Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Proclaiming Emancipation

Martin Luther King

In your presentations on Frederick Douglass's Narrative(s) last week, many groups discussed the failures of Reconstruction efforts designed to help disenfranchised and exploited African Americans — especially those efforts that intended to "speed up" equality after hundreds of years of enslavement and exploitation. That context is necessary to truly understand two of Martin Luther King's most famous texts: his Letter from a Birmingham Jail and his I Have a Dream Speech, delivered later that summer, 1963.

Dr. King was in that Birmingham jail, in part, because he non-violently refused to comply with racist laws. His letter is an attempt to answer his critics who questioned his actions. Many said to King and his colleagues that "the action [King and his colleagues] have taken in Birmingham is untimely." Dr. King, like many of you saw this argument as specious and cruel. Haven't African-Americans waited long enough? As King puts it in his Letter:
"We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was 'well timed' in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word 'Wait!' It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.'"

Dr. King picks up on this idea at the start of his most famous (Dream) speech. First he echoes Lincoln's Gettysburg Address by saying recognizing the 100th anniversary: "Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation." Then he launches into his main claim, "one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free."  

Perhaps because the main text of his speech — racism and inequality — does not fit our comforting progress narrative, Dr. King's speech has been remembered for its uplift — as if the promised land were not a place to strive toward, but a land upon which we already stand.  

Fifty years farther on, I'd like to raise this question again: Are we any closer to equality? Given the gross disparities in income, education, housing, criminal prosecution, etc., Are African-Americans — and all people of color — free today? And is it possible to be free if you are not economically free?  

Charles Blow, a New York Times columnist wrote about this question earlier this year. There are some encouraging signs to be sure — but some deeply troubling ones as well. Blow ends his article by quoting Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: “Today there are more African-American adults under correctional control — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.”

Your turn. How would you answer the questions in bold above?  


PDF said...

The immediate answer to pop into someone's head when they see the first question posed in this post, concerning whether African Americans are free, would be "yes, of course." There are no laws that imply that they would be unequal; in fact, it's quite the opposite. There many laws endorsing and mandating the equal treatment of African Americans. But the law has nothing to do with it. What we see today is this idea of "de facto segregation," or cultural segregation that has nothing to do with the government or its laws. As many of my classmates have pointed out so far in this unit, the administrative officials of the wealthy north shore of Chicago didn't get together and say, "ok, no black people allowed!" But you come to New Trier and see many African Americans, do you? There is somewhat of an unmentioned segregation here in the New Trier district, although if you brought it up to any of the residents, you'd be flagged as a racist. It's not that people of color can't be free; they just often aren't. The unspoken prejudices of a white man are something even the federal government can't regulate, and for that reason, African Americans may never gain true, complete freedom.

While all this may be true, I would like to specifically point out that it is VERY possible to be free without having money. For proof, simple turn to Kerouac's beatnik classic "On the Road." The book is all about freedom despite the author's lack of any money whatsoever. This kind of "freedom without funding" is open to any race, but many choose to ignore it, on the assumption that money is the key to freedom and happiness.

Charlie B said...

I agree with what Preston said. While the laws tell us that African Americans are free, they are still enslaved in various ways. One major way is economically. Black Americans embody the low income economy. Because of de facto segregation African Americans are only able to go to poorly funded schools with comparatively sub par teachers. With poor education they can only find low income jobs. Low income jobs can only support people who live in impoverished neighborhoods. This creates a cycle that enslaves African Americans in these poorly funded communities.

Money is power, so this cycle enslaves African Americans because they are stuck in impoverished schools and neighborhoods, as well as low income jobs. When places like Chicago are so economically segregated, the power at the top of the hierarchy controls things like wages. The white business men in suits tell huge corporations to only pay their lower class African American workers $8 an hour because it's the most profitable. But can anyone really survive on $8 an hour? It is unfair and the gap between the rich and the poor is only increasing. The gap has never been bigger. A sign that America isn't any closer to equality than it was 50 years ago, or a 100 years ago, or when slavery was still legal.

William E. said...

Like Preston and Charlie have pointed out above, as of right now in the status quo, there are no laws differentiating between treatment of whites or blacks. In a legal sense, everyone is equal and I think that is more evident than ever in history. In my opinion 2013 is the most close we have ever been to equality. For example in politics this year, we have seen an influx of about 4 or 5 black politicians being apart of congress; along with have a Black president being selected for his second term.

Alex Wyse said...

I'm also going to have to agree - there is no way that we are any closer to equality. I don't think that people of color have more freedom today than they did 100 years ago, because of the cycle that Charlie was talking about - many African Americans are stuck in poverty and have no way of getting out of it. Upon reading this blog post, I immediately thought of education. Specifically, I thought of a time when I heard (and I’m not sure that this is 100% accurate, so correct me if I’m wrong) that some colleges are trying to help out by being more likely to accept African Americans into their school than whites with the same qualifications. However, these colleges would never have had to do this in the first place if equality existed. Also, I’m not sure how much this helps, because many times the schools cannot afford to give these students scholarships, and then the kids can’t go to school then because they do not have the money to do so. Its been a long time since I read it, but in the book A Hope in the Unseen, the author illustrates how much harder the road to a full education is for a person of color when compared to the average white student. They automatically start off with a disadvantage when compared to kids like us who are privileged to live in a nice neighborhood where we get the opportunity to go to a great school like New Trier that gets us ready for college. Furthermore, even if these kids do get into college, sometimes they are educationally not prepared and then they can’t survive the rigors of the college. So I’m going to have to say that with the exception of certain cases, like in Sal’s case in On the Road (which Preston brought up), it is not possible to be free if you are not economically free.

OC said...

Good comments though far, but a few thoughts moving forward:

@PDF: Keroauc and Cassidy were from wealthy families and attended Columbia University...raising a new question: could the journey in On the Road have been written by an author of color?

@CB: let's be careful not to overgeneralize. Say "MANY African Americans..." when talking about class and politics, etc.

PDF said...

@OC: I believe that if Kerouac had not been white, (or if an author of color had written a similar book in the same time period,) they may have encountered some racial discrimination in their travels, but I think they would have still been able to complete their journey. Kerouac and his crowd (by which I mean the Beatniks) were progressive and accepting, valuing intelligence over skin color. I think that if the goal had been unadulterated freedom, as it was in "On The Road," the author's goal would have led them to this progressive crowd, and they would have been taken in without hesitation.

A said...

PDF makes a very true, interesting yet troubling idea of the unspoken prejudices of the white man and this is leading us away from TRUE equality. However, I disagree that all are impoverished and stuck in low income communities and jobs. There is a large gap between the wealthy and poor in all communities and races, all ethnicities. Though we are not 100% there and it is true we cannot change the hushed opinions of some, though unjust, we have absolutely taken huge steps toward it. There seems to be more inequality in wealthy vs poor (and what you are capable of doing, ie taking care of yourself and family) than in specific races themselves.

Shannon said...

In today's society especially, money appears to be everything and it is difficult to do anything or to get anywhere without having any money. I feel like a lot of minorities in America are not economically free simply because they got less of a head start. Being "white" in America generally means that, historically, you were the race given the most privileges and that shows today. Granted, not all white Americans are well off but still.

Koshi M said...

I also agree that most races have been closest to be equal nowadays, but it's still nearly visible. Clearly today in America, there are many regions that are still separated by race. By looking from our side, the race clustered regions might seem as unequal because many of those regions are not safe compared to other ones and people have to live there because they don't have enough money to move somewhere else. But on the other hand,people who have grown up and have not been out from those regions might feel equal because they are so used to their surroundings. I think this can connect to "what is water" because both the fish and the people who live in these regions only know their world and not the world outside.

Josh Sussman said...

Koshi, I'm not sure I fully agree with you. I think that it does not just seem unequal that people of color are often living in a clustered area, it is. I would think that most people of color want to be part of the ruling class (which is still mostly white). Many black people and other minorities are still sadly discriminated and segregated. As many of you have pointed out, it is not just a coincidence that wealthier school districts tend to be mostly white and that there have been less than 10 black senators elected to office in all of U.S. history.

Colin E. said...

I also have to disagree with Koshi. I think people who have lived in the same region their entire lives wouldn't feel equal at all. For people who live in low inccome neighborhoods, it is hard to have the same amount of say as people in higher income neighborhoods. I think that these people would feel unequal and wish to be able to have the chance to voice their opinions on certain subjects. Another thing that is unfair in different neighborhoods is schooling. We are lucky to have such great public schools in our area, however, people in other negihborhoods don't have this luxury and unfortunately, there isn't much that we, as students, can do about it. I think this is another way that people in lower income neighborhoods would not feel equal to a higher income neighborhood.

Will R-E said...

@PDF: I’d be careful about interpreting Kerouac’s On the Road as a universally accessible freedom. Not to state the obvious, but money isn’t just money. A lot often goes along with it:

-sophisticated, well-read parents
-way more educational opportunities (as many of you have noticed);
-an understanding of numerous perspectives (lots more ways of thinking about your life)
-and, consequently, the ability to even have radical ideas (like breaking free of society’s strict framework and writing freewheeling memoirs)

The beats felt they were transcending the severe, soulless demands of a materialistic society…but to transcend these demands, you first have to meet them and understand what they are. It’s easy to take for granted, but it takes serious education and awareness to even imagine a lifestyle different from the one society dictates for you.

This is why On the Road comes as such a shock (or a breath of fresh air) to many readers in the first place. It’s a sort of “wake-up call”—you start to realize just how many decisions have already been made for you without your even considering them—that you never would have had access to if you weren’t thoroughly educated. To beat the system, you first have to know that you’re in a system, and this is an intellectual feat all by itself.

And you would never even have bothered to think so abstractly at all if all your needs weren’t met. Food and shelter and basic safety will always take precedence over Kerouac books. Unless you’re eating them. Anyway—this doesn’t really deal completely with race and freedom, but hopefully it helps explain why the economic oppression of blacks (then and now) is way more than just economic...