On Monday, the world paid tribute to the memory of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man whose legacy will forever be linked to his tireless pursuit of equal rights for not only African Americans — but for anyone who suffered injustice and discrimination based on race, gender or social standing.
As a child, I recalled every year in my elementary school being encouraged to read and recite his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, and obsessing more on my classmate Yvonne — who, along with her sisters, would always nail the recitation in the grade level school-wide contests — than on the speech’s contents. The rest of us in the class didn’t even try to beat her; we just basked in the bragging rights of having her in our class.
It would take years for me to fully understand and appreciate the sacrifice and struggle of Dr. King and his fellow “freedom fighters”. In retrospect, the work of these incredible men and women didn’t resonate as strongly as the holiday from school. To this day, I’m not certain if it’s a testament to my refusal to digest the horror of history, or if the school system failed to emphasize the importance of the movement that, at the time, was still freshly woven into the fabric of this country.
To be fair, the subject matter calls for complicated — and sometimes uncomfortable — conversation that is tough to grasp at an age where you can barely put sentences together.
In any case, recalling this bit of information helps me understand why the youth of today aren’t fully informed or sympathetic to Dr. King’s fight.
But what I don’t understand, is how in this era — where most kids who don’t have jobs somehow possess expensive smartphones that easily access information, and two year-olds can navigate applications on iPads — is it possible that people choose to not research the story of King and all freedom fighters, and instead use his image to promote “twerking” parties?
This thought came to me while attending Monday’s annual tribute to Dr. King at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which this year included tributes to Nelson Mandela and Amiri Baraka . While standing on line early that morning waiting to be seated, the presence of parents with young children en mass was a welcome and heartwarming sight to my sleepy eyes.
During the tribute, we heard the voices and messages of borough presidents, senators, congressmen, various elected officials and the new mayor and first lady of New York. We also heard the old/new police commissioner — a man clearly out of his comfort zone — who kept gratingly referring to Dr. King as “Mr. King”.
Once the political agendas and awkward moments commenced, we listened to the melodic voices of the Christian Cultural Center Chorus (who unfortunately included an R. Kelly song in their set list) and the jazzy brilliance of José James.
But the high note was the event’s keynote speaker… Angela Davis.
The indomitable fist-hoisting poster child for “Black Power” in the ’60’s and 70’s. She of the famous gap-toothed smile that beams through a face shrouded by a mushroom cloud of an afro (now graying and only slightly tamed), with a razor sharp mind and an undeniable ability to capture a room or gathering crowd with her eloquence.
Decades after being acquitted of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy charges, and semi-quietly resigned to a life of minimal fanfare, the woman still electrifies an audience. In a packed to capacity venue, the former FBI fugitive stood onstage for several minutes basking humbly in the applause and cheers of an emotional crowd that continued to stand even after she told us her time to speak was limited.
She was the most natural choice to pay tribute to the men who collectively created profound ripples in the seas of change. Having spent years being vilified, persecuted, threatened and incarcerated for her outspoken support of human rights, Davis has emerged as one of the rare survivors and success stories of that era. Following her powerful — and, not surprisingly, controversial — speech, the crowd made their way to the cinema to view the documentary “Free Angela and All Political Prisoners“. Generations young and old were introduced to Angela the fighter, the woman, the scapegoat and finally the vanquished. Even though we knew how the story ended, there still wasn’t a dry eye or an un-clapped hand in the audience at the film’s conclusion.
With last month’s passing of Mandela (along with the perfectly/eerily timed release of the “Long Walk to Freedom” film depicting his life), and the recent PBS documentary by Henry Louis Gates Jr., “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross“, there’s a resurgence of interest surrounding those who risked their lives and their livelihood in order for future generations to enjoy the freedom and luxury of choice.
Personally, I believe this recognition couldn’t have come at a more crucial time.
Speaking for myself, it is often easy to take for granted the physical and psychological warfare that was endured for centuries prior to this day and age where it has now become okay to publicly demean each other on television, in music and via social media, but cry racism when someone from another ethnicity says or utters anything even in ignorance.
Sometimes a wound needs to be reopened in order to heal properly. The recent spate of racially themed movies in the past year, while garnering some vitriol from African Americans tiring of seeing “another film about slavery, etc.”, are necessary reminders of the struggles of ancestors past. If nothing else, they should embolden generations that now have more opportunities and resources than ever to make even greater strides and more groundbreaking accomplishments that unite and rebuild broken communities.
Because what’s the point of people fighting and dying for freedom, if we end up allowing anger, resentment and fear to imprison our thoughts and actions and keep us from ultimately living Dr. King’s dream? Or for that matter… simply living our own dreams?
Let freedom ring… indeed.