When Is Now!
Updated: Aug 11
“Until the killing of black men, black mothers’
sons, becomes as important to the rest of the
country as the killing of a white mother’s son,
we who believe in freedom cannot rest.”
I am a 71-year old black man. I have looked down the barrel of white and black Policemen’s guns, each time looking into the fear I could see in their eyes. I have been profiled “driving while black.” Like my parents before me and their parents before them, my wife and I have had to teach our children, and now our grandchildren, how to make their way in what is still, “the white man’s world.” We make every effort to convince our children that we have never been the stereotypes portrayed on big and little screens. There will never be a time when black parents will not have to teach our children what it means to be a person of African descent.
Americans only see black people when we serve or entertain them or when we are framed on nightly news broadcasts wreaking havoc in the streets. This nation sees us when we literally leap out of white people’s racial nightmares. We are being seen once again, but this time conditions are not the same. Will the nation be able to pay real attention and listen in spite of the noise? As mainstream America wonders why, bankrupt influencers struggle to provide answers beyond the scope of their surface understanding. Even as they see the realities of black peoples’ unbridled fury, too many refuse to acknowledge the deep depths of the heartache that continues to reveal itself.
We are the offspring of people that defied death. This bottomless hurt is centered in people borne of wounded survivors; people that endured the pain of “second class” citizenship under the jack boots of American apartheid. Black voices have always spoken truth to power. Frederick Douglass warned, “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”
Another generation is burning with an inherited rage. As we watched people set fire to police vehicles and burn down businesses, too few leaders were prepared to admit the degree to which living in impoverished neighborhoods reminds people daily of the conditions this nation is so willing to tolerate. In 1903, W. E. B. DuBois wrote, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.”
He forewarned, “Daily the Negro is coming more and more to look upon law and justice, not as protecting safeguards, but as sources of humiliation and oppression. The laws are made by men who have little interest in him; they are executed by men who have absolutely no motive for treating the black people with courtesy or consideration….” MAGA is just a new expression of a mentality that has always existed in this country. It is on this very level that Americans are being forced to face up to the affliction ravaging the body politic. This is the deadly predicament the good folk have inherited.
As peaceful demonstrations degenerated into chaos in cities across the country, I wondered if Americans are finally willing to accept how this nation became “great.” Yet, hard-fought-for-progress has been achieved. My maternal grandparents escaped a white-hot South Carolina in 1925. My grandmother lived to see three daughters and four grandchildren earn college degrees. I am the son of factory workers who feared for their son with the African name. They wondered if I would be able to survive in the white man’s world as a proud, uncompromising black poet/professor.
The election of Barack Obama did not signal a “post-racial” phase in America, although my experiences performing before predominantly white audiences as a guest artist with the Cavani String Quartet did allow me to meet genuinely thoughtful white Americans who do see. My poetry offered a glimpse inside a world that was unfamiliar to them. The emergence of MAGA Donald Trump is their generational test. The “I am not racist” folk are being challenged to do something in the face of the irrational white backlash that is determined to keep their America white and right.
How mainstream Americans see black people provides a window into how they prefer to see themselves. These times demand a critical understanding of the psychology of whiteness that has shaped this society and the world. Europeans and peoples of European descent have literally terrorized the planet into submission in the name of civilizing the various peoples of color they determined to be “savages.” It is time to lay bare the real nature of the inner desires and secret fears that drive Western societies.
To only focus attention on the more extreme expressions of white supremacy is too convenient. It allows Americans that benefit from a willfully ignorant white-privilege centered way of life to spurn any responsibility for the destruction inflicted on the decimated communities living just beyond their tranquil suburban neighborhoods, their rural small towns, their urban high rise vistas. The black experience in America is rife with stories that chronicle the inhumanities Americans will put up with to maintain their American dream standard of living. In the last years of his life, Dr. King cautioned, “There is such a time as too late.”
People rarely quote the King that admitted, “For twelve years, I, and others like me, had held out radiant promises of progress. I had preached to them about my dream. I had lectured to them about the not too distant day when they would have freedom, ‘all here and now.’ I had urged them to have faith in America and in white society. Their hopes had soared…. They were booing because we had urged them to have faith in people who had too often proved to be unfaithful. They were now hostile because they were watching the dream that they had so readily accepted turn into a frustrating nightmare.”
Instead, King’s most famous speech has been co-opted. Michael Eric Dyson writes, “I Have a Dream” has been used to chip away at King’s enduring social legacy. One phrase has been pinched from King’s speech to justify assaults on civil rights in the name of color-blind policies. Moreover, we have frozen King in a timeless mood of optimism that later that very year he grew to question … we have selectively listened to what King had to say to us that muggy afternoon. It is easier … to embrace the day’s warm memories than to confront the cold realities that led to the March on Washington in the first place. August 28, 1963, was a single moment in time that captured the suffering of centuries. It was an afternoon shaped as much by white brutality and black oppression as by uplifting rhetoric.”
Dyson concludes, “Tragically, King’s American dream has been seized and distorted by a group of conservative citizens whose forebears and ideology have trampled King’s legacy. If King’s hope for radical social change is to survive, we must wrest his complex meaning from their harmful embrace. If we are to combat the conservative misappropriation of King’s words, we must first understand just how important—and problematic—King’s speech has been to American understandings of race for the past thirty years.”
For the Trumpians, the goal is a return to an idyllic time that only exists in their minds—a “Gilded Age” when the “Indians” were no more than quaint sounding names and mascots, the “Niggers” were Jim Crowed in plain sight, the “wet backs” were in Mexico, the “slant eyes” were in Asia, the LGBTQ+ crowd was in the closet, the middle and lower class whites knew their places, and women suffered their lives in quiet desperation. The Trump mantra, “My ignorance is greater than your knowledge” is their new standard.
As Black Lives Matter demonstrations took place in London, in Berlin and in other cities around the world, the talking-heads did not reference the King that remarked, “These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.”
The people that condemn the rioting do not invoke the King that sent the following message to Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X, “… I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and the root of the problem. He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view, and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems we face as a race.”
For those who still vilify Malcolm X, they ignore the sentiment he shared with Coretta Scott King just before his assassination in 1965, “I want Dr. King to know that I didn’t come to Selma to make his job difficult. I really did come thinking I could make it easier. If the white people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King.” It is time for Americans to understand that Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. represented opposite sides of the same black coin.
For all the good folk struggling to find answers, if you are ready to listen, the answers you seek have always been there. They are still there. This time around, however, they are revealing themselves in their multi-racial-multi-ethnic-multi-identities glory. Even Thomas Jefferson, in a private moment, wrestled with his troubled conscience when he admitted, “… I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever….”
It appears the alternative approach that Malcolm X alluded to may be just beyond the horizon. We must also recognize that there was so much more to the Right Reverend Dr. King than his dream. This slow lurching forward, nevertheless, is not the same as the Civil Rights Movement. The 1960s and the 1970s are behind us. They cannot come back. We can either learn from history or we can be pushed aside by the ever spiraling upward motion of it. I submit that history does not repeat itself. It can and will pass by us in its perpetual process of becoming if we fail to seize our historic moment when it materializes.
Ella Baker foreshadowed this next phase of the movement we are witnessing being born before our eyes. She argued, “I have always felt it was a handicap for oppressed peoples to depend so largely upon a leader, because unfortunately in our culture, the charismatic leader usually becomes a leader because he has found a spot in the public limelight…. My theory is strong people don’t need strong leaders.”