I am often asked why a person born in England to Caribbean parents has such a deep interest in African-American affairs. Those who pose this question demonstrate their ignorance of Black history. Although my immediate ancestors hail from the Caribbean, their presence on this side of the world is due to a complex capitalist endeavor where millions of Africans were ripped from their families and forced to fatten the coffers of their European overlords.
The truth is, my ancestors built this nation. As a recent DNA test revealed, I have more living relatives in the United States of America than anywhere else in the African diaspora. I don’t know them and they don’t know me, but probably as recent as five generations ago, a common African forebear was sold to a plantation owner in Virginia and became an intricate part of American history. This displaced ancestor undoubtedly had no idea that his/her parent or child had been auctioned at a slave market in Kingston or Spanish Town, Jamaica.
Like Marcus Garvey, Shirley Chisholm, Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan, Colin Powell and Eric Holder—all of whom lay claim to immediate Caribbean heritage—my history is as tied to the American story as any other person born on this soil. The African-American quest for equality that beckoned Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to bear the mantle of a modern Moses resounds just as strongly in my spirit as my unknown relatives who lived through Jim Crow. Together with my scattered kin, I yearn for the day when King’s eloquently articulated dream will be transformed into an achievable vision. However, this will only happen when the dreamers awake and transform philosophical ideas into substantive reality. For the rest of this essay, I will offer two suggestions for realizing the dream.
PRESERVING THE PAST
If America is to become a post-racial society, it is necessary to always remember this nation’s history. In 2008 after Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination, Michelle Obama unwittingly invited a firestorm when she provocatively confessed, “For the first time in my life, I feel proud to be an American.” The potency of her statements were heightened by the revelation of sermons by her then pastor, Dr. Jeremiah Wright, that called Divine judgment on America for her history of oppression and exploitation. The confession befuddled many Euro-Americans whose disgust were channeled through Alaska’s Sarah Pain who defiantly declared that there has never been a moment in her life when she has not been proud to be American.
As reflect on the disconnect, my mind goes back to the Declaration of Independence penned in July 1776 which contains the deceptive words, “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal.” Like the pot calling the kettle black, the August 1776 edition of British periodical Gentleman’s Magazine featured an article that asked the question, “Self evident to whom?” Apart from the inherent sexist presuppositions in the phrase “all men,” the Declaration of Independence was in no way mindful of the 20% slave population and the decimated Native tribes. Those who sought independence from their British siblings did not for a moment think that the 25% of southerners who owned slaves should grant the same freedom to those who afforded them the wherewithal to pay taxes to the king.
Or maybe the Alaskan governor was under the impression that real American history commenced ninety years after the Declaration of Independence with President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. However, if this is her reference point there are later chapters in American history that expose the entrenched racism that has made change so hard. Thirty-three years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plessey versus Ferguson legalized apartheid in this nation, and established a system that was later “perfected” by Jan Smuts in South Africa, from where I write this column.
In fact, it was a century after the Emancipation Proclamation that the United States Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. However, even with the passage of the Act, the Emancipation Proclamation had not been fully ratified. This did not take place until February 7, 2013 when the Mississippi state government realized that they probably could not convince others in the stubborn Confederacy to rescind their endorsement.
Mississippi’s alleged oversight reminds us that the struggle is not over. I remember this every time I hear some neo-Conservative lamenting for the “good ole days.” These were the days when children respected their parents and prayer was proudly promoted in schools. However, this idolization of a glorious American past is shrouded in a mythic denial of reality. These were the days when African-Americans were subject to rampant lynching, segregated schools, restricted entrance into restaurants, sitting at the back of the bus and verbal assaults from the same White girls and boys who prayed in schools and respected their parents.
For African-Americans, the necessity of preserving these chapters of American history is not at all driven by feelings of nostalgia. We have no desire to return to these days. However, we have heeded the words of Spanish American philosopher, George Santayana, who warned, “He who forgets the past is destined to repeat it.” As America strives to live out her creed “e pluribus unum,” both victims and profiteers of oppression must never forget the sordid past.
An interesting icon of American idealism was gifted to the newly liberated colony by another imperial power. Standing tall on New York’s Ellis Island, Lady Liberty offers the beckoning call, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” This is a noble ideal, and many have claimed transformation from responding to her appeal. However, the breath of freedom can never be inhaled in a racialized society. It can never be inhaled in a society where the powerful (whose ancestors illegally entered this land) initiate laws to hurt those immigrants who came seeking the same opportunities as they. It can never be inhaled in a society where Sanford citizens and racist neocons elevate Trayvon Martin’s murderer to a position of honor. It can never be inhaled in a society where 97% of the economic growth goes to 1% of the population. It can never be inhaled in a society where the government refuses to acknowledge the psychological and sociological links between slavery and some of the issues affecting the African-American community in the twenty-first century.
If we are to experience the American “dream,” we must be serious about reinventing reality. In order for us to experience this new reality, it is necessary to be awakened from the lethargy that produces the “it is what it is” mentality. “It” will only be “what it is” is people refuse to make a difference. Generations before have thrown in the towel and resolved to settle in dysfunction, but this generation can make a difference.
This generation can tackle the tough questions that move us towards “a more perfect union.” Questions like, “Why are we still so caught up with racist definitions of identity, that we celebrate our first “Black” president as if the Blackness of his father nullifies the Whiteness of his mother?” “Why do we still view our differences as walls of separation rather than doors of invitation?” “Why can’t we become the examples to the generations that have failed to provide us with positive examples?” By tackling the tough questions, this generation can reinvent reality!
In 1900, John Rosamond Johnson composed the music for a poem written a year earlier by his brother, James Weldon Johnson. Titled, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” this was quickly adopted as the “Negro National Anthem.” However, the Johnson brothers’ moving masterpiece was not just for the so-called Negro. It bellows the inclusive imperative, “Lift every voice and sing, ’til earth and heaven rings with the harmony of liberty.” In a real way, this was an historical prelude to Dr. Martin Luther King’s articulated vision that he delivered on the National Mall on August 28, 1963. Dr. King’s was a message not just to “colored” people, but to all Americans. It was a vision of a nation where people will “not be judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character.”
As we preserve the past, I pray that you will join me this day in becoming change agents to reinvent the future. How you may ask? By tapping into the only Source who can make it happen; the Source who is hailed in the Black church anthem: “We’ve come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord, trusting in His holy word, He’s never failed us yet. No, can’t turn around, we’ve come this far by faith.”
As you reflect on these words, never forget that “a tree is known by its fruit.”
Keith Augustus Burton teaches at Oakwood University. This column is adapted from a 2013 Black History Month speech “Honoring the Past, Inspiring the Future,” which was delivered at the James Clemens High School in Madison, Alabama.