Presented on April 4, 2019 at the Pi Alpha Sigma Honor Society
One of the most influential thinkers, economists, and historians of American history is Dr. W.E.B. Dubois. The first Black American to graduate with a doctorate from Harvard. In his influential text, The Souls of Black Folks, he offers a provoking critique and prophetic vision for Black life in America considering the direction of not only American Blacks but the whole race of persons in the twentieth century. “It is, then, the strife of all honorable men of the twentieth century to see that in the future competition of races the survival of the fittest shall mean the triumph of the good, the beautiful, and the true; that we may be a able to preserve for future civilization all that is really fine and noble and strong, and not continue to put a premium on greed and imprudence and cruelty” (Dubois, 1903; p.118).
Our American Place
America has always been a curious place to me. I have wondered about my place in this country as I read back over the founding of this nation, the ideals upon which it was founded, and I’ll admit with much curiosity, “What would the founders think about America today?” I mean if you have started anything, you have some level of imagination of what you want a thing to be versus what it actually becomes. I mean what would they have thought about the Civil War, women voting, public education, career politicians, and the numerous wars? What would they have thought about a Black man serving as the President for two terms?
Our American household has periodically demonstrated a schizophrenic mentality concerning human dignity socially and politically. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, all men are created equal….” Then I see Public Enemy stand up and shout, “Picture us coolin’ out on the fourth of July, and if you heard we were celebrating that’s a world-wide lie” (Louder than a Bomb; 1988). A document written and stated the national independence of men by virtue of being ontologically equal simultaneously supported a social culture which practiced enslavement, disenfranchisement, and the legalization of dehumanization. America has always been a curious place to me as one part of the nation asserted liberty to own people while another part of the nation asserted liberty to free people but offer little to no assistance to those freedmen and women.
What is this American place to me? It is a place of powerful movements in our short history. Movements which seized upon those epic words about the equality of men and women to secure the vote, expand educational opportunities, increase access to better housing, and produce some great technological feats in recent memory. What is the American place to me? It is a house with a schizophrenic mind which has the address of 1776 Freedom Place but has so many locked away. It is a house which has children playing in the yard and learning to pursue life as so many Black babies are disproportionately aborted. It is a home which has prosperous dinners and the best furniture so one can pursue happiness and yet so many languish in poverty.
What is the American place to me?
Our American People
“I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land, I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.”
We are a diversity of people in this American place. Mr. Langston Hughes identified in this place called America was a population of diverse and scarred people who were united by suffering. Yes different groups have tasted different degrees of suffering, many times at the hands of their own government, yet nonetheless, America is made up of people. People bound together by language, customs, and above all, this dream of opportunity.
Our American people have made great strides over the generations. I celebrate those Whites, Blacks, Native Americans, Asians, and others who have seized opportunities shaping this place in a variety of ways. Yet there are still among us those persons Langston Hughes describes as fooled, scarred, disconnected from a home, and holding onto a thread of hope. What about the 13% of Americans in poverty and the 18.8% of Arkansans in poverty? So Dubois stands with Hughes. They both stand looking at this place called America and seek to provoke its people to practices which are good, beautiful, and true. Practices which will move people socially and politically towards activities which embrace what is noble and reject what is undignified.
In 2007, I and my family launched an organization called “The City of Hope Outreach” or CoHO. Our mission is to provoke hope in a holistic manner-one person, one family, one community- over time for the glory of God. It is distinctly Christian and in keeping with the principles of the faith all are welcome to participate and serve. Why? I firmly believe on the basis of Trinitarian thought we are all made in the image and likeness of God. By virtue of the imago Dei, every human being from rich Bezos to poor Bob have intrinsic dignity and worth. All of you possess such a majesty, remark-ability, and glory that no man, woman, or ideology can erase from you. Systems have tried. Constitutions have been framed to say otherwise. Yet the truth remains. We are majestic in every way possible.
Over a twelve year period CoHO has become an expression of social and political engagement. Social engagement in the sense we want to clearly communicate to every person we interact with they matter as a human being. Our role is to gather as many persons around poor Whites, poor Blacks, poor Latinos, and whoever else. In that gathering we work hard to communicate collaboration over nonprofit colonialism, partnership over paternalism. Secondly, we want to engage with the political process in so far as we desire to raise awareness about the positive activities occurring among the poor and the contributions these men and women are making to society. Our political leaders need to know there are many poor persons who are making a difference. Borrowing from Martha Nussbaum, “ politicians play a critical role in either creating barriers or tearing down barriers for the persons they represent. In essence politicians have been granted the opportunities to address life which is entrenched with social injustice and inequality.”
How then are you engaging in this American Place which is diverse and offers you the opportunity to engage with political leaders for the sake of others? I must admit, I have become a bit jaded as we have been complicit to participate in the polarization and demonization of the other, whether on the basis of ethnicity, gender, faith, or political ideology. We are becoming more tribal creating a Balkanization which can not bode well for our future. We practice a refusal to listen and learn. We are choosing practices which stimulate argumentation and strife through IG, Facebook, or Twitter. We have allowed the talking bobbleheads on television to shape our perceptions of those who think differently than us.
What is American to me? To you?
Dr. Dubois calls out to us to pursue those things which are good, beautiful, and true. We are being called to reject the practices which created the America which Langston Hughes so powerfully described. Nussbaum asks us to identify barriers to freedom which foster injustice and rampant inequality.
So the question becomes, “Where do we go from here as American people in the 21st Century? What are the good, beautiful, and true practices we can implement to secure human flourishing for more people?” (use blog post from MLK)
To answer this final question, I would like to turn to Reverend Dr. Martin L. King Jr. and apply future practices in the context of Dr. Dubois’ vision of goodness, beauty, and truth. Providentially, a sort of baton was passed from Dubois to King, as Dubois died on August 27, 1963 and King gave his prophetic “I Have A Dream” on August 28, 1963. It was King who offered America a series of final exhortations in his text, “Chaos or Community.” I refer to this book in my conclusion because we as Americans stand on the precipice of creating a community of brothers and sisters regardless of class and race, or descend into chaotic upheaval because we prefer racial strife and political ideological tribalism.
We must practice living as a healthy family in one house. We are a family. We are a family of human beings with dignity, purpose, creativity, and the innate desire to be known as a human being. As human beings, we are a variety of ethnicities, religious faiths, political ideologies, and other social distinctions. Just as a family possesses diversity, a healthy family manages such diversity for the larger goal of generational viability. Regardless of our distinctions, we exist as a family within this vast house called Arkansas and this larger house called America. A family should practice celebrations, practice lament, and practice encouragement which moves both the strong and weak members of the house forward. This is our house and we have an individual and collective responsibility to steward this residence for ourselves and future generations.
Secondly, we must practice good actions which are for the uplift of the individual and the greater society. In the 21st Century we must ask ourselves, “What are the good actions which will serve others?” Good actions are like the sun rising and giving energy to a bed of flowers to open on a spring day. I believe there are many of you who possess great ideas to transform Libertarian, Conservative, and Progressive ideologies. There are men, women, and children in our state who need bold social and political ideas which will offer them the opportunity to blossom in this new morning. Poverty continues to be an unsightly hole in the roof of our house. The economic situation of many in Arkansas reveals their impotency to make meaningful choices to impact their lives. Dr. King stated, “if democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity.” It is time we stand in the warmth of our new morning and create new opportunities to improve the economic situation of the disadvantaged. Therefore, shine like the sun in the lives of others.
Finally, in the 21st Century we can practice compassion by engaging socially with others. Our state has some relational tensions to address as it relates to race. While I cannot control how one is born ethnically, I can control how I perceive the other person. You are my brother and sister. We are tied together by the same infinitely valuable character which offers us all dignity and worth. I have my faults as you have your own. Dr. King stated, “there is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.” Therefore, let us practice compassion and serve our “enemies”because we are members of the same household. We are a family in need of one another. We are in need of good acts. We must practice beautiful compassion towards the other.
We need to walk into this new morning with an intense desire to love the other with such a fervency that heaven itself will stand and applaud.