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August 28, 2013

One Summer that’s Not Fading Fast Enough

“The sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.” ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

On today’s 50th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech, it is more than appropriate to quote from it.  This is a speech that looms large in my life. I was only two when it was given–and at the time, I had a brand new baby brother in the house, Just two weeks old. The actual speech didn’t register.

But as I’ve mentioned in the past, I was blessed to have a mother and grandmother who believed in equality, who raised me to know that we’re all brothers and sisters, end of story.  So Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, these were childhood heroes whose influence stays with me today.

I’ve taught this speech in many settings for decades. Over 22 years ago, in a memorable public speaking class of adult women (there were just no men in that course), all at least a decade older than me, we watched the video of the speech. All of us sat there, tears streaming down our faces, not just because of the beauty of the words and the eloquence of the speaker, but because we realized the dream hadn’t been achieved yet.

In the past 50 years, there have been some cool days–some thought that summer was ending–but it never seems to stick. People say to me, but the president is Black! Two secretaries of State have been Black. Look at Oprah!

Yes, I know this is not the America of my childhood. Things are better. Marginally. But I teach in schools that are predominantly non-white. I see the difference between the lives of Black folk and White folk every day. More Black young men got stopped and frisked in NYC last year than there are young Black men in NYC. My students get to college primed for lives of mediocrity, and it breaks my heart.  Ask them. I go on rants weekly, because I expect magnificence, not mediocrity.

I live in a country that is not fulfilling its great promise, and this infuriates me. Yesterday, in my other blog, I also quoted Dr. King: “There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.”  I was writing about my students, but it stands for my country, as well. I love this country, truly and deeply, but I am sadly disappointed in the place it has become. Or perhaps I am disappointed in the place it has not become.

The rich are getting richer and the poor are in worse condition than they have been in decades, and a disproportionate percentage of non-White folks are on the poor end of the spectrum.  The middle class, the hope of America, is disappearing at an alarming rate. I like to think that it’s not a racial problem, but a class problem, but that’s me ignoring facts I don’t like.

How can I look my students in the eye and say we were ever on an even playing ground? Me? The green-eyed blonde? That they have the same opportunities as my child, my nieces and nephews? That it’s no harder for them? That people aren’t pre-judging them?

Actually, I do know the truth quite well, as my son has a Arabic name. Try being a 20-something young man with an Arab name on your passport in this country.

There are glimmers of hope. Proportionately speaking, young people today don’t “see” race. They understand that it’s a meaningless societal construct. After all, these are the kids raised by my generation, and many of us bought the message of the Civil Rights Movement.

There are other indicators of progress, but for every indicator, there’s something to remind us that it’s dangerous in this country for people of certain complexions.  A Black young man in a hoodie is perceived as a thug. A White young man in a hoodie is perceived as a skater boy. A Black young man in a nice car is perceived as a drug dealer. A White young man in a nice car is perceived as a hard worker or the scion of rich parents.

On the other hand, a young Black woman dressed in sexy club clothes is seen as tart. So is a young White woman. Ah, equality. I oversimplify there. Black professional women aren’t always seen in the same light as their White peers.

So the conditions of the summer of ’63 stretch out. Many of the things I’ve read in the anniversary of the March on Washington have asked: “What would Dr. King think?” No one can answer that. The one person who had the deepest insight was Coretta Scott King, a brave civil rights activist who probably knew her husband’s true attitudes better than any of the rest of us. But married people can tell you, even wives don’t always know how husbands will react. And anyway, she’s gone, too.

I think he’d see some progress, but not enough. Not enough. That promissory note  has yet to be redeemed.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] a tear. I was up on my old familiar soap box, so I moved it all to my other blog. You can find it here if you’re […]

    Pingback by One Summer That’s Not Too Short | Patchouli Haze--New Age Insights for the Rest of Us — August 28, 2013 @ 12:41 pm |Reply


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