Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Immediacy of Now

Last week we celebrated forty-five years since the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his historic speech entitled, "Normalcy Never Again," more commonly known as "I Have a Dream". This oration is easily the most recognized, recited, celebrated, and often inappropriately evoked address of the twentieth century. Both liberal and conservative alike have claimed King's "Dream" for themselves, and all the while none truly capturing the essence of the check that he tried to cash on behalf of the dispossessed of this so called democracy.

Standing firmly entrenched the historical moment was Senator Barack Obama. As he accepted the Democratic Party's nomination for president he symbolized the next phase of the black freedom movement's continuing legacy as well as the forward progress of the American system holistically. As I watched the speech with my mother I wondered just how Obama would do, what would he say, and more importantly how would he say it. I was not looking for an "I've Been to the Mountaintop" sermon or a lecture on race (again). As Obama got into the speech I was keenly aware of his every word. What jumped out at me was the way that he used King's refrain "Now is the time..." throughout. He poignantly and poetically spoke about how a "Georgia minister" had come to Washington demanding equality. He firmly established his policy initiatives to his detractors and was noble and enigmatic in his delivery. I along with my mother was proud. So too were those black folk I saw in the barbershops and churches in my home won in St. Louis.

My eighty-five year old, great-uncle Edward Mitchell (my grandfather's older brother) affectionately called, "Unc" by my entire family, mentioned that after seeing Obama's acceptance speech he hoped that God will allow him to see Obama as president. "A black man as president!" he shouted,

"If de' Lawd allow dat' he can gone 'head and take me home."

However, for some of us, that, like those who wanted more from his wife Michelle, was not enough. Not moments after his speech the members of black intellegensia rose to demonstrate their disdain and disbelief at the Senator's words. In particular, Drs. Cornel West and Julianne Malvaeux were quite outspoken in their criticism of the speech with Tavis Smiley. Dr. Malveaux boldly proclaimed that Obama had "perpetrated a white wash of our [African American] history." She went further to exclaim, "...the meaning [of the moment] has been squandered." Prof. West chimed in by emphatically stating that Obama was trying to "escape from history." The two of them even went so far as to mention how previous speakers moved them to tears.

Their biggest issue, however, seemed to be the fact that Barack Obama did not mention King by name. Was that too much to ask (in their minds)? They added that even Hillary Clinton, the patron saint of Negroes, mentioned Harriet Tubman's fight against slavery. Ultimately, they both were disappointed in Brother Barack. They were not alone in their view. Others across black and normative media and in the blogoshphere and even folk I spoke with agreed with the two intellectuals. Jesse Washington, an Associated Press national writer penned a piece entitled, "Obama avoids race on King's "Dream" Anniversary."

I must part ways with the two scholars on this issue, and those that agree with their assessment of Obama's speech. As a historian, I understand their argument and feel where they are coming from, but ultimately their disappointment is misplaced. They are missing the point. When King delivered his famous "Drum Major Instinct" sermon, which was also used as his eulogy, King spoke about not mentioning where he was educated or the numerous awards that he received, because it was not important. What was important was that he "tried to help somebody." He understood that the dream or the goal of the movement was bigger than him. Now with Barack Obama, his place in history is bigger than him just as the moment is. The fact that he did or not did mention Fannie Lou Hamer or Megar Evers in his speech is dismisses the larger significance of the moment. It does not escape from history as West argued.

Even when King delivered "Normalcy Never Again" there were so called Negro leaders who spoke out against him, even more so after his "Beyond Vietnam" address a year before his death. We need to understand that this moment in our collective history is part of a larger continuum that does not place one person above anything else. King, like Harriet Tubman and the many who have sacrificed for the cause of freedom are symbols of this movement to the beloved community. Thus, this struggle is not about one particular person or scholar (West and Malveaux) is abou the totality of the experience toward justice and equality. Even if Obama had mentioned King by name, the black intellgensia would have found something else to complain about.

Somewhere along the way we have lost sight of what is truly important. We can criticize and critique Obama all we like, but what are each of us doing to help realize the goal of liberation? For that matter out of the thousands of dollars West commands to speak for couple hours, how does he walk the path begin to challenge black folk to see the larger picture?

The biblical Israelites were allowed to see countless miracles where Moses was a vessel of God's will. Yet, they still turned away from God and Moses' warnings to worship a golden calf. If Obama parts the waters of opportunity that allow for him to be the first black president of the United States of America, how much work are we willing to do to free ourselves? How many of us that wear Obama tee-shirts we got from the flea market or barbershop are registered to vote? Obama cannot do it alone. If you disagree with his speech, fine. Do not however, do the work of those hate filled fearful whites (and their negro servants) by tearing him down. Let us leave the messianism and the trivial notions of what is or is not a "perpetual white wash" of our history and look for how we can help address the immediacy of now.

I wish both Cornel West or Julianne Malveaux could talk to "Unc" to explain just what this moment and these times represent. The "now" is much more than one speech but a continued and sustained effort toward progress.


EDH4 said...

Great post! Hit the nail on the head!

Bomopregha said...

Your truly right. Unfortunately I fell into the trap of also accusing Mr. Obama of avoiding the race issue and acknowledging the legacy of black leaders that came before him.I have come to realize that Mr. Obama is running for president of the U.S.; and that he is trying to represent a country and not just one people. He follows in the traditions of Dr.King in that everyone faces the problems of race in this country but how do we overcome this obstacle and rectify problems felt by all. In this way I feel that Mr.Obama follows in the direction of what Black leaders were trying to attain. My only question with this type of approach is how do you instill in a people that have been thoroughly scared by the U.S. and its policies that your legit.This is a problem that any president regardless of race faces. Unfortunately, we as a people are harder on Blacks trying to overcome race and politics. Mr. Obama has slowly overcome this and we shall see what happens in November. Hopefully your thoughts will click in the minds of Black voters and we will all come to see and trust that Mr.Obama is going to do his best to represent us and our ideals and the ideals of this country.

The Level of Ignance is Sometimes Astounding said...

sir, i applaud you for conveying your thoughts so eloquently. i couldn't agree more, and i pray that at some point, people will begin to look beyond the past and into the light of the future. there's no denying that the path was paved by those before us, but, as with generational progression, it's time to extend that path into further unknowns...and look ahead instead of behind.

Billinger said...

Great post Dr. Mitchell!!! I have much respect for Dr. West and others but have a rough time buying into their critique. I am starting to believe that "division" unfortunately may be part of our African American DNA. I tend to think that these criticisms are not really about Obama's speech but more about "the speech they would have given."

Pryde said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pryde said...

Bro. Mitchell, I could not agree with you more. To me that moment was about forward moving of history to allow us (white and blacks) to look beyond the past. Obama did not have to mention Dr. King by name in order for him to recognize King. For those who followed King knew when and who he was speaking of. That day was also the day that Emmett Till was killed 43 years ago. Did that mean Obama had to mention him? I feel he voiced words of importantance for that moment. His speech was the "I have a dream" of this century. I'm truly thankful that I had the opportunity to be a witness.

-Bro. Antonio "Pryde" Byrd

Michael Mitchell said...

Kinfolk, I agree. The sad thing is often times when we (especially black people) have jealousy and malice in our hearts and minds we totally discredit the success and achievements of those who are striving to make a difference in the world not just with themselves or like minded people. This isn't the first time it has happened nor will it be the last. Another sad thing is that we often expect people to think, act, and respond in the same way we would. God gave us all individual minds to think for ourselves. That's the beauty of being an individual. As a previous poster stated, in becoming the president he can't just be conscious of blacks only. He has to be conscious of a nation; a nation filled with OTHERS (people other than himself). Mustn't forget that. Keep doing your thing and representing for the level headed and highly intellectuals in the family and the world.

Veronica said...

I still love Dr. Cornel West but I do not agree with his comment that he made. I am very tired of certain black people looking for Obama to tackle all these "black issues."

Obama is not running for President of Black America! I don't know how many times I have to say that to people.

Some black people will say he is not for Black people. I guess because he does not stand with his fist in the air. I don't know.

If people are really paying attention, the change that is trying to make is the change that effects us. Better healthcare...more assistance...fundng for college more to the public schools...etc etc. These are the issues that directly effect us. Black people are the ones with no health insurance, in poverty, unemployed, children are unable to take books home from school. These are all issues that effect us.

But we still continue to ask...well what is he going to do for US (Black people). But I look back at my beautiful black sistas and brothas and I ask, "WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO FOR YOURSELF!?"

Why does he need to mention every black person in the past...why does he have to discuss every black issue that is currently going on.

Why are we constantly trying to prove how black we are...and how black power we are...and black intelligent we are.

If you aren't going to vote for him, then who are you going to vote for then!? Cynthia Mckinney....who doesn't have a shot in hell...and will it only give McCain more leverage. Or will you just sit at home and be an angry black person because Obama didn't mention Dr. King's name and your not sure if he is really for US.

How Stupid!!!!!

TWICE COLD said...

"Part the waters of opportunity" CLASSIC. Great post my friend. I am appalled at just how critical we are of each other and brother Obama. By the way, people keep forgetting, HIS MOTHER IS WHITE! Why do we continue to stick to the notions of race that the majority have placed on us? Just because his skin is pigmented does not mean that he is the Messiah of all black people. Why are we not more critical of the people that are actually MORE influential then the president in our day to day lives. . . like the hundreds of HORRIBLE hip hop artists that are poisoning the minds of our children every day? Barack Obama IS NOT THE CHRIST! He is a blessed man in a unique position that just so happens to have darker skin. These so called scholars and professionals are just contributing to the media's mental masturbation and mixing up of American minds. MCCAIN IS GEORGE BUSH (look at his policies) and anyone that doesn't see that is simply falling prey to the brainwashing that the majority has done for centuries (and need to admit that subconsciously, they can't and won't have a black man president. . no matter how much they try to argue that its Obama's policy and not his race).

the uppity negro said...

Didn't know you were back. I think I was barely checking your blog.

So, is it "Doctor" Mitchell yet?

Um, yeah I was disturbed by West and Malveaux's take on it. I simply didn't think it was the time nor the place to invoke King's name. As you said, the rest of us who are awake were quite aware that he more than invoked King with his "Now is the time refrain." Moreover, I think Al Sharpton said it best and it made me shift my own caliber of criticism: Obama never set out to be a civil rights champion. Why are we placing these particular goals on his head and then when he doesn't reach them we light into him with heavy criticism.

And honestly, I echo the sentiments of your grandfather. At this point in the game, particularly with my non-empty threat of leaving the country lest Yukon Barbie somehow finds her way into the presidency (yup, McCain'll die and she'll be president), I just wanna be able to drive up to DC come January 20, 2009 and just be at that great coronation to see Obama be sworn in.

Even if he is just a man, who happens to be black.

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