Dr. King, Selma, and the Search for a Legacy

Over the holidays I took a walk along the calm rivers of the White River in Indianapolis. I thought of its name and its literal representation of the line between white and black in my state. I looked out over the river, and I thought that in this great nation the one thing that we can all be educated about is how to live together. There is enough for everyone, and if there is not, we have to fight for it. No one said it was going to be easy, but I agree with Thurgood Marshall when he said that we would regret it if we did not keep trying. (Notes from one of my undergraduate research papers, December 2008)

I think one of the most beautiful things in the world is the ability to dream. The ability to imagine places and ideas and realities that have yet to be borne into existence. Over the past year I have found that some dreams become harder to hold on to. And that’s actually when I need to hold on to them more.

Today is the birthday of Dr. King, a beautiful dreamer and a powerful fighter for freedom. Dr. King was a black boy who dared to reject the notions of what he should do with his life or what would become of him, and became so much more than anyone could have imagined at the time. The greatest tragedy to his legacy is when we thought the battle he fought his whole life was over, and the greatest memorial are those who never stopped or have now taken back up the banner and march towards freedom and hope. I have tried throughout my life to remember Dr. King’s words that the arc of the moral universe is long but that it bends towards justice. Sometimes I get tired working on moving along that bend, but there are worst things that could happen if none of us did that work.

Today is also the day that Oscar nominations came out, and Selma, a film based on Dr. King’s work in the city in Alabama, received no nominations for its visionary black female director, Ava DuVernay, nor for its formidable black male star, David Oyelowo. This is the whitest Oscars since 1998 explained one news story.

And so DuVernay’s dream of portrayinig this particular moment in Dr. King’s life is shut down, forced to sit in a corner because she would not play by the rules of the game they thought they so clearly marked out for her to follow.

What happens to a dream deferred?

As I contemplated Dr. King’s legacy today I was in the midst of researching about young black boys who have trouble with the law and in society as a whole. After some time, the research got to me, and I began to feel the familiar feeling I have grown to recognize since coming back to academia: the feeling of being overwhelmed at the work that needs to be done, and what role could I possibly play in doing it. Each researcher I read noted the large presence of feelings of low self-esteem and hopelessness in the young males in their research, and how they felt that even the basic goal of survival was one they had to fight for. A people cannot progress if they are worried about something so basic as mere survival.

And then I thought of a student I will refer to as J.

J came to me in my second year of teaching. He was angry, in and out of school, and scared the other students. J was always a storm waiting to explode in a brooding face and hostile walk. J even went as far as trying to kill himself during one of our class periods. When I finally got some time alone with J I began to realize the deep unrest he felt about who he was as a young black male, and the deep disconnect with his family and community. He was an outcast…a stranger in his home, and an even greater stranger from society. The only way I found to help J was to sit and type his story for him as he spoke out loud of the path that life had taken him down that had brought him to the edge of a great cliff. J still precariously lives on the edge of that cliff, and it is for him that I do this work, to see if I can help take his hand and guide him back away from it.

I don’t know what my own legacy will be, but I hope it has something to do with helping young black boys like J. Boys who have long since stopped dreaming because they have seen such dreams deferred time and time again. Maybe they just need some reminders that even seeds sown that don’t bloom through multiple winters can still be nourished until that faithful spring.

Thank you Dr. King for your legacy. Thank you for reminding me always of the importance of education. I hope my own search for a legacy can complement your own.

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