Race in America

Dear Black Elders: Dreams Are Worth Fighting For

A riot is the sound of a dream deferred exploding

Image for post
Image for post

“I wish that n — a would shut up before he gets us all killed.” That was what my great-great-grandmother,* who was known simply as ‘Mama,’ had to say about Martin Luther King Jr.

*(My aunt swears this was my great-aunt Mary’s quote and that Mama just agreed with her, but I always heard it was Mama)

I never got to meet Mama, she was born sometime in the late1880’s and died seven years before I was born. Nevertheless, she was our family’s matriarch, and through stories and pictures and wise aphorisms, Mama became as much a part of me as she was a part of my mother, my grandmother, and her mother before that.

Harlem, by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore —

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over —

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

I can only imagine what terrors she lived through growing up during reconstruction in Kentucky. Her parents had seen this nation promise freedom and replace it with a new form of chains within two decades. She was a pre-teen when President William McKinley publicly denounced lynching in his inaugural address and a teen when he was assassinated by an anarchist during the 1901 world’s fair.

She was a new mother when 10,000 negroes marched silently down Fifth Avenue to protest lynching and a young mother of six when Tulsa burned, when Rosewood burned, when Black America burned while white Americans looked on in satisfaction.

TW: Graphic image of lynching

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Graphic image of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. A crowd of white onlookers pose for the photo.
Graphic image of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. A crowd of white onlookers pose for the photo.

In 1930, when photographer Lawrence Beitler sold thousands of copies of the above image from an Indiana lynching as mementos and postcards, Mama was one state over, raising her grandchildren.

By the time Langston Hughes wrote Harlem, she was an old woman who had lived through horrors most of us struggle to imagine. Her dreams hadn’t been deferred. They had been denied.

So it makes sense that when a 26-year-old pastor from Alabama started inciting young Black people to protest their status as second class citizens, Mama’s first reaction was not born out of hope, but out of love.

“Survival is the greatest gift of love,” according to Audre Lorde. It took me a few days of sitting with this article to remember what my great-great-grandmother already knew: to take hold of living, we must let go of our most human desire to survive.

There were some doors that would never open for Black people. We had to accept that and move on.

The white supremacy that Martin Luther King Jr. was fighting against had already stolen the lives of at least one of her sons, possibly her parents, and countless other relatives, friends, and strangers. She watched vibrant, living persons be reduced to charred and shriveled flesh, watched that flesh paraded on postcards and in newspapers; saw the hatred that caused such destruction echoed in the eyes of white men, women, and children any time she was forced to leave the safety of her neighborhood.

Lynching, with or without the aid of media, was it’s own form of virality. It’s ubiquity reminded Blacks that there was nowhere they could go that would put themselves and their children beyond the reach of ‘judge lynch.’ The utter brutality with which they treated the lynched — selling burned fingers, toes, and penises as souvenirs, leaving Black bodies bloated with flies hanging for days, purchasing postcards of such horrors — served as a chilling reminder: we can kill you all. Who will stop us?

For Mama, her desire to see her children survive overrode any farfetched hope that they might actually live. She loved her family so much that she gave us the most precious gift she had: a capacity to survive.

My maternal grandfather was the youngest of two sons. Born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi in the final (official) year of the great depression, I’m not sure his parents had time for dreams. Their prayers were probably something like: ‘Lord, let us have enough food for our children. Let both of our sons live to see adulthood.’ Whatever their dreams were, I’m 99% sure that both of their sons going to college and getting ‘good government jobs’ surpassed all of them.

When my Aunt graduated from Ohio State in 1979, her father suggested that she get a job at the post office, like he did. Two years later, when she had reached the glass ceiling of an affirmative action program and wanted advice on what to do next, he told her honestly: “I can’t help you. You’ve gone beyond anything I’ve known, so I can’t tell you what to do now.”

By twenty-three, my Aunt had already surpassed the limits of her parent’s dreams for her. If she wanted new dreams for herself, or any children she might have, she would have to build them.

Three years later, I was born. Although my grandparents loved and supported me, they never told me ‘you can do anything.’ Instead, they said things like ‘you may not get everything you work for, but you sure will work for everything you get,’ and ‘always carry a broom,’ and ‘you have to work twice as hard to get half as much.’ These aphorisms spoke to the limits of my grandparents’ dreams. A world where a Black child could be free to be anything they wanted to be was a fantasy to them.

There were some doors that would never open for Black people. We had to accept that and move on.

Meanwhile, a few states away, a young community organizer was deciding whether or not he should go to Harvard Law School. That young man would go on to become the 44th President of the United States.

You fought for our right to survive. We are fighting for our children’s right to thrive.

My grandfather didn’t live to see the inauguration of a Black President, but my grandma did. She called her brother in Erie and I remember fat tears rolling down the slender planes of her face as she said: “Paul — can you even imagine??”

Electing Barack Obama was the fulfillment of my grandmother’s wildest dreams, but he also tapped into her deepest fears. Every time she would talk to one of her generational peers, wild joy breaking forth on their faces as they called him our President, that joy was quickly tempered by fear. “I’m so proud of our President — I hope they don’t kill him.”

My grandmother was still fighting her grandmother’s battle—the struggle to support dreams that scared her, dreams that would almost certainly end in death.

This epigenetic fear is the type Audre Lorde said was “imprinted… like a faint line in the center of our foreheads/ learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk.” It is the same terror that seizes me each time blue lights flash in my rearview, that prickling panic which seals my throat when I have to stop for gas in a one-stoplight town.

Fear for our lives in a country built on the bones of our black and indigenous siblings is rational. To let that fear imprison us is a suicide of the soul. We must continue to dream of freedom. And our dreams, by necessity, must be different from yours.

You fought for our right to survive. We are fighting for our children’s right to thrive.

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Need is a theory about what motivates people. For someone to be able to focus on growth needs like love and belonging, they have to first satisfy deficiency needs like food, water, and shelter.

It is a testament to the enduring power of our ancestors’ love that this generation of Black youth is alive to fight for wholeness. You kept us alive through sheer force of will, helping us to survive for ‘four-hundred years as an endangered species.’ Yours are the shoulders we stand on as we reach for something more powerful than fear, more precious even than love… The right to dream.

World Changer. Social Thinker. Business Owner.

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