Friday, April 4, 2008

King: the State of the Dream, 40 years later...

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

--Langston Hughes--
As an NAACP Branch President, I'm often asked for my opinion as to the most urgent or pressing problems of the African American community. Typically, the questioner is really anticipating a one-word response; "Education", "Crime", "Racism", "Drugs", or the like. But after having given years of my life to listening to and addressing complaints from within the community with subsequent investigation and analysis, it is more clear to me now than ever that the problems facing our community simply defy one-word answers or quick fixes. Certainly, the educational achievement gap, poverty, crime, drugs, discrimination, and systematic barriers, are all grave and serious issues deserving of our attention, but I believe these issues to be symptoms of a deeper and more fundamental problem...
Think back with me for a moment as I share my personal hypothesis...

Do you remember the first South African elections held after the release of Nelson Mandela? Do you remember the pride and excitement on the faces of the South African people? I think back to that moment and I wonder, what were the peoples expectations. After living with the vicious injustice of apartheid, here was a genuine triumph; a tangible victory, beyond mere hope. With the release of Mandela, I'm certain that many who lived in poverty, who were excluded from the economic mainstream, who were marginalized in squatter camps and shantytowns saw in his release a changed and brighter future. I'm certain that many believed that his ascendancy to the presidency would mean the end of savage inequalities in South Africa and the creation of a leveled playing field.

However the unfortunate reality of things is that 30 years from now, though there will be progress, South Africa will still be faced with savage inequalities; there will still be poverty issues, and some will likely still live in shantytowns. But addressing those issues 30 years hence will become increasingly complicated and difficult because the problems themselves will be greatly intensified by the weight of fallen expectations.

I believe that we as African Americans have experienced a similar phenomena. Our 'Mandela moment' came to us with our victories in the Civil Rights movement. With the march on Washington and the passage of the Civil Rights act, we had gone from being an essentially powerless people to a group that had persuaded the most powerful nation on earth to change it's laws and recognize our rights and humanity. It seemed then, that while the fight was far from over, we had developed the means and mechanism to be successful and that the momentum was on our side.

Issues like poverty, educational inequalities, and unemployment were addressed by subsequent campaigns using that familiar template: an Anointed Black leader (powerful orator/religious figure), mass marches, Slogans and visual imagery, etc... But despite our efforts, now 40 years later, many of us are still facing the same problems. In one of his more famous poems, Langston Hughes once asked "what happens to a dream deferred"; perhaps more apropos would be to question what happens to the dreamer?..

I believe that the succeeding 40 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr have changed us. Many of our lives were radically transformed by the Civil Rights movement. Many of us were able to take advantage of new and exciting opportunities that the movement made possible. But while many of us are enjoying these successes, many of us still inhabit the ghettos or 'hoods of America. Many of us still have not entered America's economic mainstream. Many are still faced with the problems of poverty, underfunded and unequal education, and chronic unemployment. For these, our brethren, I believe that 40 years of dashed expectations have altered our culture in some radical and fundamental ways.

First, the success of the Civil Rights movement and it's formula of 'speaking truth to power' had the unintended consequence of creating a societal dependency. We believed that our protest methods would continue to be successful as time went on. (We would demand change, and change would occur; we would protest injustice, and change would occur) Consequently, we as a community haven't developed the necessary tools or habits for real change-making. We continue on in our tradition of 'speaking' the change, then waiting to see it materialize. It seems that we as a community still believe that if we speak to an forcefully to an issue, the 'righteousness' of our position will magically make a change occur. We believe that things will change for the better, simply because we've 'explained' why they should. And we expect that those changes should come from the outside in... [read more on this]

And second, though perhaps more significantly, the persistence of these social ills despite our protest and demands, has changed our belief in what is possible. Too many of us seem to have lowered our expectations to more accurately mirror the reality of our lives. We've relinquished the dream, and accepted the now...

40 years; 4 successive generations of diminishing optimism, now being replaced with pessimism and self-doubt. We are losing our collective ambition, and replacing it with conspicuous consumption. It is as if our younger generation is saying, if we can not "be" something greater, then at least we can "have" something greater.

Consider for a moment, Maslow's hierarchy of human needs. We seem no longer to believe in the possibility of 'self-actualization'; settling instead for the goal of esteem.

The real danger in such a scenario (and I would suggest that we see this playing out in our communities) is that a persons self-esteem needs can be met through outward focused acts such as consumption or competition. If I'm living in a community that is socially isolated in terms of race, income, and education level, and my desire is to be esteemed within that setting and environment then I can attain to that level of esteem and respect through consumption. If we don't really believe that we can "be" anything we choose, if we don't see a value and a future in self development, then we shift our ambitions from personal growth to personal accumulation. What we cannot be, we can buy...

Conspicuous consumption as a goal and aspiration is a symptom of the disease that is unraveling our community. I once asked a 16 year old young man during a teen-summit, what he planned to do after high school and he replied, "I don't know... just get money". It was jarring to hear, but I understood his sentiment because consumption doesn't require a work ethic. Young men talk about hustling as though it were a career path. And while community activists and thinkers around the nation talk about the need for the Economic development of the inner cities and the need for more black businesses, we still see vacant storefronts in our inner-city communities around the country. The opportunities are there, what we lack is the necessary belief in our own ability and the vision to create a better future for ourselves.

Conspicuous consumption has no vision. Conspicuous consumption is not forward thinking. Conspicuous consumption is rooted in the idea that 'having' something of value demonstrates my value. Diamond teeth, shiny rims, flashy jewelry, and expensive gym shoes become substitutes for diplomas; perverse statements of achievement.

Consumption doesn't require an education. It's hard to connect with young people and convince them of the value of an education when their teacher is driving a Taurus, and their brother or cousin is driving an Escalade. Consumption doesn't require sacrifice or prudent planning. Consumption can be achieved through crime. Conspicuous consumption is competitive by nature and therefore is never community minded.

The dream that we would make a world wherein our children would be able to live to their fullest potential without limitations or restrictions is a dream that many of us have surrendered. Even as some of those limitations and restrictions have passed away, our belief in their existence inhibits our growth. We see the signs of this throughout our cities and communities. Our youth are seemingly disconnected from the culture of our grandparents and the lessons we learned "back in the day". And this phenomena is not limited to the inner cities or black community. Even the Church has been corrupted by the loss of the dream... You can turn on the televangelists on any given Sunday and hear Creflo and Copeland speak from the pulpits of multi-million dollar mega-churches about the virtue of Stuff. As though almighty God, having created the heavens and the earth, has now turned his attention towards fine automobiles and fancy clothes. Back in the day we had sense enough to know that Reverend Ike was a hustler, but now the Gospel of Prosperity is a widely accepted and fairly common teaching.

To turn this around, we have got to realize that the Dream of a better world, the values of our grandparents, and the vision to bring them all to fruition are not self-sustaining. We've got to fight for the survival of our values and we've got to fight for the survival of the dream. We've got to fight against BET and all of those who sell perversion to our children and call it entertainment. We've got to fight against the low expectations of our children that allow them to treat their education as though it were unimportant and the low expectations of the teachers who allow them to.

We've got to fight against the "pimp", "hustler", and "player" culture being talked up by our rappers and sold back to us by Walmart. We've got to fight against the drug culture by cleaning up our own communities. We've got to fight against the poisonous notion that 'having' something means 'being' something. We've even got to fight against our own children; and take from them their negative self images and teach them how to believe in themselves again. This fight is what the dream requires... and it all begins with you.

Share your comments & join the discussion...

3 Click HERE to POST or READ the latest comments!!!:

field negro January 21, 2008 at 7:36 PM  

Great post! And thanks for your contribution to this day.

I love your blog.


Anonymous,  April 4, 2008 at 9:10 PM  

Love the blogs, the auther is a pretty smart fellow. My hat off to you.

John Padilla
Chanute, Kansas

Anonymous,  April 4, 2008 at 9:12 PM  

Great blogs, love them.
John Padilla
Chanute, Kansas

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