Last week I had the distinct honor of being the guest speaker at the Black History Month Celebration hosted by the employees of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development.
So here we go:
Please imagine if you will that we will time travel almost 53 years ago to an America that was still shuddering from the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and the Kennedy brothers – John and Robert – the cause of death was always an assassin’s bullet and always there was mystery, confusion and doubt in the aftermath, some of which lingers to this very day.
It was 53 years ago that tens of thousands of American military personnel along with millions of Vietnamese military personnel and civilians died in what was then one of the most brutal and horrific wars in recent history – the Nigerian civil war certainly being deserving of dishonorable mention.
It was 53 years ago that many American cities were still smoldering ruins after the insurrections following assassinations, police brutality and the daily recognition of rights being denied to Black people, even the right to hope.
And it was 53 years ago that I was a senior at Dartmouth College – an institution that was a critical building block in the institutional bastions that had supported, justified and rationalized racism, institutionalized white supremacy and codified the basic precepts of white male supremacy in this nation that had been built on stolen land and genocide.
In my almost four years at Dartmouth I was (and remain) proud of being part of a brotherhood of young Black men who navigated a path unknown to us or our forebearers. We were following the Drinking Gourd towards some semblance of justice and something other than inequality. And with no playbook, no guide, no griot -we changed that institution called Dartmouth College for good and forever.
And while that institution is far from being perfect, due to our belief in the possibility of change there are now more Black students, Black alumni, Black faculty, Black deans and administrators and Black alumni than could ever have been imagined 53 years ago.
We were too young to believe that there was such a thing as impossible. We had to learn to believe that as we grew older.
And so, with the assent of the Dartmouth College administration my fellow Black alumni of the Class of 1970 chose me to be the first Black person to speak at a Dartmouth College commencement in its 200-year history. And before I begin today’s remarks, I wish to share for you a few closing lines from that speech – please keep in mind that the year was 1970, the speaker was a 20 year old Black man – Richard (Law and Order) Nixon (he was about 4 years away from total disgrace and infamy), and George Wallace, though paralyzed by an assassin’s bullet still remained in the national consciousness and most of all, racism, both benign and overt, was very much a clear and present part of the American character.
That was the America in which I found myself, and at the close of my remarks I said this:
We have been told to believe in America, to believe that there was something deep down inside America that was good. And what has happened?
Black brothers die daily in the Indochina madness that is just another example of the sickness of America spilling out all over the world, and still we try to believe; Nixon tells Black people that he doesn’t give a damn about us, that he would rather put a white man on the moon than put food into a Black (or white) child’s stomach, and still we try to believe; the Congressional Record of the United States details the past plans for the construction and use of concentration camps and still we are supposed to believe.
The time has now come for us to believe in ourselves. The time has come to make ourselves free. Our stars of freedom still shine and our saints of righteousness do live. You only have to look around.
The stars are in the eyes of little Black babies and children who were born destined only for freedom, the saints of righteousness are the mothers and fathers, the brothers and sisters who have provided the strength for Blackness to survive in the face of the forces of evil seem to be everywhere.
The time is coming, the time has got to come, when freedom will be seen in our smiles, and our Blackness will mean freedom. We have to believe this, because this is the only reality left to us.
That is what we are about, that is what today means for us. To best sum up our feelings though, I would like to quote a poem written by Brother Herschel Johnson, of this class, as this poem speaks for the souls and spirits of all of us:
For you mothers with dirt-rough hands
For you with backs aching from bending
And flushing and scrubbing
For all you women on transit
You with brown bags under your arms
Bringing home the leavings of white folks
Bringing it to your children
For all you Black mothers and fathers
Who had to live with humility
And yet have had the pride to survive
For you Black mothers and fathers who raised up
Your men are now with you.
Thank you and may a beautiful Black peace always be with you.
And at the conclusion of my remarks I received a standing ovation from an overwhelming white commencement audience. Sometimes the truth does indeed prevail.
And now, 53 years later there has been progress and regress. We can cite the progress that has been made with the appearance of Black billionaires and millionaires, the election of a Black president of the United States and a Black vice president of the United State. We have seen progress with the election of Black mayors and governors, and we have seen progress in the number of Black CEO’s heading Fortune 500 corporations. More Black men and women are going to college and medical school and business school and law school beyond numbers that Booker T. Washington couldn’t comprehend in his wildest dreams.
And yet…and yet, more Black men and women suffer the burden of the New Jim Crow, populating American prisons and jails far out of proportion to our percentage of the national population. Our young men, and increasingly our young women, are killing each other in numbers that would make the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan happy as a hog in a mudhole. We have seen our common language and shared culture degrade ourselves with violent, misogynistic self-hatred and a bizarre embrace of ignorance.
Of course, we also have to take to time to observe, assess and consider the present and the future because if we ignore the present and fail to consider the future, then we do so at our own peril.
It should be noted once more that the origins of Black History Month began with the work of the great Black historian G. Carter Woodson. The celebration began in February because the birthday of the great Frederick Douglass was in February. And I would like to share a quote by Brother Douglass:
There is no Negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have honesty enough, loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live up to their constitution.
We have seen the birth and the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement and white corporate America has paid lip service to the concept – but institutional change has been elusive at best for Black America.
The end of the Trump presidency featured the first truly armed insurrection against the United States government since the Civil War. That the insurrection was led and planned by a sitting President of the United States should make us very concerned that the worst is yet to come.
Right now, Trump lies dormant like a fat rattlesnake in cool weather. But cold-blooded reptile that he is, the warmer the weather the more active he will become. He is already venomous and we would be fools to think that he will not strike again.
Meanwhile, by every indicium – family income, infant mortality, life expectancy, incarceration rates, poverty levels, education and income deficits – the narrative of this country is that no matter where we live, no matter how much money we make, no matter where we went to school – if you are a Black woman, man or child – we live in a different country than that of our white sisters and brothers.
Since the November 2016 election we have seen the deconstruction of American democracy moving from slow motion to warp speed. And even though American democracy has never been the saving grace of Black America that it should be, its demise simply cannot be a good thing. That is because the successor to American democracy could be very well be an authoritarian America that will certainly not be the friend of any Black woman, man or child.
Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 – and I realize that many of you gathered today were not even born then and therefore have enjoyed a level of franchise entitlement that never existed for Black people before that year and…. may soon evaporate before the end of this decade.
We have seen the deconstruction of the Republican Party, at one point the party of Reconstruction- seemingly a million years ago- and is now the vehicle for a proto-conservative, authoritarian, neo-fascist, jackbooted and tattooed cadre of shock troops hell-bent on a reconstruction of America that will not resemble anything that has been seen in this country’s history.
We must understand that instead of worrying about how many times Joe Rogan says “nigger” we should be worrying about how many members of Congress and the Senate will no longer consider Black Americans as a legitimate part of their constituency and that we are not truly citizens of this country. And once that becomes the case, the remaining guard rails are coming down.
The American house is on fire. Like many housefires it may not be that noticeable at first – there might be some oily rags in the garage waiting for a moment of ignition or some old and moldy magazines smoldering in the attic and then – conflagration.
In the future we should never look back and say that we had no idea that it could get this bad. We have been warned and we have a choice. As Frederick Douglass said:
Power concedes nothing without demand
The question now is what do you demand? What do we demand?
We can regroup and reorient our focus towards resistance and resilience. We have to realize that our forebears didn’t even have shoes, but they marched to freedom – spiritually and literally.
Anything that we might consider to be freedom today is in jeopardy.
And if we just hope for better times, if we just go about our daily business with the assumption that things really cannot get that much worse, if we cross our fingers and refuse to imagine a more negative scenario than that in which we live, then we dishonor and disrespect everything that Black History Month is supposed to stand for:
-We will dishonor the enslaved mothers and fathers of our people who endured unspeakable horror, somehow holding on to the hope that if not their lives, the lives of their descendants would be better
-We will disregard the historic and epic achievements of Harriet Tubman and Nat Turner and Frederick Douglass on through to Fannie Lou Hamer, Harry T. Moore, Medgar Evers, Viola Liuzzo, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
-and we will disrespect the rich legacy of hope and expectation that has been our inheritance
What can we do? We can invest strategically in that aspect of the political process to which we still have access and demand of our elected officials that every moment of every hour of every day should witness their working with the realization that we are at an existential point in American history and our continued existence is not a given – we don’t have time for political labels or petty partisanship or anything else that does not aim for resistance and resilience
What can we do? We can focus on education, healthcare and community development as if our lives depend on it – because they do.
What can we do? We can immediately stop acting like business as usual is going to yield useful results.
What can we do?
We can get more serious about voter registration and, as importantly, voter education and, most importantly voter engagement – in your neighborhood and in your community.
We can learn from the opposition to play the long game – focus on the community boards, the school boards, the state legislatures – not just the bright shiny object called the presidency.
We can develop a real agenda that needs to be supported by candidates at every level – local, state and federal– healthcare, housing education, police/criminal justice reform, voting rights, abortion rights – what exactly do you want? You cannot complain that the system isn’t serving your needs if you don’t know what you want, and you don’t know what you need. And we need to know what we don’t know.
What can we do?
If we believe?