In honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday, we share his inspiring, motivating “I Have a Dream Speech” speech, delivered on my birthday on Aug. 28, 1963.
These words inspired me as a young woman on the Minnesota prairie in ways I can’t explain, bearing an impact on my thinking and values that I don’t fully understand to this day.
Racism At My House
We didn’t have Black people living in my Midwestern town. I didn’t grow up in a segregated society, and race relations weren’t part of the culture of my daily life.
It would be 1968 before racism hit home. I accidentally overheard a family member on the telephone, speaking with the builder of our suburban development. I still can’t articulate publicly what was said, because I am both ashamed and still incredulous over the event.
My family member explained to the builder of our house — without an ounce of ambiguity — what would happen to him, if he sold the house across the street to a successful Black veterinarian. The words of that phone conversation — never discussed or even acknowledged until now — have rung in my ears for decades.
I knew this man quite well, as the first Black person I spoke with, in my teen-girl life. He chatted with me in the evening, waiting for his prescriptions to be filled each night. I worked in the cosmetic department next door.
The Black veterinarian did not become our neighbor, even though he was well-qualified, and we never discussed the incident.
Starry Nights and ‘Yes We Can’
Watching footage of the civil rights movement, I was transported in memory to a warm, starry night in Wainscott, LI. My weekend guests were my dear friend Lauryce and two of her African American girlfriends, who I knew casually.
We were dining outside on the deck of my house, enjoying one of those glorious, East End summer night dinners under the moon, a night so beautiful that we all felt blessed with the beauty and good fortune of our lives.
No matter that I was the hostess. I was technically the outsider, because these three Black women had grown up in Charleston, SC.
Relaxed with our wine drinking, the three Southern belles fell into animated, larger-than-life conversation about life in the segregated South. There was a lot of hollering and laughter going on, even if the trio was terribly sophisticated.
When the women laughed about the so-called advantages of sitting in the balcony of the movie theater — God knows, I don’t remember what benefits were for real — I could only cry inside, that these beautiful Black women would endure such humiliation in their young lives.
They weren’t play-acting for my benefit. Many oppressed peoples develop humor to help them deal with misfortune, and I was seeing it first hand.
Inspired and winesappy, Lauryce ran into the house, dragging out the boom box, and the dancing began.
Those three African American women were some sight to behold, a vision straight out of Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations.” I admit that I didn’t join in — not because I’m a White person with no rhythm.
The moment was so gorgeous and memorable, so full of historical magic, that I wanted to watch every nuanced detail of this spectacular, unrehearsed production. Maybe they reminded me of ‘American Bandstand’ or some other show I watched as a kid.
The beauty of our Wainscott evening was short-lived.
Fragility and Time Running Out
Mickey would die of cancer 10 years later, at 45. Her death lingers still in my mind, as a reminder that our days to “get things right” are not limitless.
On the subject of race relations in America, we may have reached our current limits. Partially, this is because we no longer have agreement around the nature of the problem.
We Americans celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday today, having sent a great message about race around the world and lived with the result for a year. We did not elect Barack Obama to be our first African American president — we elected a man who happens to be Black.
The scope of Barack Obama’s victory one year ago leaves little ambiguity around the reality that America is a vastly different place, than in 1963. Yet Blacks are disappointed that President Obama hasn’t done more, without doing much to articulate their list of expectations in the mainstream media of what they expected — a bailout? a national tongue-lashing of White America?
Are we racism free in America? Of course not. This reality does not undermine our success, however, in moving forward on race relations in the country.
A fundamental reality that I’ve learned in life is when people act in positive ways, the naysayers lie in wait, ready to entrap us in total distortions of our good intentions. It’s so easy to say and do the wrong thing. A person isn’t judged by a lifetime of behavior but instead by a slip of the tongue.
I’m on record saying that I love watermelon and recommend it for the White House garden because it’s so darn healthy and delicious. This belief confirms the suspect nature of my comparatively non-racist character. Lurking inside me are my true colors and they are red.
I heard a young Black musician on NBC right before the inauguration, suggesting that we elected Barack Obama, because he is biracial … that Americans would not elect a “real” Black man.
It was clear to me that this young man on NBC owned an icy heart, refusing to acknowledge that something truly good had happened in America. What is he protecting that’s so precious to him?
New World View
When I reflect on the role the race has played in my life, I realize that age and life experience have released me from my racial guilt.
Race relations aren’t on my radar, because I don’t believe that race is a White man’s burden any longer. There’s plenty of prejudice to go around, and it’s lived for thousands of years. Racism is a horrible, despicable, widely-practiced behavior by people of every skin color.
Decades after my family prevented a qualified Black veterinarian from buying the house across the street and four optimist, happening women — three Black and one White — drank white wine together in East Hampton, the world remains a hate-filled catastrophe waiting to happen.
In a country where millions of Americans don’t know if they will ever work again, people are hardened in our perceptions of fair play and discrimination.
America still grapples with the problems of poverty, a grinding existence that hits more poor Whites in America (speaking numerically) than for Blacks. Appalachia is sorely underrepresented in America’s cities and therefore its media outlets.
The Internet also opens our minds.
This summer, I found myself staring at a photo of a butchered African woman with her face cut away, just as TIME magazine posted online the words of a prominent Princeton professor telling the world she had a ‘meltdown’ over losing her bottle of hair relaxer in America’s airport security.
The focus was Chris Rock’s movie about African American women’s relationship with their hair.
Staring at the computer screen was a profound moment in my personal self-development: hacked away face and hair relaxer. America and Africa. I know that hair is challenging for African American women, and it’s easy for me to blow off the topic. But I believe we must keep some perspective on the priorities of problems in life.
Last week Sue Simmons celebrated her 30-year anniversary at NBC New York as a prime-time newscaster. Flashing across the screen were pictures of Sue in her NBC Afro. I can’t imagine a 70s Black woman crying over losing her hair relaxer, and I don’t mean to be disrespectful. We had bigger fish to fry in those years and pride, too.
My life motto is ‘never let them see you sweat’ and especially over hair relaxer.
Talk to Sue Simmons who got hired by NBC even if she did bear a striking resemblance to Angela Davis — in hair only. I repeat “in hair only”.
I don’t have a good sense of what African Americans think about race in America today. Here’s some today-published polling information from Christian Science Monitor. Read also NBC/WSJ poll: Attitudes on race.
Many pundits say that racism will ebb with time. My generation and everyone older will die and America’s race relations will improve.
More than ever, I’m clear that all sides have centuries — sometimes eons — old grievances that may never be settled or forgiven. Retribution is the order of the day, — whether the subject is race or religion — because vested interests will bury no argument, no affront, no indignity.
It seems that our brains aren’t hard-wired for forgiveness either. Two-thirds of people don’t want to look at any belief from a new angle. They refuse to consider scientific facts that totally contradict existing beliefs. Rigor mortis thinking has set in.
Forgiveness is apparently not a word in the Old Testament and if so, it’s written out of human behavior and political strategies in a multitude of extenuating circumstances.
Within this physiological reality of human behavior, our days are probably numbered, and we may not realize Dr. King’s great dream.
Failure won’t come because America lost the opportunity for more progress on racial reconciliation. We could start up any day with the right reconciliation technology. The facts are that older people of every skin color will hang on to outdated, hard-wired computers rather than starting over with Apple’s new computer tablet, on the subject of race relations and Dr. King’s dream.
It’s young people who will move the country forward and the rap sheet on their mindset is quite favorable. Only time will tell. Anne
Angela Davis photo The Blackwhole’s Weblog