By The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas
“We have . . . come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. . . Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice . . . Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.” This was the urgent message that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered to the nation as he stood at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963.
Perhaps King felt a particular sense of urgency since eight years earlier on that same day 14-year-old Emmett Louis Till was dragged from a relative’s Mississippi home and lynched after being falsely accused of “flirting” with a 21-year-old White woman.
Sixty years later we are confronted with a similar “urgency of now.” Not only are our social, political and judicial policies and decisions increasingly consonant with anti-Black, White supremacist realities, but perhaps most troubling: an anti-Black, White supremacist gaze is being perpetuated at every level of our shared lives in this nation.
This gaze sets the standard for whose knowledge has authority for interpreting and evaluating reality. It determines the normative story through which to judge and evaluate information regarding shared history and even shared experiences. It is the privileged gaze through which all public knowledge – be it knowledge of the past or the present – is to be accessed. It is the gaze that determines whose “truth” is to be admitted, to be believed.
This gaze does not accommodate anything that challenges an assessment of the American story as anything other than what amounts to a privileged White story, where realities of race are practically erased from our nation’s history. Philosopher Charles Mills might describe it as part of a White “non‐knowing” wherein the “white delusion of racial superiority insulates itself against refutation” (“Black Rights/White Wrongs”).
For many today, talking about White supremacy, even to name it, reflects unacceptable “wokeness,” which for some amounts to race baiting, “dividing us into oppressors and the oppressed, making white children feel uncomfortable.” When proposing to “Stop W.O.K.E. Activism and Critical Race Theory,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said, “In Florida we are taking a stand against the state-sanctioned racism that is critical race theory . . .. We won’t allow Florida tax dollars to be spent teaching kids to hate our country or to hate each other.” At least 17 states have passed legislation to ban Critical Race Theory with bills to do the same pending in several other states . In actual fact, however, to not name or talk about White supremacy is one of White supremacy’s evasions, allowing it to fester and thrive with impunity.
The fact that Critical Race Theory and versions of history that talk about racial injustice (let alone mention race) are being attacked and expunged from various school curricula is, in effect, the 21st century version of the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s efforts to reframe history after the Civil War. With the collapse of the Confederacy, the UDC was determined to create “living monuments” that would keep the Confederate cause alive. Thus, they developed educational materials espousing a “Lost Cause” version of history to be distributed in schools. The UDC also developed instructional material for “Children of the Confederacy” chapters, which the UDC had established for children 6 to 16 years of age in an effort to indoctrinate a generation of children so they would grow up defending a pro-Confederacy version of history—thereby perpetuating an anti-Black, White supremacist narrative of history.
If we expect future generations to be any better at fostering racial justice than our present generation, then we must tell the disconcerting truths about our nation’s struggle to become a democracy where there is freedom and justice for all. Doing that must begin with telling the stories and struggles of those who have been on the underside of justice.
It is when we bring to the forefront of the nation’s story the voices and knowledge from those on the underside of this country’s history of racial injustice, such as the Black enslaved, that we discover that as they fought for their freedom, they actually kept alive the vision of the nation’s better angels—a place where all people could live free. This is the story that The New York Times 1619 Project tells as it places “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.” Nicole Hannah‐Jones put it this way: “Our founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written. Black Americans fought to make them true. Without this struggle, America would have no democracy at all.”
The point of the matter is: as long as the story that is passed from one generation to another is a story that ignores the realities of anti-Black White supremacy, it is virtually impossible to chart a different course for the future. If we are really serious about creating a more just society, then we must get to the root of the injustice itself—and that means telling the truths about the brutal realities of race in this country. To do otherwise means that generations to come will be captive to the false narratives of history and thus captive to racist notions of what justice looks like.
We must decide if we are going to be a nation and a people defined by Martin Luther King Jr’s dream or a nation and a people defined by Emmett Louis Till’s lynching.
And so, there is an “urgency of now” for those committed to King’s dream of freedom and justice for all. It is untenable to simply remember what happened sixty years ago at the Lincoln Memorial and then stand quietly on the sidelines while a movement to ban books and to purge school curriculums of the harsh realities of anti-black racism proliferates across the country. There is an urgency to act. There is an urgency to show up. There is an urgency to resist. There is an “urgency of now” to tell the truth about this nation’s history.
The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas is interim president of the Episcopal Divinity School in New York City.
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