We have fought hard and long for integration…But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house…. Let us not stand by and let the house burn.Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
[I]f the Masters house caught on fire, the House Negro would try to put the fire out. On the other hand…the Field Negro would pray for a strong wind to come along.Malcolm X
Exactly one year ago, I gave an MLK address titled, “Make America Great Again for Whom?” The title, obviously a play on Trump’s campaign slogan, begs questions as old as the country itself—namely: which America do you experience? Is your America a meritocracy, wherein hard work alone shapes the destiny of citizens? Or, is your America a kleptocracy, wherein the elite grow wealthy by gorging on the productivity of the proletariat? Is America a “city upon a hill,” protecting freedom and democracy all over the world? Or, is America a global police force, simply promoting its political interests?
According to King, America was “both/and.” King constantly evolved until his assassination. While he continued to address geo-specific inequities, (like the Montgomery bus boycott), the interconnected nature of injustice became increasingly apparent to him—forcing him toward a more global/humanist perspective. From city to city, King came face to face with America’s racist DNA—the hardwired, pervasive, predisposition toward disdain for even the idea of equity among all citizens. He eventually understood that white supremacy was bigger than the policies which maintained it. White supremacy requires inequity because inequity fuels faith in the supremacy. Inequity therefore provides both the “substance of things hoped for” and the “evidence of things unseen.”
The insidiousness of white supremacy allows “good” white people, to enjoy the fruits of their privilege by disavowing, but never organizing to dismantle overt white supremacists. Therefore, the racial pendulum continues to swing. American history is a history of such swings. King thus noted “the arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice.” I’m not sure what MLK envisioned, but my arc is composed entirely of double helixes—spirals upon spirals—replicating important, progressive evolutions over the course of time, but not without the duplication of sickness, as we are called to revisit less than stellar themes along the way. The process is slow and sloppy, and there are always innumerable casualties in the process.
What makes King so quintessentially American was his faith in the founding documents, the power of the moral arc, and the power of standing on the “right side” of history. No matter what he experienced, he forever called upon America to live up to its creeds. King loved the idea of America. Like so many before him (Elizabeth Cady Stanton, William Apess, Frederick Douglass), he used the language of the founders to levy charges against those sworn to uphold the constitution:
“All we say to America is, be true to what you said on paper. If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country…. Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.”
As we witness the transition from Obama’s administration into Trump’s, this year’s MLK observance feels unique to me. In many respects, Obama shares MLK’s belief in America’s movement along the moral arc and articulates as much on multiple occasions. In his final presidential address, for instance, Obama argues that while America’s founding notions are “self-evident,” they “have never been self-executing.” It is only, “through the instrument of our democracy,” that “we the people can form a more perfect union.” Trump, by contrast, assures his supporters that “I will give you everything. I will give you what you’ve been looking for for 50 years. I’m the only one.” These two men therefore ascribe to entirely different versions of America’s democratic function. And the spiral continues.
Let’s be clear. The long-view can be a convenient one. As we strive towards “a more perfect union,” millions of people will continue to be trampled in the process. Some lives will be ruined while others will be lost altogether. Assurances that things are “improving” will rightfully fall on the deaf ears of those who succumb to our slow, stuttering, stampede toward perfection. As Ta-Nehisi Coates, reminds us, most of the people in any given time period, don’t “ask to be foot stones in your road…whenever someone dies, it’s the end of their personal universe.” He reads the “moral arc” argument as dismissive—a tool to “hand-wave away the deaths that I believe will come as a result of this election,” while noting that he “just can’t do it.”
While I don’t personally share his view, I empathize with it. I suspect that many of us will ceaselessly slide along the spectrum of hope and hopelessness—day to day, and moment to moment. Some of us will be sent flying off the pendulum—losing our grip as it swings back the other way. And for too many of us, the double helix that is our moral arc will replicate the morally cancerous—choking off any semblance of optimism.
As we move into America’s next chapter, let us heed the invitation to hold “the both/and.” Let us hold Malcolm’s clarion call for ridding ourselves of that which is unhealthy, even as we hold King’s unyielding call for accountability. When we encounter the optimistic among us, let us be inspired or be silent. Let us not embrace the occupation of spreading hopelessness under the guise of “realism.” Likewise, as we encounter the exhausted and defeated among us, let us not meet their grief with empty platitudes of better days ahead—but instead, create a safe space for their grief to simply exist. With so much uncertainty ahead, one thing is clear. The better we are at navigating these differences together, the more likely we are to see each other through to the other side.
Delma Thomas-Jackson is a CWC trainer and facilitator, activist, writer, counselor, and lecturer whose research covers a variety of issues including: American pop-culture, Islamophobia in America and abroad, Hip-Hop in the context of a Black musical legacy, sexism and media, white identity, America’s love affair with violence, African Americans and history of health care, and African Americans in the context of US housing policy. In 1999, Delma traveled to the Netherlands to explore the Dutch role in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. He returned in 2014 to explore migration and immigration patterns across Western Europe as well as European racialized pop-culture and its impact on Afro-Dutch identity.
MLK painting by Derek Russell http://www.derekrussellartist.com/