I think until the 1980s I was still woefully ignorant of black Americans. I encountered many of them at work though. Two black ladies in my cubicle area changed me, unknowingly.
I don’t remember much about the content of their conversation, but it had to do with some injustice one of them had experienced. I believe it was being turned away from a motel by a clerk because she said it was full. My black colleague believed the claim was dubious.
I believe my first emotional reaction was of the cynical kind. “It figures”, I thought. “Here we are in the 1980s and she’s still taking every slight as a racial one.” But then I had what one boss I had later called “an epiphany”. I thought, “I’m going to listen to her”.
I realized she sincerely felt aggrieved. It occurred to me then and there that African Americans, rightly or wrongly, had a deep mistrust of whites.
It was in this spirit I attended a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day event on the campus of Virginia Tech tonight. The keynote speaker was a noted black author by the name of Cornel West. The fact that I had never heard of him showed me that although I hav improved in my willingness to pay attention to the plight of the black person in American, I still remain ignorant. My knowledge is pretty shallow.
There must be a lot more whites listening these day because the crowd in the auditorium (and it was pretty packed) was about half white. I came with an open mind and settled into my chair to listen.
Dr. West came as advertised. He was an entertaining and engaging speaker, even inspirational. The primary message he conveyed to me was that we all have to have the courage to examine ourselves. A secondary idea that was meaningful to me was his notion that justice was love in public. If we love people, we will seek justice for them.
While Dr. West’s left political leanings were obvious, he didn’t only take shots at Reagan, McCain and Palin. He also criticized Barack Obama. The context of Dr. West’s criticism was a portion of his speech where he was describing the state of Dr. King’s legacy in the Age of Obama. His view is that Barack Obama’s is cozying up too much to the Wall Street folks that got us into our economic mess and escalating the war in Afghanistan. Both actions violate Dr. King’s tilt in the direction of the poor and quest for peace, he says.
Dr. West also said that Obama had not only committed sins of commission, but also omission. In response to a question asking if Barack Obama had done enough, Dr. West’s answer was that he had not.
The Princeton professor also made points with me when he stated that the black man should not be seeking to oppress the white man as he had been oppressed. ” We are all in the same boat, and it is leaking”, said Dr. West.
This echoes one of the messages of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech”. He also said that “we cannot walk alone”, that the white and black man needed to march ahead together.
Dr. King said in his famous speech, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Over the course of my life applying this piece of wisdom has done wonders in how I have changed since childhood in my relationship with African Americans. It is perhaps the biggest personal legacy of Dr. King.
I can recall several black Americans I have met who were people of high character. One of the best bosses I ever had, an African American woman, shot down an attempt by black trainees to claim racism when their performance was determined to be not up to standard. (She is also the only person to ever tell me HOW to improve my handwriting, not just criticize it.)
Another woman was one of the hardest working and nicest people I have ever met. She had an unprestigious position as a cleaning woman, but she did her job as if she were cleaning for a king. (I believe she was, as she was a staunch Christian).
Then there was the American soldier I met overseas who treated my family royally on a military base. I met him later at the airport as my family was flying out of the country and we had a nice chat. He was a wonderful man.
Dr. King was certainly right in saying that the people of this nation have to march ahead into the future together. This unity should not only involve the white and black man, but the other large minorities that have come along since Dr. King’s life and death.
Dr. West’s exhortation for self examination should motivate us to determine how we can best individually move race relations forward in this country. Dr. King’s legacy was seeking to overcome white supremacy and aim toward a multiracial democratic society. Ours may be different.
As Dr. West says, we all have our own legacy to leave. We may not like the state of affairs in our nation at the moment. If we don’t we should work to change what we don’t like in our own spheres of influence.
The event at Virginia Tech ended tonight with a choir and the audience singing “We Shall Overcome”. In reflecting on the words, I was wondering if the song was still applicable. After all, we’ve come a long way in terms of racial equality in the United States.
However, the message of the following stanza is still far from being implemented:
We’ll go a long way in being able to do this if we look past the skin color and national origin of the folks we deal with on a day to day basis and interact with them based on their qualities as human beings. We also will be able to walk hand in hand if we learn to listen to each other.