Yes We Can; Martin To Barack
There were hundreds and thousands who were in the "yes, we can" mode before the elections of 2008. John B. Russworm, editor of Freedom's Journal, earned a college degree from Bowdoin in 1827. That Bessie Coleman, born 1892, who graces one of the heritage stamps, got her pilot's license in France when a biased USA would not allow her to study aviation.
[Black History Month]
As we celebrate Black History Month, how fortuitous to hear WBAI's multiple broadcasts of Martin Luther King's "From Neighborhood to Brotherhood" delivered in 1967 to the Black National Association of Radio Announcers.
It is a speech which reminds us that the "roots of racism run deep" in American society. And the "plant of freedom has grown only a bud and not yet a flower."
And yet, there is hope that the plant will reach full bloom. It is a hope felt when a woman asks her six-year old grandson, "How was your day?" And he replies, "It was the best day of my life."
That day was 20 January, 2009. And the young grandson points out that usually when they celebrate president's day, he has to wear a mask. But this time he explains to his grandmother that he does not need a mask; "because I have the color".
What Dr. King discussed in 1967 continues to hold importance today; "race, economic injustice, war." King speaks of "poverty of the spirit" and President Obama speaks "an empathy deficit".
In his inaugural address, the president asks, that given the option, we consider receiving a reduction in pay, rather than see a co-worker lose a job. Dr. King reminds us that despite our technological advances, we have not learned "how to walk this Earth as sisters and brothers," and he further reminds us that "either we will learn to live together as brothers or die together as fools."
In was in his acceptance speech that President Obama asked that we "put our hands on the arc of history and bend it in the direction of hope...." Forty-one years earlier, Dr. King using similar language, noted, "the arc of history is long, but it bends in the direction of justice."
Both men want to save us from despair. Both have a critical understanding of the multi-faceted racism which continuously corrupts our freedom. We watch the "selling" of the first family's images by those who inherited the slaver's impulses. We know that racism has not vanished.
Look at the inordinate attention to the bow on Aretha’s hat at the inauguration, which I find most beautiful; and the absence of attention to the horrific irony "sweet land of liberty". Liberty? Where millions were enslaved for hundreds of years? Where, as Dr. king noted in his speech, it was "freedom and famine at the same time" since African people were given no economic compensation to make real the "freedom."
"Where did you get your confidence?"
More than one reporter asked this question without awareness of the racial character implicit in that question. What was the real question? Perhaps this; Did you not swallow the hype when we told "you people" what you could not do anything?
Was the real question," How can you be African American and self respecting?" With five thousand years of African excellence supporting him, there was no reason not to be confident. Attending a church where the pastor preaches of "the audacity of hope" will also do wonders for a person's confidence.
"Slavery In New York," edited by Ira Berlin and Leslie Harris, comments that "While some blacks gained their freedom, that freedom had been granted to assure the safety of a society committed to African slavery" ( 2005 p. 9) We know that brutal trick. Give a high salary to sports figures and rappers. Lure Africans away from careers in law, medicine, math, agriculture. We know the "rename and claim" game. The distraction. We know the "theft in plain sight" where the oldest civilization, Kemet renamed Egypt, is "removed" from the African continent and relocated to the Middle East. We sense some folk eager to create exception, to make the president an "honorary white".
But we've also heard Rev. Joseph Lowery, co-founder with Dr. King of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), deliver the inaugural benediction, opening that prayer with a quotation from James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Every Voice and Sing."
And closing with a restating of the "If you're Black, get back" changing that to a world where "Black will not have to get back." King was of course one of the men Obama sought when looking for models of Black manhood. Frederick Douglass, Nelson Mandela, W.E.B. DuBois, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Delany Malcolm X were others.
The world's headlines have hailed our forty-fourth president as the first African American President of the USA, and of the Western World, according to Professor Ali Mazrui, Kenyan-born historian, with friends in common with President Obama's father, Dr. Barack Obama, Sr.
Yet the usual media tricks have manipulated some of our most sophisticated minds, and left us debating the obvious while thousands and millions quietly lose homes, jobs, hope, lives.
When President Obama refers to his sisters and brothers the American press is not listening. They keep coming up "American" with "halves", superimposing Eurocentric views on African culture. When media speaks of the father's birthplace as, "a poor village in Kenya", they speak as though there are no roads without sidewalks in upstate New York. As though there are not the one-room-shack school houses in the South.
A subtle range of racist explorations is carefully voiced in both books authored by President Obama, "Dreams from my Father" and "The Audacity of Hope."
Obama's mother, Ann Dunham, asked him not to blame his father for the divorce. The Kenyan grandfather's letter to her parents effectively stated that he did not want his family line spoiled by European blood. (The British in Kenya used the forced labor of local people to build their railway, but did not allow those who built the rail to ride. Such racism could not advance brotherhood.)
No, we do not have the misunderstanding that all is suddenly right with the world. But we don't want to waste this "defining moment" this opportunity to speak to a listening world.
To bring forward the hidden history. To say in our classrooms that Barack Obama is not the only intelligent African man in the world. There were hundreds and thousands who were in the "yes, we can" mode before the elections of 2008. John B. Russworm, editor of Freedom's Journal, earned a college degree from Bowdoin in 1827. That Bessie Coleman, born 1892, who graces one of the heritage stamps, got her pilot's license in France when a biased USA would not allow her to study aviation.
Our young join the president, urging us to "put our hands on the arc of history and bend it in the direction of hope." We want our young to find continuous joy and inspiration in the election of our 44th president.
We do want our collective energies to nurture that "freedom plant" knowing that it can come to full flower because our children are learning to dream.