Dwonna Know What I Think?”
A social/lifestyle advice and commentary column by guest contributor Dr. Dwonna Naomi Goldstone. Dr. Goldstone is a Professor of English and Coordinator of the African American Studies Minor at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee.
What do you think Dr. King would say about race relations and the state of black America 50 years after the March on Washington and his “I Have a Dream” speech?
Here is my rather long response to your query:
On August 28, 2013, the nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream Speech.” Not surprisingly, many people have used the semicentennial of this iconic event to assess how well the nation has moved towards realizing Dr. King’s—and those marchers’—dreams for a different American society than the one in which he lived in 1963. For the more than 250,000 people who were at the Lincoln Memorial and for those who followed it on the radio, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was a calling to the United States of America to pass legislation that would “improve the material well-being of black folks in America.” Organizers also called for a nationwide minimum wage, a federal law prohibiting discrimination in public and private hiring, and the immediate elimination of school segregation, among other things. Perhaps the most famous—and most often quoted—line in Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech highlights the overarching message of the March: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Do we live in this color-blind nation that Dr. King wanted for his children? Has Dr. King’s dream of equality been realized? The answer is both yes and no. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 established laws that made it illegal to discriminate based on race and ethnicity, and in 2008 and in 2012, voters of all hues helped elect and then re-elect Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American president. Many of us live in integrated neighborhoods and attend integrated schools, and we can go into most restaurants and be served with dignity and respect. There are more black college graduates today than there were 50 years ago, and the black middle-class is holding steady even during the recession. On August 1, 2013, the U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed Davita Vance-Cooks to be the 27th person to hold the title of Public Printer of the Government Printing Office, and when Vance-Cook took the oath of office as the Public Printer of the United States some three weeks later, she became the first African American and the first woman ever to be nominated and confirmed as Public Printer.
In sports, African Americans continue to dominate the football field and basketball courts, and they hold important senior-level positions in these sports as well. Serena Williams continues to dominate women’s tennis (with Sloane Stephens nipping at her heels), and Tiger Woods still makes golf worth watching on Sunday afternoons. Black ministers like T.D. Jakes, Creflo Dollar, and Bishop Eddie Long have become part of an “elite cadre of spiritual leaders” who have become “multimillion-dollar brands” like their white counterparts Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, and Joyce Meyer. On television, African American Shonda Rimes produces Scandal, one of the most popular shows on TV. today and the first TV drama in 40 years to have an African American female in the lead. In music, Kayne West, Jay-Z, and Beyonce play to sell-out crowds, and Darius Rucker has found crossover appeal in country music that African Americans could have only been imagined 50 years ago. African Americans like Wanda Sykes and Kevin Hart dominate comedy, and Denzel Washington and Halle Berry continue to garner lead roles in Hollywood movies. Things aren’t all bad for African Americans.
However, there are too many African Americans for whom Dr. King’s dream has not been realized. Black-on-black crime is at an all-time high in cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Memphis, and black conservatives like Dr. Ben Carson attribute this to a “significant deterioration of values in the black community.” “The lives of fellow blacks and others,” Dr. Carson writes, “[are] being devalued by street thugs.” Acquisition of guns and drugs is commonplace in many black neighborhoods, and incarceration rates among African American males in certain age groups outpaces their enrollment in institutions of higher learning. In 2011, the FBI reported that “3,465 single-bias hate crimes offenses were racially motivated” and that 72.0 percent of these were “anti-black motivated” while only 16.7 were “anti-white motivated.” According to the CDC, African American women have the highest obesity rate of any group of Americans, and four out of five black women have a “body mass index above 25 percent.” Although being overweight often leads to high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, and other chronic ailments, many African American women seem unconcerned about their weight and wear their “thickness” as a badge of honor.
One of the greatest problems facing the black community, however, is that of out-of-wedlock births. Some 73 percent of black children are born to unmarried women, and these children are often condemned to a “life of poverty and deprivation, which makes them more likely to end up in the penal system or the welfare system.” At Austin Peay, I am often frustrated when I learn that my black female students—many of whom are there on academic scholarships—have gotten pregnant. When I remind them that getting pregnant in this day and age is a choice since they all have easy access to birth control, they sheepishly admit that they wanted to get pregnant. One of my best students—I’ll call her Heidi—came to my office at the beginning of the fall semester, and when I asked her why she looked pregnant, she apprehensively responded with “because I am.” She said that her pregnancy was simply an “obstacle” that she would overcome and that she would still graduate from Austin Peay on time. Her boyfriend has a minimum wage job but is working on getting his CDL so that he can drive a truck, but he is not able to take care of her and their baby. I suggested that she at least get married so that she would not be another statistic, but she said that that wasn’t important right now. Sigh.
I think that it is safe to say that this is not the world Dr. King envisioned, and I am always saddened when students who are on a path to doing well decide to bring life into the world when they are barely able to take care of themselves. In July, I ran into a former student who was in her 9th-month of pregnancy with her second baby, and when I asked her when she and her boyfriend were going to marry, she said that they would get married in a few years because they would “lose a lot of benefits if we got married now.” “We [are] not going to be one of those couples who get married, still living at home with parents and broke,” she continued. Why are young African American women so cavalier about marriage, and why do they not think that it is important to raise their children in a marital relationship with the child’s father? Even birds know to build a nest BEFORE they lay their eggs, yet human beings with the capacity to reason bring children into their very precarious—and usually temporary—shack-up situations. It’s time we start doing better, and it’s time that we stop celebrating these out-of-wedlock births as if they are something to celebrate.
Nonetheless, things are MUCH better in the 50 years since the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and Dr. King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech, and those African Americans who say that they are not are being disingenuous, at best. “One hundred years later the life of the Negro is still badly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination,” King said in that iconic speech at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. However, the fact of the matter is that in 2013 we are our own worst enemy, and we can no longer blame the white man for what ails the black community. Out-of-wedlock births with multiple different men, rampant drug use, black-on-black crime, educational apathy, and generational reliance on the public welfare system have led to a black America that “lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast stream of material prosperity.” We will be “free at last” only when we as a people take responsibility for ourselves and for our children. We cannot be complacent, and we must begin to do this now.
*For a link to the text of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, please go to: http://www.archives.gov/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf
*Dr. Goldstone lives in Nashville with her four unruly dogs—Satchel Paige, Butterfly McQueen, Charlie Parker, and Lena Horne. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.