Culture & History
Our Future Giants
As I was preparing to attend the second inauguration of Barack Obama, I kept thinking how appropriate that it is taking place this time around on the same day as we mark the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. For even as a candidate back in 2008, Barack Obama talked with gratitude about “standing on the shoulders of giants.” And surely, Martin Luther King stands as one of the tallest of the many giants whose courage, sacrifice and struggle helped create the path that led to Barack Obama’s taking the oath of office on that cold January day in 2009, as the first Black president of the United States. And this time around, he will take the oath of office with his hand on the Bible that belonged to Martin Luther King. And while many hands, feet and brains deserve the credit for his second victory, we must never forget that we are able to sing the song of that victory today , “full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, full of the hope that the present has brought us,” in the words of the song , Lift Every Voice and Sing, also known as the Black National Anthem.
I think Barack Obama was thanking those giants not only for their victorious struggle, but for their values. Values that are clearly timeless and transcendent. Values that our parents and Martin Luther King’s parents taught him. Back then, when those Black parents couldn’t give us first class citizenship due to the oppressive segregationist laws, they gave us something that helped us survive and conquer: they gave us a first class sense of ourselves.
And that included their insistence on getting a good education. For generations, the Black family has put a premium on education. My father remembers my grandfather telling him and his brother when they were young: Get an education, boys. Education is the key to our liberation. And in the case of my grandmother, she embraced his advice for both her children and herself, going back to school after she had her children and sitting in a third grade class with them.
When I asked my Uncle if he was embarrassed by his mother being in the same grade with him, he looked surprised. Embarrassed? “Why no”, he said, “we were so proud!”
What I have often said about “how I got ovah,” to quote that old spiritual, is that I was prepared for life by a suit of armor that was crafted by people like my grandparents and by the people of our community who functioned as an extended family—the neighbors, the teachers at school and at Sunday school. The same system that sought to oppress them created a bond among them that equipped them with the value system they cherished and nurtured in us. These values helped them and their children make a way out of no way.
In our homes and in our segregated schools and Black churches, long before the term “empowered” made its way into the lexicon, we were empowered. Martin Luther King’s parents empowered him and Barack Obama’s mother also empowered him at an early age. As Obama wrote in his autobiographical book, Dreams from My Father:
Five days a week, she came into my room at four in the morning, force –fed me breakfast and proceeded to teach me the English lessons for three hours before I left for school and she went to work. I offered stiff resistance to this regimen, but in response to every strategy I concocted, whether unconvincing “my stomach hurts” or indisputably true—my eyes kept closing every five minutes, she would patiently repeat her most powerful defense: “This is no picnic for me either, buster.”
As I have written: Ann Dunham, Barack’s mother, “overcame young Barack’s adolescent resistance and taught him that rational, thoughtful people could shape their own destiny.”
Ann Dunham also taught young Barry about African- American pioneers and also, without rancor, she told him about his father’s sacrifice, though by then he had abandoned them. As Obama recalled, his mother said his Kenyan father “had grown up poor, in a poor country, in a poor continent; how his life had been hard but he hadn’t cut corners or played all the angles. He was diligent and honest, no matter what it cost him. He had led his life according to principles that demanded a different kind of toughness, principles that promised a higher form of power. I had no choice.”
Just as Martin Luther King had no choice. As he was growing up, his family taught him not to accept injustice, and to fight with all his being against it. And that lesson was tested time and again, including when he received a late night phone call threatening his family shortly after he was released from jail. As he wrote in Stride Toward Freedom:
“At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: "Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever."
And our ongoing challenge is to be sure that our children today understand that, like King, the legions of young people who walked with him and Barack Obama, they have no choice. The lessons are there, accessible, timeless and transcendent, and beg to be taught and shared so that, when the time comes, the children of today can be known as the giants of their time.