Do Stories about Past Evil Keep Hate Alive? Or Can a Priest's Crisis of Faith Illuminate the Post-Truth World of Election 2016?
By now lots of people know it was Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson who shouted “Tell them about your dream, Martin!” during the 1963 March on Washington. If it wasn’t for her, one of the most famous speeches in American history might have been decidedly less famous. And possibly forgotten altogether.
The dream part wasn’t in Dr. King’s prepared text. But Mahalia and others had heard him speak of it. He just needed to be reminded of something that was already deeply embedded in his soul.
Those beautiful words have become so famous in the 56 years since 1963 that most people identify Dr. King by that speech. Ask any school child who the man was, and they will tell you — he had a dream and was assassinated.
The trouble with repeating something for 53 years is that it loses some of its power to influence and inspire. Not all of it. I certainly get choked up whenever I hear it. But you know how it is. There are parts of the speech we can all recite by heart. It no longer has quite the same quality as when the words, prompted by the Gospel-singer muse, broke loose from the great man’s soul.
The grandeur of that speech casts a great shadow. So great it tends to obscure what may be Dr. King’s core message.
King’s “Dream” speech retains its power and deserves our attention because the man who delivered it lived by the core values expressed in his “But If Not” sermon delivered five months before his death. Focusing on the dream speech without understanding the core commitment that gave it light and power overshadows the source in order to favor the effect. We love the dream speech — but can we also love the existential commitment to “right for the sake of right” without which the dream would fizzle?
The “But If Not” sermon is about an act of civil disobedience. It’s about a king who tells three slaves to bow down and worship an idol. The slaves refuse, and the king threatens to throw them in a fiery furnace. Undaunted, the slaves tell the king they believe God will deliver them from the furnace. But even if He doesn’t, they won’t be bowing down to any false idols any time soon.
The story is a two-minute read in the Bible’s Book of Daniel. But Dr. King’s interpretation of it is just as stirring as “I Have a Dream.” Because it’s in that sermon that he says don’t do the right thing because you want to avoid hell or go to heaven. Do it because it’s the right thing, and be willing to die for it if necessary.
But here’s the part that really gives me goosebumps.
“And I say to you this morning, that if you have never found something so dear and so precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren’t fit to live. You may be 38 years old as I happen to be, and one day some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause — and you refuse to do it because you are afraid; you refuse to do it because you want to live longer; you’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you’re afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you or shoot at you or bomb your house, and so you refuse to take the stand. Well you may go on and live until you are 90, but you’re just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90! And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for right, you died when you refused to stand up for truth, you died when you refused to stand up for justice.”
So why talk about “But If Not” on the anniversary of “I Have a Dream”? Because if anyone else had given the Dream speech that day it would not have had the same impact. Because the Dream speech gets its power from “But If Not.”
We know with the hindsight of history that the man who delivered that famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 will be dead in less than five years. He’s standing there talking about something he’s willing to die for. And in fact does.
It’s important to remember the Dream speech. It’s also important to understand that King’s dream was rooted in the American dream that all men are created equal. It’s equally important to believe, as King did, that injustice and oppression can be transformed into “an oasis of freedom and justice.” We need to remember those things, especially now.
But in that remembering, isn’t it a good idea not to forgetthat you don’t just come up with words like that because some Gospel singer yells at you from the audience. The only way you can talk like that is to live like that. Maybe it’s time to step outside the shadow of “I Have a Dream” and connect with the light that gives it such power.
What follows is the full "But If Not" sermon, which is 22 minutes long. If you don’t have time to listen to the whole thing now, check out the brief 90-second excerpt just below it. But come back to the full speech if you can. You won’t be sorry.
On Its Anniversary - The Amos 'n Andy Controversy vis-a-vis Cosby, Selma, and the Ferguson Tragedies
Last night's Golden Globe recognition for Selma seems to have brought history full circle in more ways than one. As everyone knows, the film re-enacts the historic crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 during the Civil Rights Movement. But it also brings history around in another way. Eighty-nine years ago on January 12, 1926, the program that became known as Amos 'n Andy debuted on Chicago Radio as Sam 'n Henry. Two years later, the name was changed to Amos 'n Andy. In 1953, the show was canceled after ongoing protests from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It continued to run in syndication until it was finally withdrawn by CBS in 1966.
If you want to watch that show today, there are many bootleg copies available online. But you won't find it on DVD, and it's not likely to be released by the network any time soon.
The anniversary of the show''s debut arrives during a peculiar and even paradoxical moment. It is part of a temporal configuration that includes the movie Selma, tragic events in cities like Ferguson, and the castigation of Bill Cosby -- all of it occurring during the administration of America's first African-American president.
What are we to take from all of this? What does it mean? What does it say about being black in 21st century America?
I do not pretend to know the answer. Is there some grand conspiracy, as some have suggested, to portray black males in a negative light, thereby justifying the killing of unarmed "suspects"? Was Cosby "taken down" in the court of public opinion to silence his increasingly conservative views just as he was about to make a comeback? Does the current media moment amount to a small-screen replaying of attitudes that go back D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation ? If there is a conspiracy, are these negative images meant to sideline the Obama presidency, casting him as an anomaly? Is Ava Duvernay's Selma a similar exception, which speaks only to the past?
Whatever the answer, the present moment calls to mind dialogue from the movie, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. The Sidney Poitier character is having an argument with his father because he (Poitier) is about to marry a white woman. "You think of yourself as a black man," Poitier says. "I think of myself as a man."
Is how you think of yourself enough, one wonders? Or is there some overarching perception by the larger world that places you always in danger, thereby determining for you that you are "black," regardless of how you think of yourself.
The present controversies surrounding race and even the ongoing one involving Amos 'n Andy have at their core a struggle to create a single narrative about what it means to be black in America.
The push-pull that pits past suffering against present-day injustice or Cosby "Truthers" against his accusers, or the proclivity of white police officers to kill unarmed black men against the undeniable achievements of Barack Obama -- is a struggle that seeks to define black experience within a particular frame.
Could it be that there is no single narrative? Is it possible that the multiple and conflicting storylines about blackness are simply examples that prove how varied we are as a people? Is it possible that buying into this or that storyline gives it power to influence who you are and how you think of yourself -- allowing it to play too great a role in both your destiny and identity?
One could argue the point in any direction, but in the end these are questions that can only be answered individually within the chambers of the heart.
What must be noted about the many nominations for Selma is this: It represents a significant effort by African-Americans to control the frame within which African-Americans will be seen. Of course, others have done this: Oprah, Lee Daniels, Chris Rock, and perhaps most notably, Bill Cosby.
But this brings forth yet another paradox. Does Cosby's tarnished public image diminish Dr. Huxtable? It should not.
The Huxtables were fictional characters on a TV sitcom. Their behaviors were written into the show's "bible." The actors who played those characters are not bound by that script, as Woody Allen's Purple Rose of Cairo showed all too well. In that film, Jeff Daniels' character steps down from the movie screen and falls in love with Mia Farrow. When the real Jeff Daniels finds out about this, he behaves dishonorably in order to set things right. Mia Farrow winds up choosing the real Jeff over the fictional one and is the poorer for it in the end.
Fitting isn't it, that the similarly castigated Woody Allen should provide the best argument for saving Dr. Huxtable, even as Cosby the man takes a nosedive. These two "great" men are in the same boat. Is Annie Hall a bad movie because of anything in Woody Allen's hidden sex life? Of course not. Should we dismiss Manhattan or Hannah and Her Sisters or Midnight in Paris for the same reason? Neither then should the Huxtable family lose standing in the public mind.
The Huxtables did what fictional characters must always do. They showed us a possibility worth thinking about and even emulating. Regardless of anything that might be happening in your life, that TV show allowed you to think of yourself in a certain way. If they could be a doctor-husband and lawyer-wife raising a family the best way they knew how, then perhaps you could aspire to do that too. Even if you still thought of yourself as a "black man" to return to Poitier and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, at least that idea of blackness was not some low and loathsome buffoon incapable of making a success of anything.
Perhaps that was always the problem with Amos 'n Andy. The original actors were whites pretending to be black. Those actors presented African-Americans through the eyes of whites whose perceptions were shaped during the first half of the 20th century. Although the TV version brought black actors aboard, the show was never able to jettison its origins in the derogatory tradition of "black face."
What follows here are four items of interest with regard to all of this: 1) The NAACP Bulletin on Amos 'n Andy; 2) The documentary called Amos 'n Andy: The Anatomy of a Controversy. 3) The viral YouTube video on racist cartoons; and 4) Harry Belafonte's moving acceptance speech, upon receiving the 2014 Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, about the impact of media images on the black psyche and the role Hollywood has played historically in shaping how black people think of themselves.
THE NAACP'S AMOS 'N ANDY CANCELLATION BULLETIN
HARRY BELAFONTE & THE IMPACT OF MOVIES ON THE BLACK PSYCHE
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