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.
Posted by negrointellectual at 5:27 PM