by police, and then the people and police of Dallas suffered a terrible retaliation, I pushed friends and family even harder to look at themselves, to face their denial and loathing. A very good friend of mine cautioned me for being too “challenging” which he felt was contrary to Dr. King and his antecedent, Mohandas Gandhi. But Dr. King’s own Letter asks us to “create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.” A nonviolent stance does not preclude challenging the status quo; in fact, it demands it. Gandhi had Johannesburg and Dr. King had Birmingham.
I sometimes worry that these issues are too big and that I’ll only confuse or frighten my children. America’s resistance to race, class, and gender equality relies on entwined, systemic, and corrosive sources. It makes many of my closest friends recoil and become inert. I, too, sometimes have to take a break from tending to activism; I, too, become overwhelmed, at times.
We have to give of ourselves instead of give up, however frightening that prospect. James Baldwin, again in The Fire Next Time, notes how difficult this process is: “It is rare indeed that people give. Most people guard and keep; they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be. One can give nothing whatever without giving oneself—that is to say, risking oneself. If one cannot risk oneself, then one is simply incapable of giving.”
If we are to begin the work of curing the American pathologies of fear and hate, then we must risk our individual and collective vulnerability. We must be like the open-hearted, broad-minded, creative children I am so desperately trying to raise into open-hearted, broad-minded, and creative adults. We must give-and-take; we must put the last first. America must stop rationalizing poverty and ignoring injustice; must stop encouraging miseducation and cheering war. If we’re the “shining city” so oft-celebrated, then we must celebrate every single person’s humanity, here and abroad. There is such preciousness in our short-lived visit to this world; we have merely a blink in time to build, shape, grow, and raise our consciousness as we raise our children, in love and compassion.
Half a century since he was taken from us, Dr. King’s lasting message is more important than ever. We have forgotten that peace and its attendant justice can never be dispensed with as tenets of human society. We are ALL children of God. We just keep allowing ourselves to forget.