by Marcus Harrison Green
(This article is adapted from a talk given at Westside Unitarian Church on 1/19/20)
We’re less than a month into the new year and I’ve struggled not to wish it was already over.
Nearly every day hatches a fresh absurdity from our national leadership, new drum-beats for war, and routine attacks against the idea of multicultural democracy. (The fact that neo-Nazis, hoping to ignite a race war, planned for mass violence in Virginia on the same day that honors Martin Luther King Jr speaks distressing volumes of where we are, and are not, as a country in the 51 years after his death.)
Additionally, I can only imagine the routine indignities many of you have already suffered personally. Perhaps they are similar to mine when a reader, taking offense to a column I wrote about the unique hardships faced by women and people of color running for political office, anonymously mailed me a four page screed, rambling on about how “racist I was against white men,” and that if I “and my ‘woke warriors’ just shut our damn mouths, racism, sexism, and lgbtq-ism (his words), wouldn’t be a problem.
For good measure, he gave suggestions on what I could do with his backside.
No, these first three weeks of the new year are almost making me long for 2019… Well…okay…it’s not quite that bad.
But this new year’s brutal introduction has also affirmed a valuable lesson: That in this very complex, intricately layered world of human invention, as essential as hope is, it can never be enough in and of itself to change our world.
It’s not a dearth of hope (or even love) that necessarily shred the connective fibers, whether inside us, between individuals, or among the larger society, a therapist friend of mine recently told me.
Those bonds perish because of a deficiency of possibilities. Possibility is what fuels the foundation from which hope and love catch fire. Without it, they burn away slowly, like wishes turned to ash.
That diagnosis resounds so profoundly on this weekend of commemoration for the only individual to have a federal holiday named in their honor, at a moment when well-trodden cliches tell of how Dr. King’s dream remains unfulfilled.
And while I don’t disagree, and while Dr. King deserves all of the reverence due to him, what is too often forgotten by all of the perfunctory speeches and punditry is how limited that dream actually was. And how restricted were its possibilities, in part because social transformation does not spring from a solitary architect.
I realize how preposterous that might sound. After all, the vision King laid out 56 years ago speaks so much of unity. It calls for America to live up to its creed of “all men being created equal… and making justice a reality for all of God’s children… and the sons and daughters of former slaves and slave owners sitting down at the table of brotherhood.”
But I take instruction from Anne Arnold Hedgemon, a primary organizer of the March on Washington where King’s famous speech was given. As a black woman, she succeeded in organizing the majority of white Christian allies who showed up on that day. And yet, like all of the women organizers of the march who’d put in just as much if not more work than their male counterparts, she was denied not only an opportunity to speak, but her rightful place at the front of the line.
Though she respected him, she always thought King’s dream was too inadequate for the one desperately needed by society. She would say as much decades later, telling friends, “Martin said I… I have a dream…. And to this day I wish he hadn’t. I wish he had said ‘we’…. ‘We have a dream’… That would have been for all those people who had and continue to presently dream in vain.”
I believe, much like Anne did, that it’s partially for that reason that, for as much progress as was made during and because of our civil rights movement, it stopped short of irrevocably transforming our society to the point that it could not indulge an aspiring, authoritarian despot while a sizable minority cheers his cruelty and prejudice.
Because you see, “we” doesn’t just invite others to dream, it requires their counsel in constructing that possibility.
“We” doesn’t tolerate women performing acts of labor for a movement that denies them voices of influence. “We” doesn’t command many of those same women to keep silent about the sexual assault committed against them by members of that same movement.
“We” does not set aside the contributions of members from the LGBTQ community like Bayard Rustin, who was largely responsible for the adoption of non-violence by a plurality of the civil rights movement, including King.
“We” does not table addressing the collective struggles of others simply because individual members from marginalized groups are given “conditional” seats of economic and political power as long as they don’t speak too loudly about the trauma visited upon members of their community.
“We,” for some of us, means fully accepting that society selectively advantages certain identities (our sex, our race, our gender, our able-bodiedness) — and demands we do not reflexively fall into a defensive stance when faced with critiques of those benefits and the oppressive systems they spawn from. It means when you are asked to identify these social forces at play — whether in your behavior, or your workplace, or your church — you are able to view it as an invitation to collectively devise strategies to overthrow those forces.
“We,” for others of us, means forgoing the vanity that comes with making a public spectacle of our “divine social righteousness” to give grace to those who are attempting to unlearn a lifetime of social conditioning. “We” means not rushing to equate a knowledge gap with bigotry, allowing a person errors (but correctives) along the bridge they travel to becoming a better person.
“We” replaces the word “woke” (and its implication of a lifetime degree in social justice enlightenment) with the word “growth” (and it’s ongoing education in how to accept that we are all spectacularly, frustratingly complex human beings). Inside each of us rages a war between good and evil, kindness and cruelty, courage and fear, doubt and faith, the desire to seek, and the will to find.
Because “we” is not conformity to some undefined notion of unity that too often implies a collective pledge to fall silent over the sins of the status quo.
“We” is a long arduous journey to the formulation of a living, breathing, rendered possibility of “social wholeness”– a wholeness formed from connecting our jagged but congruent parts. That journey requires patience with ourselves and each other, constant learning, a fidelity to empathy, and a commitment to giving and receiving healthy instruction on how “we” build a better world.
It is that possibility that is the hope with teeth — a fierce kind of love that endures the loss of a sole individual. It does so because it is the progeny of so many who fight, strive, and live for a just world. So many who refine, remake, falter, flounder, fall, and fall again so that “we” can rise and rise again in pursuit of that possibility.
And it’s that possibility — for what “we” can become as a world, as a city, as a congregation — that fuses us and allows us to embrace larger lives and larger worlds than “I” could have ever dreamed alone. It’s that possibility that endures even when hope is punch-drunk.
Because it wasn’t hope alone that led our indigenous brothers and sisters to survival when every government policy sought their eradication. It wasn’t hope alone that enfranchised the fight for the liberation of enslaved Africans when the Emancipation Proclamation was still generations away. It wasn’t hope alone that fueled the women’s suffrage movement or marriage equality for all until both were realized.
It was a collectively imagined and drawn possibility of what this world and those in it could one day become.
I ask you now, what will “we” become as human beings sitting next to each other in our offices, in our homes, in our schools, and our city halls, so that our conceived possibility can filter through, up and around our country, our society, and our world, becoming stronger, bigger, and bolder?
There is a folk proverb that I repeat when I find myself overwhelmed by adversity. It goes: “There is a flower so exquisite in its beauty that spending the entirety of your life searching for it, without ever finding it, is not a wasted life.”
There is a world whose conception is so beautiful that it is worth a lifetime’s work.
May “we” dream of it together.