Commemorating the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington where Southern Christian Leadership Conference leader Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his ‘I have a Dream’ speech offers a fitting opportunity for an African-American reflection on Black America’s long march to freedom. The journey continues. And with that, the following reflections on August 28, 1963-2013.
Where the ‘Dream Came From
It is a good thing that Martin Luther King, in his all-night speech writing, crossed out reference calling for an ‘international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction’ and allowed himself to improvise when Gospel icon, Mahalia Jackson implored him to ‘dream baby, dream.’ The rest has been 50 years worth of history commemorated on Wednesday. But the irony in 2013 is that when one scans the global terrain of popular unrest bubbling up from all-over, from Istanbul to Rio to Cairo to New Delhi, ‘the advancement of creative dissatisfaction’ on a global scale seems to have come into its time.
As is often said: everything in its time! And this was not lost on President Barack Obama as he globalized the ‘dream’ legacy of King’s speech in his anniversary tribute. This goes to the heart of the symbolic historical significance of the 1963 March On Washington amplified by its 1941 precursor which never happened but pressured President Franklin Roosevelt into beginning the long march of history in federal intervention toward dismantling racism in American society, polity and economy and now to the post-March commemorating of 1963 taking us literally ‘from preacher to president’!
The March On Washington symbolizes many things which go unappreciated: the awakening of Black America as a ‘sleeping giant’ in propelling an assimilationist civil rights movement into a cultural nationalist assertion that had commercial, political and global impact in fleshing out America’s ‘soft power’ impact on the rest of the world, thus: Black America’s unique potential as embedded bridge to the global South at the epicenter of the global North; the 1960s-70s black revolutionary catalyzing of a broader social movement spectrum as pace-setter motivator of the anti-Vietnam war activism, the women’s movement for gender equality, gay rights, ‘identity politics’ – all contributing in turn to a broad global culture of protest politics covering a broad myriad of grievances in mobilizing mass – yes: ‘creative dissatisfaction.’ Further demonstrating its status as a pace-setting historically seminal event, the March on Washington begat the nationalistically-inspired African-American ‘Million Man March’ of the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan which has inspired similar ‘million marches’ elsewhere in the world – Tahrir Square in Cairo comes to mind.
But in the refrain of Lusophone African liberation movements of yesteryear: ‘A Luta Continua’!
Where is ‘the Dream’ going?
Metaphorically, marches evoke thoughts of long, arduous journeys toward some end-point, thus raising concerns over how much distance has been travelled and how much longer there is to go: think Nelson Mandela’s ‘Long Walk to Freedom.’ Then, there is the reality that the closer we get to our goal, the further it recedes into the distance, what seems near keeps fading into a horizon of indeterminate destination. So it is with the saga of race in America as President Barack Obama took stock of the journey symbolized by August 28, 1963.
Obama’s election as America’s first black president in 2008 did not usher in the post-racial era of our euphoria. In many ways, Obama himself has emerged as America’s post-Black Revolutionary commander-in-chief in search of an ill-defined ‘new world order’ looming on a landscape of tragedy and triumph evoked in haunting lyrics of Curtis Mayfield, one of America’s most reflectively perceptive of rhythm and blues artists. It was The March On Washington that midwifed this new order as a process still unfolding out the diverse social movement strands spawned by America’s black revolution and that in different expressions are globally reshaping the social world of humanity if not the international politics of fictionally sovereign nation-states in an interdependent global reality.
Obama of course did not venture into this international terrain as he prepares less than non-violent ‘precision strikes’ on the road to Damascus where the colonial legacies of Britain and France are being torn asunder in sectarian Levantine chaos. For America’s first Black President has a different set of challenges from the foremost Black Preacher of America’s conscience, King’s ‘dream’ resonating across the ages. But it is the Black Preacher in his vision of American and global ‘unity in diversity’ who, 50 years ago, set the agenda of the Black President in his acknowledging the continuing journey that must be travelled in an ongoing struggle, marching toward ‘The World House’: the end point of King’s dream laid out in his acceptance of his Nobel Peace Prize which Obama aspires to live up, Damascus notwithstanding. For constructing ‘The World House’ in King’s dream is not unrelated to Obama’s aspirational ‘Nation-Building at Home’ in both their fulfillments of Curtis Mayfield’s ‘new world order’ emanating out of an American experience predicated on the emasculation of the African-American black male in the gendered power hierarchy of America’s racial status-quo.
Detours into the undergrowth
This latter point is one worth dwelling on. For beneath the surface of marching for jobs and equality there are myriad pathologies attached to the triumphal but tragic struggle of black people in America which comes close to home for Obama. You could see the pained anger flashing through at interval during his address as he talked about boys, like himself, growing into manhood without fathers marching waywardly into crime leading inexorably into the Hiltons of the prison-industrial-congressional complex. These are the alley-ways and byways of detours from marching into a new world order that has sent many an American black man into the cul-de-sacs of the living dead. This is because black male emasculation is one of the ‘American exceptionalisms’ rooted in an Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture of slavery that continues to live on in the post-civil war, post-reconstruction, post-civil rights aftermaths of what, in 2013, marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
American slavery and its racial aftermath have always constituted the most sexualized of racisms in its perversely puritanical manifestations of white supremacy: white male at the patriarchal apex; white female (‘Miss Ann’) on a pedestal of angelic purity; black female as a combined reproductive beast of burden for the carnal pleasures of ‘Massa’; black male, a super-sexual malevolent threat to be castrated. As such, the gendered sexual politics of the biracial divide in what has become a multiracially multicultural ‘minority-majority’ America with a shrinking white majority, has always been a major subtext of US society, culture and politics. Indeed, in the contemporary period, one of the perversities of American ‘affirmative action’ is the extent to which everyone becomes a ‘minority’ to the continuing disadvantaging of American black males. After all white male-dominated establishments have become very adept at playing the piano of ‘ebony-ivory’ and all colors of rainbow in between.
In fact, this is no more apparent than in the governmental and non-governmental foreign policy establishments where Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man lives on in the think-tanking policy-wonk hot-houses of Washington – except for the occasional non-threatening Asian immigrant or expatriate scholar adding a little color to an unchanging narrative of America’s role in the world. Only the African-American can conceptually improvise new lyrics to this tune. Why? Because only the African-American, as an indigenous expression of the global South-cum-third world within the epicenter of the global North, has lived the kind of multidimensional duality of historical experience that equips us with the capacity to fashion an alternative narrative; one that bridges fault-lines dividing the apex superpower of the West with the emerging ‘rest’ of the non-West.
During the days of ‘The March on Washington’ there did emerge the embryo of a pan-Africanist-cum-third world tendency within the black movement that could have become elaborated into an alternative American world view. But the Cold War was still raging strong in those days and Martin Luther King, Jr. was singed by the angry reaction of an establishment that tolerated him as long as he kept his southern domestic civil rights place – that is, until he ventured into the hot terrain of anti-Vietnam war protest. As King expanded race struggle into a rainbow class struggle in a new ‘poor people’s campaign’ March on Washington doubling as mass protest against the Vietnam war and American foreign policy, the establishment’s threat perception of ‘Dream Man’ heightened into a paranoia now conveniently glossed over in holiday commemorations of King’s birthday.
After all, King was the establishment’s anointed nemesis to that other malevolent black male: Malcolm X of ‘Message to the Grassroots’ fame! Never should those twains meet as they almost did. Lord have Mercy, had that happened, the Powers That Be would have been in a tizzy!
But through all of this, progress has definitely been. The creatively destructive power of American capitalism to a large extent de-sexualized race relations as a result of the cultural nationalist ‘Black Is Beautiful’ upsurge in the Black Power spin-off of the civil rights movements and its media impact in entertainment and the creative arts. The creative explosion in black arts, culture, literature and intellectual production, not to mention sports, has had a global impact unparalleled by any other awakening in any other part of the world, in the process, expanding the ‘soft power’ globalism of America’s influence. At the level of electoral politics, the co-emergence of blacks and women played out in the Democratic presidential primary electoral drama between then Senator Barack Obama and former First Lady Hillary Clinton, now the dominant force in the party symbolized the socio-cultural revolution that has reshaped America’s electoral landscape. Given the gendered racial status-quo, from an African-American perspective, Obama’s emergence over Clinton in 2008 and ultimately over Senator John McCain carried with it a fulfilling sense of historical poetic political justice.
Resurfacing into the long march ahead
Imagine how the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington would have unfolded under Hillary Clinton as president given the seminal role of the civil rights-Black Power movements in paving the way for the women’s liberation movement alongside the comparative marginalization of black males in a still unchanged American social structure. Metaphorically, the March on Washington, symbolizing as it does ‘long walks to freedom,’ evokes how inextricably human triumph dialectically intersects with human tragedy in the pursuit of a people’s dream. But dreams need not become nightmares. They can, through the struggle of enduring the long march, become reality: the reality of our dreams.
These are the lessons of the American Black Experience in the long marched journey from preacher to president in the words and thoughts of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Hussein Obama: August 28, 1963-August 28, 2013.
As Curtis Mayfield intoned in his rendition of the ‘new world order’: it’s ‘a brand new day, a change of mind for the human race…’
F. Kornegay is Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Global Dialogue at UNISA
Global Fellow designate, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars