Dream Deferred

I read a news report recently about a charter school in Utah where parents were given the option to “opt out” of Black History Month curricula. Apparently, some families asked that their children not have to learn about Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King, Jr. The school’s director issued a statement that he “reluctantly” decided to allow families to “exercise their civil rights to not participate in Black History Month at the school.”

That decision was changed quickly and the director sent an email telling parents that “no families are opting out of our planned activities.” I have been thinking about that school for two days now, trying to imagine the parents who wrote letters demanding that their children not be forced to learn about Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass.

I know nothing about these parents or their children, but I think it’s safe to assume they are not black. I have been trying to imagine being so fragile that, even when your kids are at a school that is 70% white and that focuses on white history for eleven months out of the year, hearing about Maya Angelou and James Baldwin is simply too much.

You know that Black History Month was supposed to be temporary, right? The eminent historian Carter G. Woodson came up with the idea of Negro History Week in 1926. “What we need,” Woodson said, “Is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice.”

Setting aside a week, and later a month, to focus on the achievements and contributions of Black Americans was meant to be a temporary fix. It was meant to bring attention to this intentionally ignored history until the curricula was changed to include it, and the history books were re-written.

Instead, it’s been nearly a hundred years since Woodson first suggested that kids be taught about Black history for one week out of 52. Yet, somehow we still need to set aside time every year because textbook publishers and school administrators feel it’s too soon to make room for Gordon Parks in July or Rosa Parks in November.

It’s too soon! We’re not ready! 100 years is not enough time to put Black people in the books and the documentaries!

For centuries, Black people have been told to slow down, to be patient, to wait, to give it time. “Radical change” frightens the majority, they are told. Take it one step at a time, so people can get used to the idea that Black people are also human and deserving of the same opportunities as the ruling majority.

Wait. It’s so common and constant a sentiment that generations of Black art have resonated with it. “What happens to a dream deferred?” Langston Hughes asked in 1951. “Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”

Eight years later, Lorraine Hansberry picked up that question in her Broadway play, in which a Black father dreams of being called “Mister” by the gardener, of seeing his son sitting in the living room surrounded by brochures from colleges, and saying, “Just tell me, what it is you want to be—and you’ll be it…Whatever you want to be—Yessir! You just name it, son…and I hand you the world!”

It was 1963 when Martin Luther King, Jr told a crowd of some 250,000 about his dream of equality. But just a few months before that, as he sat in a jail cell in Alabama, he wrote a response to some white religious leaders who claimed the civil rights movement was “untimely.” King had no patience for such criticisms.

“I have never yet engaged,” he wrote, “In a direct-action movement that was ‘well timed’ according to the timetable 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 a piercing familiarity. This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’”

It’s important to note that two-thirds of Whites believed Dr. King was pushing too hard and too fast. Three years after he delivered his famous speech in Washington, half of White Americans believed he was hurting the cause of civil rights.

He was too impatient, of course, and decades after his murder, Black Americans were still being told to stop demanding “radical change”. They were still being told not to push too hard, not to rush the White people who felt threatened by demands for equal rights, not to upset the Whites who were emotionally unsettled by the incursion of Black Americans in their neighborhoods and schools and history. In 1964, Fannie Lou Hamer said she was sick and tired of being sick and tired.

In an interview for a PBS documentary, James Baldwin says, “I was born here more than 60 years ago. I’m not going to live another 60 years. You always told me that it’s going to take time. It’s taken my father’s time, my mother’s time, my uncle’s time, my brothers’ time, and my sister’s time, my nieces and my nephew’s time. How much time do you want for your progress?”

Not only do those words resonate inside my chest and echo in my head, but they have also literally been repeated and repeated by Black Americans for hundreds of years. “How long must we wait, plan, work, march, agitate, forgive, and vote before we have a society in which all lives matter equally,” wrote Robert M. Sellers in 2020. Sellers is a vice provost at the University of Michigan and in an op-ed for the Chronicle of Higher Education, he expressed optimism and a determination to keep fighting, but ended by saying, “I am still tired of this shit.”

I am bone weary. It’s a blessing that so many Whites are stepping forward to take up this work because, honestly, Black Americans are exhausted by an accumulated four hundred years of keeping a stiff upper lip, enduring abuse so as not to unduly upset the abusers. Giving fragile White parents the option to protect their kids from Black history, soothing the tempers of football fans who just couldn’t bear to see someone kneel during the national anthem, watching what they say because being called a racist, we’re told, is as bad as being called the n-word. (Nota bene: it is not.)

Earlier this year, I published an open letter, a document written by dozens of public radio journalists and staff members, called “An Anti-Racist Future: A Vision and Plan for the Transformation of Public Media.” In this letter, we demand reform in five important areas, including hiring and accountability. We note that it’s been half a century since the Kerner Commission found that newsrooms were not serving Black communities and, since then, very little has changed.

The response to the letter was significant and mostly positive (nearly 500 people have signed on at this point), but I’m still struck by the responses from a few White executives. They said the letter sounds angry and impatient. They noted that the authors seem to be pushing too hard and not taking the time to acknowledge the progress that’s been made. One said he was concerned about the “tone” of the letter, that it seemed a little accusatory.

I thought, “Am I supposed to apologize for making you feel uncomfortable? Did you want us to “tone it down” a little so you might feel more sheltered?” After 50 years of being promised reform, progress, and equity, we are still being told to sit still and wait. Wait!

“A Change is Gonna Come,” Same Cooke sang in 1964. A year later, Curtis Mayfield told us we should “get ready” because “there’s room for all” on the train to Jordan. That sounds a lot like the song Harriet Tubman reportedly sang in 1849: “I’ll meet you in the morning, when you reach the promised land; On the other side of Jordan, for I’m bound for the promised land.” By 2015, the river Jordan was a “foul and dirty river” in a song by Rhiannon Giddens. “Five hundred years of poison, five hundred years of grief,” she sings, “Five hundred years of reasons to week with disbelief.”

Giddens wrote that in response to the brutal murder of nine Black people inside a South Carolina church. They were slaughtered by a young man who loved to fly the Confederate flag, a flag that is still tolerated because to ban it, as the Germans did with all Nazi insignia, would be hurtful to the Southerners who see it as an important part of their history. Mustn’t hurt their feelings, of course. Just give it time.

Someday, progress won’t be so inconvenient. Eventually, equity won’t be so disquieting to the ruling majority. For now, Black Americans should be patient, and keep waiting.