In 1951, long before MLK made his famous, "I have a dream" speech, the great poet Langston Hughes wrote the following poem, called "Harlem": 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?
And the great playwright Lorraine Hansberry (the first black woman to have a play produced on Broadway, along with the first black director, Lloyd Richards, to direct a broadway play), borrowing the title from that poem, wrote a play called "Raisin in the Sun." This was in 1959, also before MLK's speech.
The play is about a black family's experiences in the Washington Park Subdivision of Chicago's Woodlawn neighborhood as they attempt to "better" themselves with an insurance payout from the death of the father. They plan to buy their "dream" home in a white neighborhood, but a white representative of the neighborhood they plan to move to, makes a generous offer to buy them out. He wishes to avoid neighborhood tensions over an interracial population.
MLK took up this same mantle, and he too used his talents to try to reach the minds and hearts of those that couldn't see that indelible truth: That we're all in this together whether we like it or not. So we best figure out how to make it work, or mutual destruction is assured. Well we haven't made it work, yet. Hughes' Harlem went from disenfranchised to gentrified, and Hansberry's Chicago remains a raisin in the sun, one of the most violent and racially-divided cities in the country. And, the America MLK died to uplift, by all appearances...well, strides have been made, but we've still got a long way to go.
When I was a much younger man, I didn't appreciate MLK.
I was raised by revolutionaries with a much more militant mindset. I held the concept of self-defense in higher regard than self-sacrifice. The intentionally disenfranchised desperately appealing to the better angels of those enfranchised by design was a humiliating scenario I was taught to be a wrongheaded one, and thus I wanted no parts of it.
Dreaming is done in the bed, while reality is murdering my friends and family in the streets. And when we dare to protest these injustices we're subject to the same by those who come in the guise of justice.
So, why would I, in my right mind, willingly capitulate before this foulness? Why would I put myself in harm's way with this faint hope that my sacrifice might awaken some sense of civility and compassion in the hearts and minds of people who have proven, time and time again, to be unresponsive to such gestures? A power structure that has historically only responded to and has only understood force, particularly when that force comes in a physical, political or financial form. Why?
But, as I got older, I began to see MLK in a different light, and in doing so felt enlightened a bit.
What I misunderstood to be capitulation I now recognize as confrontation. What I misconstrued to be passive, I see now was aggressive. What I interpreted as an appeal for sympathy, or pity, was actually an invocation of the spiritual, an appeal to the "God", the "Creator", that great energy that flows within all of us, that unites us regardless of artificial differences. Something we all share no matter how we worship, and even if we don't worship at all.
MLK was in touch with that. He was the very personification of inspiration (in-spirit) and THAT was the power he wielded and why we honor him to this day. Because, like few others in history have been able to do, he was able, not to make us dream, but to truly awaken us, ALL of US, to the possibilities.