By Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead
Four nights ago, I sent out a tweet praying that the people of Ukraine prevail against the relentless attack from President Putin and the Russian Army.
I said that I was praying for them to win. I received a reply in just a few minutes that stopped me in my tracks: “We don’t have to win; we just have to hold on.”
Since then, I have been thinking about this sentiment, this idea, and this prayer. It reminded me of my father, who once taught me to hold on to the broken pieces.
I thought about my grandmother, who once said faith was holding on even when everything in you tells you to let go. It made me think about my ancestors, enslaved men, and women, who had never known or tasted freedom, but they were confident that someone in their line would know how it felt to be free if they just held on.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “We must build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.” I always believed that he was telling us to build it in faith since we wouldn’t know whether it would hold until it was built and tested.
I sat in my chair and thought about how I am here today because my ancestors held on and blazed a trail of excellence and brilliance. I stand on their shoulders, grateful for all that they have done. They have shown all of us how to walk with our heads held up high, knowing that we may not see the end, but we will get there and we need to get there together. They have shown us the importance of knowing our place in the line.
From Ukraine to America, people worldwide are standing at the crossroads of freedom and equality. We are at an interesting time in American history because the arc of the moral universe that Dr. King and Minister Theodore Parker once wrote about is still bending. It may not be bending as quickly as we would like, but it is still bending.
“The universe,” as King once said, “is on the side of justice,” but it is evident that justice is taking a long time to get here.
Before my oldest son left for college, I told him that it was a privilege to be able to attend college to pursue his dreams and his degree. I told him he was a part of Franz Shubert’s Unfinished Symphony – as college will bring him into a conversation that has been going on before he arrived and will continue after he leaves. His challenge is to leave the conversation a little bit better than when he found it. I said you must decide who you are going to be, what kind of world you want to live in, and what you are willing to sacrifice to help create this world.
I told him a story I once heard about a little girl, whose mother gave her a 1000-piece puzzle of the world and told her to take her time and put the world together.
The mother figured that this would take a couple of days and would occupy her daughter’s time. In mere minutes her daughter was finished, and her mother wanted to know how she could make the world fit together in such a short period of time. The little girl said that her father told her that on the other side of the puzzle pieces was a picture of a little girl, and if she just focused on putting the little girl together in the right way, then the world would come together.
I then asked him, are you putting your puzzle pieces together in the right way? Are you where you are supposed to be? Do you understand that you do not have to win; you have to hold on?
We have a great responsibility because as the arc is bending, those of us who know the history or have lived the history or have studied the history must be charged with the responsibility of teaching the history.
We must share our knowledge to ensure that the generations to come will not continue to be destroyed because they have not learned their history or, worse yet, have rejected it. We must do our part to spark their genius—the genius that Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the founder of ASALH and Negro History Week, was talking about in his book, The Mis-Education of the Negro—and as we do that, we must also seek to spark that genius in ourselves as well.
As Dr. King wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” we must hold on because we are all caught up in an “inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
After reading this letter, who could be silent and risk having their silence mistaken for complicity? We read that letter today and forget that it is calling us to do something, to go farther than we ever thought possible. It is calling us to realize that our stories are connected and intricately tied to the stories that are being told around the world.
The suffering in Kyiv is tied to the suffering in Syria and the current struggle to free Brittany Griner is just as important as the struggle that once took place to help free Liu Xiaobo. Injustice anywhere—whether in Florida, Baltimore, Turkey, Sudan, or Sandy Hook—is a threat to justice everywhere—a statement as true today as it was when King first wrote them. What we know to be true is that as a collective body, committed to peace and justice, we do not have to win; we hold on.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead (firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is the Founding Executive Director of The Karson Institute for Race, Peace, & Social Justice at Loyola University Maryland and the 2021 Edward R. Murrow Regional Award- winning radio host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM. She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their dog, BellaReds.
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