NO THANKS(GIVING)

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To be certain, there are things, manifold things, for which to be thankful: family and friends, smiles and laughter, surprises and second chances. There is the breath of life that animates lungs, and the distant sun that rubs warmth on burdened backs. There is also the never-ending menu of fresh produce that, as if by magic, erupts from dust to nourish the soul and the clean waters flowing free from the heavens to refresh our seabeds. Our manna derives both from above and below. We have so much to be grateful for, though Thanksgiving is not one of them.

The Thanksgiving story comes to us unusually romanticized: Set in the early 1600s in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the story is told as one of hardships survived, where so-called Pilgrims endured their first grueling winter in a captive land to celebrate life in their “New World.” The settlers, as they have come to be called, survived that first winter no doubt due to help received from their indigenous hosts. The people who found and rescued the Pilgrims taught them how to brave the cold; cultivate the riches of winter; find food and shelter; plant kernels of corn; locate, hunt, and preserve game; exhaust the natural resources around them (animal furs, skins, and snow). In addition, the Pilgrims learned other lessons from the indigenous that made life more possible.

The compassion and deep humanity of the Pilgrim’s indigenous hosts are rarely highlighted in the Thanksgiving story. These hosts did not seek to kill strangers shipwrecked in their border or erect walls to keep the strangers out. The indigenous did not call the Pilgrims illegal or alien or rapists or savages (labels that history would suggest did, in fact, apply to some Pilgrims).

For these indigenous people, lives mattered, even the lives of foreign-born people with skin the color of mogra. In their humanity, the indigenous submitted to primal though sublime instincts of kindness—welcoming the stranger who fled foreign borders seeking refuge from the persecutions of tyranny and the confines of an oppressive crown.

Thus, the irony of the Thanksgiving story is obvious: As debates on immigration become hotly contested throughout the globe, the predominant themes of Thanksgiving untold shed light on our own national hypocrisies—a country of strangers condemning strangers, a band of refugees blocking access to other refugees (i.e., people trapped in the world’s darkest and most desperate situations).

Such is the case in Syria (and elsewhere throughout our globe), where people—human beings—are fleeing countries set ablaze. They are seeking safety within borders set away from the global atrocities of terror mostly fueled by Western avarice and the arrogance of our global wars. We’ve now seen babies washed up on distant shores, dead. We’ve heard leading political figures label the descendants of our modern indigenous citizenry, people with colonized accents yet Aztec blood coursing warm through their veins, “rapists.” We’ve fully embraced the rhetoric and violence of division: “us” versus “them.” Yet Thanksgiving has done little to remind us of a time past when we were strangers, and they saved us.

Usually the Thanksgiving story ends in a feast of friends—Indians and Pilgrims. The legend of Thanksgiving finds these “friends” eating together, basking in a kind of strange and ludic harmony. However, we know that this story is as much incomplete as it is fiction.

Though the Pilgrims would persist despite the bitter cold of winter, the light of the indigenous sun would soon set along the Western horizon. While the Pilgrims would learn to live off an old land posthumously made their New World, the indigenous would learn new ways to die. Thus, while the story of the Pilgrims was set to begin, the story of the indigenous was doomed to end.

Only history knows the tragedies we obscure by celebrating Thanksgiving—long forgotten rapes  of  indigenous wives and of daughters juxtaposed against campaigns of terror that would eventuate in a tragic saga of human annihilation. The children of Pilgrims would steal indigenous lands and plagiarize their technologies. They would plant disease in indigenous blankets, butcher indigenous flesh with weapons of death and mass destruction.

The children of Pilgrims would force the children of the indigenous to walk from one end of their country to the other. They would lay claim to the open indigenous borders—confining indigenous bodies to concentration camps deplorably named reservations (or, as one Native young man put it, “sovereign ghettos”). The children of Pilgrims would kill the indigenous young, put suicide in their thoughts and the slow death of whisky lacking mercy in their cups.

The children of Pilgrims would cut off indigenous tongues and utterly destroy indigenous histories. They would turn the sacred images of indigenous people into their costumes and would batter indigenous shrines into their ruins. The children of Pilgrims would paint indigenous faces onto their mascots, making mockery of people ancient and original to this land—from Cleveland to Jacksonville, from Juneau to the District of Columbia.

Perhaps worst of all, the children of Pilgrims would assume the identities of those they have destroyed—practicing a cruel and wicked alchemy of identity theft. The original Rachel Dolezals of history, they would enroll the flesh of mogra into the census of roses. Not only would they kill or displace almost all people indigenous to the Western Hemisphere, the Pilgrims and the children of Pilgrims would dare to replace them, stealing all that could be precious to indigenous people left behind—a memory, a history, a language, a right to live, a land, and even a separate identity. All became property of the Pilgrim—and the shameful inheritance of her children.

So every year, on the last Thursday in November, we commit time to celebrating a lie. In so doing, we ritualize the most unholy of communions—a national feast in remembrance of a grave and inhuman scandal. Thanksgiving, a holiday that honors forgetting and the genocide of people, is by far as sick as it is superfluous. There is no other way to describe it—to destroy a people and then every year feast in memoriam is beyond calloused; it’s wrong!

Not only does the celebration spit in the eyes of compassion, it disavows the power of gratitude. “Thanks” is a high term denoting praise and indebtedness. It yields best to those things we humans  humbly appreciate. The honest prayer of the grateful, “thanksgiving,” then, is a word of reverence, kept sacred by the meek and by those of us who understand the grace and fierce power of gratitude found in the humble recognition for God’s manifold blessings.

Placed in the context of a broken and twisted holiday, that beautiful word—thanksgiving—that awesome submission and prayer, can only mean something crude, tantamount to an insult. That we’d term this holiday—a day who’s emblem is a turkey—thanksgiving is not only sad; the tragedies it obscures make it scary.

The holiday continues primarily because of the fog by which it persist. This fog features our dysconscious consent, a constant of act of indifference to the suffering of others. This indifference is itself a kind of brokenness, a dangerous kind of racism, which according to Michelle Alexander, forms “the sturdy foundation for all racial caste systems” (p. 242). It is in this process—the act of becoming indifferent—that Thanksgiving erases the perspectives of hurting, vulnerable, and victimized people. Thus, celebrating Thanksgiving outside historical context and without needed critique is a kind of indifference that reinforces a profound erasure of people and the crimes committed against them.

Many people would love to continue to observe Thanksgiving, though in the comfort of forgetting and through the myth of “colorblindness.” However, remembering history, thus, seeing race whole is not the problem. According to Alexander:

Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem. . . . We should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love. . . . That is a goal worth fighting for. (p. 244)

Every year on the last Thursday in November so many of us cede the fight. On this day, many shall gather and swell their stomachs with food yet  little deliberate knowledge of the great historical travesty they help conceal. Many will dine on dishes, not knowing that they are paying tribute to one of the most scandalous events in the history of a nation.

On the last Thursday in November I choose to fast instead of feast. I spend the entire day alone, reflecting and protesting the lavish feasts of systematic amnesia that sweeps the country. Thanksgiving is not a holiday and is certainly not a day for celebration, for it venerates events in which we should not find joy but collective regret—events for which we might beg forgiveness rather than give thanks.

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  1. Alexander, M. (2010). A New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press.

IN DEFENSE OF LOVE

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. . . the purpose of being here, wherever we are, is to increase the durability and the occasions of love among and between peoples. Love, as the concentration of tender caring and tender excitement, or love as the reasons for joy. I believe that love is the single, true prosperity of any moment and that whatever and whoever impedes, diminishes, ridicules, opposes the development of loving spirit is “wrong”/hateful.

—June Jordan

I am not sure when it happened. I am not sure why it happened. All I know is that today we find ourselves grappling with the untenable truth that love is in danger.

I first recognized this reality recently when I met Justin and his longtime partner Jack. Justin and Jack epitomized the power of the heart’s good intentions. Their love was storied through thoughtful conversations and laughter, sullen hands clasped and whispers, a sincere and genuine concern for one another, and an invincible bond that would make super glue look lax.

Justin held Jack’s endearing eyes in his own, held them with the strength and blind fascinations of seriousness and faith. He held them tightly with the frank qualities of delight, those existential yearnings that twin the dawn of gravity and pretend the draw of magnetism. Jack said that he loved the way Justin first “saw” him. He said that he had never been gazed upon with such beauty and depth, such steadiness and care, that no one had ever humanized him so fully with only a stare. Not only did he feel human in Justin’s ocular embrace; he felt loved.

For their love, the two young men dedicated the promise of a life together, a life that made sense to them, to be led on their terms between the ironies of false abominations and above the lucidity of empty accusations and the revulsions of ignorance and judgment. Their nuptials, however, would be made in secret. They would have to settle for an unspoken ceremony because in Michigan and 37 other states in our country two men cannot marry—at least not legally. If marriage is meant to perform an open act of love, then in 38 states, two men, two people of the same sex, cannot legally stage their love in public. And this is appalling!

Some might think that marriage between one woman and one man is the issue. However, the mere suggestion privileges a definition of marriage that confines love to sets of forced dualities, of conventional commitments that license the heterosexual “norm” over all other possible love configurations. Too often this confining of marriage to one woman and one man restricts the freedom for which love strives.

Others have argued that love in marriage doesn’t exist, only a complex play of interests that wears the disguise of love, the patriarchal masks of tradition and convenience, of woman given to man to leverage personal gain in an otherwise treacherous sea of inopportunity and misogynistic thirsts. Here, love becomes a possession, somewhat of a toy, disposed in random fits, handled with carelessness, like the disheveled certainty of those who feel they own love in ways that permit them to exploit it without exploring its hidden, more illustrious and transformational depths.

Still others have blamed faith, which abides with Love, suggesting that the dogma of entrenched beliefs tied to the morsel of “god” to which their bigotries cling demands that love as expressed through marriage be “pure” and “protected,” unsullied and preserved for some righteous elect for whom, in the name of “love,” they get to bear witness and define.

In all honesty, I don’t know who to blame for this current crusade against love in our country nor am I interested in blaming anyone. However, I do want to make a case in defense of love—the kind of love that Justin and Jack share. In so doing, I hope that we might recall the inspiration to save love and, in the process, save ourselves.

In the coming weeks the U.S. Supreme Court will decide on the constitutionality of two related matters: California’s Proposition 8 (2008), which banned same-sex marriage (the proposal was later overturned by the State’s Supreme Court not long after its adoption), and Congress’s use of the Defense of Marriage Act (1996) to withhold federal benefits from same-sex couples who are legally married in the states where they reside. The impeding decisions have been viewed by some gay-rights advocates as a historic opportunity to establish same-sex marriage (or what I have called non-discriminatory marriage) nationwide. Whether this is true or not, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling will require us to look deeply into the core of our national soul and define its location with respect to love.

Regardless of what it decides, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision promises to be groundbreaking because, in many ways, marriage as a legal/civil issue, in the face of love’s danger, has become a moral and personal one. Hence, at issue here are great philosophical concerns with which we must grapple. These concerns go beyond debates about who has the right to propose to whom. At the heart of the issues is a single, crucial question: Who has the right to love?

In both instances referred to above, the U.S. Supreme court will be deciding an issue far bigger than that of marriage rights. As the modern marriage has become merely a ceremonial expression of the heart’s tastes, the decisions will spell out the conditions of our rights as citizens, as human entities, to practice love and have that practice affirmed openly and civically by contracts of the State. The decision will also speak to an issue of governance: Does the State have the right to govern the heart? Here, my hope is that the Court decides to pull away from fear and intolerance, which have led the steady push to legislate the terms of love and the conditions upon which that love might be declared.

Still, in this current cultural struggle, fear seems to be triumphing over freedom. With the passage of the heavy-handed and limited Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), marriage was explicitly defined in federal law as a union of one man and one woman. Enacted in 1996, DOMA prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex unions and allows each state to reject same-sex marriages performed in other states. While over a dozen jurisdictions have legalized same-sex marriage through court rulings, legal actions, and the vote, seven states have prohibited it by statue and 30 other states prohibit it in their constitutions.

Indeed, this outlawing of same-sex marriage across the U.S. is an act of fear (if not terror)—a fear that suggests that our children and we need fences surrounding our hearts not to protect the heart, but insidiously to protect us against the outer limits of love. This fear suggests that we cannot and should not have the freedom to choose who to love, and if we do, that freedom must be limited by gender and number thus making it not a freedom at all, but a farce. Of course, the messinesses of moral dalliance and corruptible beliefs inform such fear, but it is fear, and fear alone, that is the impetus driving our war against love.

In this light, love is revealed threatened by our fear of it. And also in this light, the Court’s decisions concerning love will reverberate through the bend of history, which seems always strained between two impulses: the impulse to affirm our freedoms or hold fast to our fears. As I have suggested, fear has legislated against love that through our laws we might inoculate the heart and the hearts of our children against certain types of love that we deem inappropriate or, worst, “different.”

History has also taught us that, in defense of freedom, our best laws privilege rights over restrictions. These rights, as opposed to restrictions, have made our democracy possible and durable. If you are arrested in this country, you have the right to remain silent and given due process in a court of your peers. You also have the freedom of speech against tyrannical forms of censorship and, yes, the right to bear arms. Given all our rights, given all our “freedoms,” doesn’t it seem ironic that absent from the list is perhaps the most basic of human liberties: the right to love?

Some heterosexual couples who enjoy fruitful marriages might argue that we (as in one man and one woman) do have the right to love. For them, this illusion plays out as true because they ever feel free to stage the scenes of their acknowledged bonds openly. But this play of freedoms is merely a hopeful fiction. Until all people have the right to love whomever they choose, then we all shall be restricted from the right to love freely.

It is this restriction that Justin and Jack has dealt with daily, for daily they must fit their love in a box, restrict it to the shadows away from our most indecent fears so that people afraid of their kind of love won’t be offended. Perhaps Jack put it best: “It’s easy to love Justin, but it’s not easy to show that I love him when everyone’s looking.”

Yet, if we ever truly looked at them should we ever choose to stare at their secret expressions of love, we might understand how tragically insecure we are. Why else would we fence love behind the gates of heteronormativity? But even bound, love is resilient, and it persists. This is true for Justin and Jack. Love found them and many others like them in earnest even while we were writing laws and silent treaties to deny same-sex couples the right to marry.

I last saw Justin in a room at a workshop. He said to me that he dreamed to one day marry Jack, to share their kind of love with the world. And looking into his eyes as they leapt across the room to greet Jack, I became convinced that no one has the right to deny Justin this dream, to deny him love. While his dream remains deferred, his love remains alive. You could feel it as Justin’s and Jack’s eyes kiss with an intensity that only true lovers know.

Beyond Multiculturalism

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No matter how it crackles off the tongue. No matter how deeply inclusive it might feel at first. No matter how determined the struggle it reflects might seem. The construct of multiculturalism as it has been operationalized in our many social and intellectual spaces is at best faulty or unhelpful, and should therefore be abandoned immediately. I mean today!

Don’t get me wrong. It is clear to me that multiculturalism was once a good-intentioned response aimed at redressing the historic exclusion of non-whites, women, and other underrepresented groups from the dominant mainstream. Without the struggle that the multiculturalists portended, we may never have had the moments of Morrison in vogue, the first Black president, or the set aside pass-through funds to support diversity at historically White educational institutions and beyond.

Without the struggle of multiculturalism, indeed, I would not be in a place to have this conversation, as my very words would be shackled to some listless margins, open and empty like the three dimples tragically displaced on the edge of hole-punched loose-leaf paper. Marginality—that space driven to the boundaries of nowhere—has been American history’s passion, a crucifixion of equity draped on a cross of elite interests and borne of the throne-crowned hubris of ideological conceit condemning its manufactured audience to the shades of some unfairly casted main stage.

My complaint isn’t against the worthwhile struggle that multiculturalists have waged, but about the way it has been waged and, more importantly, how the term multiculturalism like “achievement gap,” “people of color,” “the other,” “minority,” and so on props up the very things that it struggles against.

In theory multiculturalism wants to mean something close to “many cultures” recognized together as one. It wants to provide a container that defines or summarizes both our common and uncommon yields to humanity while celebrating human cultural variably as normal. However, in practice, multiculturalism never really achieves this, does it? Instead, it gives us a category to name the excluded, grouping and, therefore, erasing the many significant and meaningful differences that excluded groups bear.

The struggle of Blacks must be defined differently than the struggle of Latinos because their histories and oppressions, while similar in ways, are fundamentally distinct. They are not the same (both in terms of group and in terms of struggle), but by making them the same, we discount them equally—both the group and the struggle. We fail to remake the margins, or, worse, we choose not to center the concerns of specific people. The same can be argued for any other unique group herded under the multiculturalist banner—the struggle of women is not equivalent to the struggle for gay rights; the struggle against linguistic discrimination is not the same as the struggle for cultural inclusion.

While each of these struggles is important, we do them little service by categorizing them as the same. By conflating very specific, very nuanced items of sociology and history, culture and politics, we move with heavy hands, surgically operating for change with the clumsy crafts of a hatchet as opposed to the greater precision of a scalpel.

In this light, multiculturalism means nothing because it has attempted to mean everything and, worse, everything that’s not White or male or elite or historically “included.” The term, itself, has done little to describe the needs of people that history has ignored, the silenced literatures that our universities have neglected, the local (as opposed to the universal) scripts that oppressed people are made outside their consent and under the penalty of violence to perform.

I want to make two points very clear. Multiculturalism has given us a category to name the excluded, grouping and therefore erasing the many significant and meaningful differences that excluded groups have among them. By constructing them as the same, the multiculturalist discourse discounts excluded groups equally.

The other issue is the issue of the false dichotomies that multiculturalism sets up—the us versus the them binary. To be clear, most functional uses of the idea multiculturalism isn’t about a cultural kumbaya moment were everyone joins hands and sings a better harmony of togetherness. Rather, multiculturalism as it has existed in our institutions has been about the opposite of inclusion and togetherness. It has been about othering, about blacks against whites in places colored by complex shades of gray. In the literature, multiculturalism is about the classics against so-called ethnic texts. In education, it is about education for kids of color (labeled multicultural education) against, well, education for White kids (simply labeled education with no qualifier).

As opposed to tearing down hierarchies of domination, the discourse on multiculturalism reimagines them. It gives the emperor a new closet while the empire persists. With multiculturalism, the conversation moves narrowly from topics of exclusion from the mainstream to topics of oppression or suppression within it. It is not a matter of better or worse because with or without multiculturalism things are bad. The question is, how do we get to better?

Indeed, because of the multicultural movement we have gained women’s studies, Black studies, Latino studies, Indigenous studies, ethnic studies, queer studies, and so on. Yet, as these items are bound by their labels, these very labels, labels that name history’s exclusion of us, surrender “multicultural” studies as something exclusive (i.e., marginal) in the academy. That is, such labels indicate marginality de facto because labels by their very nature are placed, not in centers, but against margins.

There has never been a need to label White male studies because all studies not labeled in the academy is White male studies; hence, the non-labeling of White male studies suggests that White males are central to the enterprise of the academy. Moreover, the whole of the academy with the exception of those topics labeled differently are about White males. Hence, not only are White males liberated from pejorative of needing labels to declare their existence, White male studies (if I may use this label to refer to the whole of the academic universe not displaced in multiculturalist drag) gain a regal invisibility and seriousness, an appreciation in other words that further cloaks their hidden cultural cosmology, making them appear universal when in fact the premise of their unlabeled presence is hegemonic.

This is the issue: Inclusion does not mean a “for Blacks only” table while all the other tables in the room are reserved for Whites. It does not mean maintaining the status quo by passively, in some slick ass Orwellian way, offering discursive crumbs to the oppressed as a means of pacifying their deep hunger for change or appeasing their complaints. It does not mean purchasing cheap intellectual real estate, a kind of academic Guantanamo Bay, where non-dominant groups are forced together into institutional ghettos that blur lines that mark their distinct histories. What it does mean is that we are yet to attain the change for which we have so long struggled.

For change to come, we need new terminology. By this, I am suggesting that we need a new movement—a movement for true and transformative inclusion. In the past, the term human sufficed. It meant that we were all God’s creations, necessarily equal by virtue of this common endowment. Then instead of multicultural studies, how about human studies, where the subjects of investigation exist equally, but where the topics of our scrutiny gain their own measured appreciation, their own topical real estate and nomenclature in the vast space of our collective culture.

A STILLBORN DREAM REIMAGINED

theBy David E. Kirkland

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Each year on the Monday following Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, many in our nation and, undeniably, throughout the globe gather to commemorate the story of struggle for which Dr. King lived and the dream of justice for which he died. We are bombarded, though only for a season, with the permissive parade of spectacle, as to push history past its remembrance of racial injustices and convince our young that we, indeed, live in a world cured from the fatal ills of yesteryear. Yet the colorblind fictions to which we cling can never heal us of the reality that race matters perhaps more today than it did in 1963 when King delivered his monumental “I Have A Dream” Speech.

In this elongated procession toward make-believe, too many of us romanticize King and his legacy, unusually adopting two tragic narratives to sum up his life (as if his life were that simple). The first narrative pedastalizes the slain leader, elevating him to a status akin to Jesus. As holy martyr, this Dr. King is established as some sort of frail deity, whose prophetic vision for hope and togetherness is firmly held together only by the mythologies of postracialism and some ubiquitous, internal hint that scandalously suggests that we have achieved—and solely due to Dr. King’s efforts—social equality, racial harmony, and thus a melting pot reality.

The second narrative invents Dr. King as sort of a Ghandi-inspired Ché Guevara figure, too frequently crystalized as the 1960’s equivalent to Karl Marx in blackface. This Dr. King, is by far, viewed as a radical warrior of class emancipation, evolved beyond what some would see as the trifle of race to confront the more prescient complaint of economic oppression. Indeed, before he was killed, Dr. King had launched his “poor people’s campaign” and had sought to march with labor leaders and workers to fight for fair pay and improved work conditions. However, at the same time, Dr. King was fiercely speaking out against the incursion of war in Vietnam; hence, he was as antiwar as he was antitheft and antiracist. As Dr. King most famously noted: “A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The point I’m making is that Dr. King was no more (or less) interested in class than he was with race (or war or a litany of other items for that matter). He was concerned with justice and fought against injustice in whatever form it took. And still, his legacy suggests that, beyond liberating the body, we must fight as vigorously to liberate the mind. The essence of Dr. King’s dream, as I will relate it to my thoughts on the racial realities of today, was about something far more powerful and free than struggle: It was about imagination.

Whether you give a woman or man fish or teach her or him to fish, she or he still only eats fish. But if she liberates her mind, then she might imagine other things to eat; her diet will not be limited to fish, nor will she be a slave to charity or someone else’s teachings. Hence, when we liberate the mind, when we nurse dreams—as Dr. King sought to do—we are free to imagine a full range of possibilities—delightful dishes, other than fish, that are full of color and creativity, full of variance and the greater aptitudes of difference. Dr. King understood that when we liberate the mind and dare to live within our dreams, when we imagine delightful dishes known only by the far stretch of tomorrow’s intellect, it is only then that we are truly free.

Using a theory of Dr. King’s vision of freedom as a lens,  I’d like to make three board points concerning this moment. In making these points, I’ll speak not only of our will to struggle, but also of our struggle to imagine. The issues of Black life (and Black lives), of broken borders and Dreamers, of universal health (i.e., clean drinking water, real food,  clean air, etc.) and comprehensive care, of economic justice and global peace—the issues that we’ve been asked to take up in this generation—in relation to the life and philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are precisely about reclaiming imagination. To reclaim imagination, we must return to dreams and believe in things not real or current but certainly possible.

The first point that I want to make is that Dr. King’s truest legacy as it relates broadly to issues of human justice is the imagined proposition that we can cure the ails of a nation, if not a globe, through our dedication to peace, by redressing the wounds of the past through collective and mutually beneficial action; that we can together recover the ideals of prosperity by paying our debts to equity, if not in blood and sweat, then through mutual sacrifice and comprise. This first point suggests that our quests for human liberties, as they are conceived and carried out in this country, only partially attend to Dr. King’s dream.

For example, programs such as affirmative action were not all that bad (though they certainly are not all that good). In some cases it was the only 40 acres and a mule that descendants of emancipated captives would receive (though 100 or so years late). There programs and policies were to champion the children of Jim Crow whose rebirth certificates were sealed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These programs and policies were the bastard child of Plessy, also playing in the playground of preference to amend the historical (separate but unequal) preferences long enjoyed by this country’s social and racial elite. But more, they were the actions left out of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the ripple that ebbed in the wake of the post-1920’s Suffrage Movement, the alluring cousin of the gay rights crusade that has stubbornly suggested that love should not discriminate.

Thus, human rights (the protections of human liberties), as Dr. King would have it, were and remains “the hope of a secure and livable world” that “lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.” More than things, they boast our highest ideals.

My second point is that we are yet to realize “the livable world” to which we were called. Instead we have languished deaf to those sounds of brotherhood that echo defiantly to this day, memorialized in Dr. King’s resounding voice. Over a 150 years ago, however, a great American in whose giant shadow we find shade said, “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

As Dr. King would have it, the equity for which we search, the dream for which we fight, can never be seen as an exclusive policy for Black or Brown people or women only. Rather, it is a pledge for all humanity—past, present, and future—of a dreamed-freed nation that promises all people a liberty more possible regardless of individual and collective differences. This promise of liberty, Dr. King argued, was for all—descendent of slave and free alike, all people interested in realizing the transformative potential of “the last best hope” within us.

Today, we desperately cling to this last best hope, understanding that beyond the shadow of Lincoln’s great ideas, there is the darkness of doubt that lingers within us. This doubt has given rise to a history of cynicism, inequity, and the continuance of inequality. This history has flaunted as inevitable the unlikely condition in which we find ourselves: that all women and men do not enjoy the same proportions of freedom or degrees of opportunity or success, or the same life chances that the determined faith of our foremothers once weaned.

Then, count it not coincidence that, a hundred years after President Lincoln emancipated captives in the southern U.S., Dr. King, in echoing Lincoln’s resolve, rose up against injustice with not only soaring words but also disciplined  and ascending effort. His 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech, which is perhaps the most ardent defense of human justice, scaled us closer to our most earnest ideals to plant a flag of hope near clouds though in the soil of despair that we might reach a renewed manifest destiny broader and bolder than the scope of our understanding.

In admonishing the nation over its debt to its citizens flanked with oppression, King said:

In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check—a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

And despite his demand for “the riches of freedom and the security of justice,” the kind that governments can legislate but people do reject, in the aftermath of Dr. King’s life, we would learn that: “All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem.” Today, we have gone from the old Jim Crow to the New Jim Crow, as mass incarceration devastates Black and Brown communities. In response, we have traded sit-ins for die-in. Thus, the struggle continues.

For as we reacted to racism and injustice—demanding reparations then, “the riches of freedom and the security of justice”—we found a measure of strength in opening access to doors too often closed to many. Negligently, we found soulful respite in insisting that the best of us could exist simply in the cracks hidden in glass ceilings. But this action, as noble as its intent, has only been reactionary in places that demand proaction. For example, the Black Lives Matter movement has been, in some ways, divisive in a cold climate that only warms to tolerance when people’s eyes are closed. Though we find ourselves closer physically, we are, nonetheless, beset farther apart ideologically. We live in a country that too often and conspicuously pits one group against the other. The calculus in this struggle is not imaginative; it’s old and has proven to not work.

How do we close the chasms of ideology and mend the schisms of justice to strengthen our bonds toward one another? Perhaps President Lyndon Johnson said it best:

Men and women of all races are born with the same range of abilities. But ability is not just the product of birth. Ability is stretched or stunted by the family that you live with, and the neighborhood you live in—by the school you go to and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings. It is the product of a hundred unseen forces playing upon the little infant, the child, and finally the man.

Dr. King would have us peer into the unseen so that we can imagine new songs together, sing them or perhaps even rap them, but do so while dancing salsa while draped in burqas. With these songs, songs not only of togetherness but of collective imagination and consequence, it was his belief that we might voice a culture that excludes none.

Hence, my final point is that, if we are to realize Dr. King’s dream, we must cling to the imagination that gave birth to that dream, that makes America what Americans are—not just bodies but beliefs, not just identities but collective ideas. Dr. King saw America as different than other nations. He saw it as a place with great promise in spite of our great ills. In his words, we can’t cease to dream because as long as we walk, “we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead” and not turn back until the “whirlwinds of revolt . . . shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”

Thank you.

 

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*A similar talk was delivered on January 21st at the 2013 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Michigan State University College of Arts and Letters Panel: Martin Luther King’s Legacy and the Future of Affirmative Action.