Keynote Address at Berkshire Community College

18 January 2021

Thank you for the introduction and thank you all for committing yourselves to a day of service in remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I am honored to be part of this day at BCC. When I was invited to speak I thought about this past year. The time since the last day of service through to today. We have experienced a very different world. We have been witnesses to or experienced oppression, hate, violence, and hope, strength, and progress towards racial and social justice. Though let’s not pretend that anything we experienced this year is new; this is the story of the United States. I spent this past year angry, frustrated, scared and yes even hopeful. And I am grateful for the time to reflect and study the words of Dr. King and share my thoughts with you. In combination with current events where truth has been confused, and where hate speech comes from the highest office and is echoed and endorsed by ⅓ of the voting population, it’s hard to embrace the teaching of Dr. King. Subsequently it’s important to hold his meaning true. I spent time asking myself how can I honor a man that changed the quality of life for every one in the USA but in particular Black folks, African Americans, and other people of color. It is very humbling to give a keynote address in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, who was such a tremendous orator. But here goes.

“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy” — Dr. King “I have a dream”

I want to highlight the issue of hope and recognizing the events that unfolded on January 6th and the way in which conversations flowed post election day.

I have felt torn between two states of being and how quite frankly to write this address. One of the things that I feel fortunate about is being able to speak about Martin Luther King and his teachings. His writings and speeches are often filled with hope and compassion even when faced with injustice and horrible atrocities. So in my speech today, I will bring up hard things, not to replace hope, but to be real. There is a lot of hate and violence brewing in our country. There is a lot of injustice, a sense of two worlds that is based on identities, including racial identity.

I asked a small group of teachers the other day “ are we ready to transition to hope?” This was on January 7th and we were broadly speaking about our reactions to the violence on capitol hill. We talked about white supremacy, the presence of anti-Semitic materials, the confederate flag being displayed and other related issues. Are we ready for hope? The response was mixed, some said yes, some said no. Some expressed the need to find hope, wanting it but it was being elusive, another said I am not ready to be hopeful yet. This all makes sense, in time of great tragedy we must realize that every person needs their own time to be heal. Sometimes it’s good to feel the hurt and come to understand it. But I hope that everyone can move to the next step of hope and try to solve the problems we face as a nation and as a global community.

This is why I think it’s important to reflect on King’s work. Using myself as an example I find comfort in knowing that these issues that have emerged from the shadows of hate are not new. To be honest there is also a sadness in that.

I have spent a lot of time in reflection and writing during the past 10 months. Today I want to speak on three areas: Love and Anger, the Meaning of Words, and Hope and Service. In each of these topics I have struggled. I have struggled to understand my own personal position, how to engage with my students, friends, and family. I know this struggle will not end anytime soon, because the truth is the roots of racism and supremacy are deep and profuse. So today is to share my thoughts and observations, look to Dr King’s writings and speeches, and for us all to engage in thought and action.

Love and anger

“In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred” — Dr. King “I have a Dream”

I believe these words by Dr. King require deep and continued reflection. If we refuse to act based on hatred, then can we act based on love? Do we, or can we still hold anger and still act out of love? How do I respond to hatred?

Part of my teaching experience is to engage in introspection of what I do and why. My earliest educational experiences, as a student, often involved moments of othering, where I am made different from my peers of largely white students. Now as an educator I push back on the societal and institutional norms that deny or limit access for students who belong to traditionally marginalized groups, including BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color). This is the cornerstone of my educational philosophy, for non-teachers, this is a statement which says essentially why and how we teach. In times when I am uncertain about my educational philosophy I often find myself reading two books: Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks and Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire. Both authors argue that education can result in freedom from oppression. Education can be liberating. This type of liberating education goes beyond the promises of advancing socio-economic status and granting power to those with education. This liberating education is based in humanist thought that each person has value, has worth and agency in their own lives as well as a member of society. Liberating education tells us that freedom is holding each individual and their identities as precious and recognizing the ways in which people are devalued, dehumanized, and oppressed. These are the values I aspire to in the classroom, in the school, and in my life. To have these ideas in the classroom it requires a respect for your students. This respect requires you to act as a guide that celebrates students’ successes and helps them navigate their errors. This is not to say that all education is about liberation, in fact some pervasive educational practices are oppressive by design. This is where teaching is an act of compassion, or a certain type of love and care. However, these ideals are tested and tested hard, when looking at larger society. In fact Fierie discusses how when oppressed people are freed or come to power that they must be careful not to become the oppressor. For this is what has been taught to them. Here in lies my own struggle and maybe some of you have asked yourselves questions along the lines of these problems.

This past year, I have been angry, I have been afraid, and I have been sad. Fortunately I have had moments of joy, celebration, and love as well. However, the feelings of anger and fear have really come to a head this year. This past year we experienced mass protests, more killings, and violence perpetuated on communities of color, while those in power helped spread white supremacist ideology and brought fringe hate groups to be part of our mainstream communities. I want to pause and recognize that this is part of a long history so this year is not new but a continuation of a long painful saga. The question that I have been struggling to answer is, how do I respond to hate and ignorance?

I do not want to hate in response to hate but at times it feels real easy to do so. This is where Dr. King challenges us all. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” We cannot counter hate with hate, but with love. I think this is easy to understand but harder to live. However, we must understand what love is and what it is not. If hate is the opposite of love, we can introduce two other socio-emotional states, happiness and anger. We know that we can experience love and be happy. We can also see the connection between hate and anger. Given some time we may be able to see that we can love someone and still be angry. And if you feel hate and happiness together, that is beyond my skill set to discuss. So do not look to me for any additional insights. The point being is that we have to fight hate with love, as Dr. King says. But this does not prevent us from being angry. We are humans and we can hold complex emotions simultaneously. But we are all responsible to ourselves and those around us to be introspective and ask, is my anger coming from a place of hate or of love.

In ‘A Eulogy for the Martyred Children” Dr. King says “Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them [the white supremacists] can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of all human personality.” The challenge becomes harder, here there is a call to recognize that the most violent hateful person can be redeemed and can learn the worth of all people. I really struggle with this. I understand it from a philosophical point of view but not in terms of my own action. If we go back to the words of Freire and hooks in terms of liberating education, oppression produces oppression. I am interpreting Dr. King’s words as saying hate produces hate. To end oppression we need freedom, to end hate we need love. Even in the worst of circumstances we need to recognize the human, the person and the potential that is within for us all to learn the dignity and worth of the people around us. So, when I am faced with my own anger, fear, and sadness, am I going to move towards love or towards hate. Can I do this? Can we do this act of love when we are happy and when we are angry?

In this lies the challenge that Dr King sets up for us. Do we drink from the cup of bitterness and hate, or, to continue the analogy, from the cup of sweetness and love. King asks us often to engage in direct action. It is clear from reading “letter from a Birmingham Jail” that King argues against waiting to act. Or from I have a dream: ““We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy”. However direct action needs to also be matched with introspection to make sure we understand why we are acting.

Meaning of words

“A year later [1966], the white backlash had become an emotional electoral issue in California, Maryland and elsewhere. In several southern States men long regarded as political clowns had become governors or narrowly missed election, their magic achieved with a witches brew of bigotry, prejudice, half-truths and full lies” — Dr. King “Where do we go from here”

In 1966 Dr King reflects on and discusses the tension and transition of the civil rights movement to the Black Power movement. While Dr. King seems to agree with the core ideas of consolidation of power in black communities he expressed concern in using the phrase as a slogan and some of the aligned socio-political tactics. In recounting a conversation with Stokely Carmichael and others, King highlights that the slogan Black Power provides an easy target for critics and supremacists to rally against. Whereas calls for freedom and equality are harder to attack. Another reason is the embedded sorrow in the expression. “…it is necessary to understand that Black Power is a cry of disappointment. It was born from the wounds of despair and disappointment. It is a cry of daily hurt and persistent pain.” The reason I bring this up is not to provide a judgement on the use of the term Black Power or the movement itself. For we must remember that Black Power movement developed in response to the frustration in the failure to live up to the ideals of the civil rights movement and legislation.

My point is that I see a corollary to the current Black Lives Matter slogan and movement. It is a statement of power and a declaration reminding us of the value of the lives in the USA that have been undervalued, exploited, used, and abused. There is a seriousness and sadness to the movement and name. I worry about the phrase will become dissociated from the pain that sits at its roots. It is an expression that should be felt when seen or said. “It was born from the wounds of despair and disappointment. It is a cry of daily hurt and persistent pain.” Black lives matters history starts in 2013 with Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi responding to the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012. And since that time countless lives have lost.

Black Lives Matter has also been attacked by opponents confused by white supremacist ideology. BLM does not reduce the value of any lives, it is to raise awareness and claim a right to a valued life of dignity, opportunity, and access. It takes nothing away but asks us to add so much to the lives of people of color around the world regardless of your gender, sexual-orientation, ability, beliefs or class. We must remember that the order of events, white supremacy did not arise as a response to the civil rights movement, the Black Power movement or Black Lives Matter, these historical movements for justice arose in response to white supremacy.

The attacks are based on “brew of bigotry, prejudice, half-truths and full lies”. For instance when Colin Kaepernick took a knee to protest the violence against people of color, antagonists turned their focus not on the meaning of the protest, but on the patriotic need to stand for the national anthem. These are protests and movements that are descendants of MLK’s work and lessons on non-violent protest and direct action. The current resistance to BLM or raising awareness on violence against BIPOC demonstrates that we must have and maintain a laser like focus on the meaning of words and events in our pursuit of racial and social justice.

This is also where we look at the events that unfolded on January 6th. There have been calls to examine the use or lack of security on the day where Capitol Hill was attacked. One report I read suggested that there was a request by capitol hill police for national guard presence and that was refused because of worry over the optics of having the guard lined up in the steps of the capitol building. Inversely there was the optics of the national guard deployed to the Lincoln memorial during a BLM protest. To ignore this comparison is to ignore a truth. A protest to raise awareness of the violence that is perpetrated on communities of color are met with a branch of the US military. A protest, then a coup-like riot, of largely white Americans, against the lawful and democratic election is met with an understaffed police force.

I have sad news for you all, we have a problem with racism in this country. And it is important to identify it and recognize it for what it is. Racism is a force that maintains a power structure. It is created and maintained by those in power and who receive privileges from it. I feel like it is important to recognize, that people who are oppressed cannot end their oppression without the help of those who hold privilege. In other words, people of color did not create racism, but too often it is our community that is asked to address and solve it.

“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.” — Dr. King “I have a dream”

This is a beautiful statement but too often this quote has been used to justify colorblind approach to racial tensions in the USA. It has also been used to argue against equity programs, be it affirmative action (which is also a misunderstanding). When Dr King speaks about not being judged by the color of their skin, he is not arguing for the non-existence of race, nor is he suggesting race should not be considered, instead he is referring to the actions and outcomes of prejudice and bigotry. If we allow Dr. King’s words to be used to justify colorblind policies and practices are in fact allowing for the furthering of the status quo which tells people of color you are less than.

This is where I think in an era of half-truths and full -lies we need to hold ourselves accountable to understanding what is true. To realize that we may not have perfect knowledge but that should not allow lies and fabrications hold power over empirical evidence. Truth is power, and we must not let half-truths or lies maintain the status quo of oppression.

Hope and service

“A final victory is an accumulation of many short-term encounters. To lightly dismiss a success because it does not usher in complete order of justice is to fail to comprehend the process of achieving full victory. It underestimates the value of confrontation and dissolves the confidence born of a partial victory by which new efforts are powered.” — Dr. King “Where do we go from here?”

In computer science there is an approach to problem solving called computational thinking. Its actually a series of problem solving techniques. One of these practices is called decomposition. The idea is that to solve a complex problem, we break it down into a collection of smaller more manageable problems. Progress is made by not solving the entire original problem all at once but to work on the smaller ones, the sub-problems, that make it up. The idea being that by solving all the smaller problems, those solutions will come together to solve the larger problem. At times in my life in group discussions, I have heard that racism is so complex how can we eradicate it. Well, lets break it down. Of course I do not have time to do that here, but we are the people that make up this society and we can decide on a daily basis to act in line with racist ideologies or in line with anti-racist ideologies (as put forward by Dr. Kendi). Lets fully understand the problem, lets break it down and recognize that as Dr. King says “A final victory is an accumulation of many short-term encounters.”

I believe that an accumulation of small acts can change the world. Today, many of us have committed to honor Dr King by committing to service. These on the scale of racial and social justice are small acts but heavily significant. Letter writing connects us to those who may feel disconnected. Clothing drives bring a sense of care and support those in our community who are struggling. The significance of a small act of kindness and care can have such a huge positive impact on the recipients and the donor. This is one of the values of the day of service. We recognize needs in our community and get to work. What a great way to honor Dr King and carry on in the process of achieving a full victory. So thank you for the work you are about to engage in, and perhaps today feels easy…so there is always tomorrow to commit to service as well. I think this is one manifestation of love that will eliminate hate.

In times of struggle, again our recent experiences have highlighted oppression, need, and struggle. It is also worthwhile to note where progress has been made. Some recent signs of progress. 160 million people voted in our presidential election. That is about 66% of the eligible voting population. Let’s forget, for a moment, the baseless claims of fraud. That is the highest participation in recent history. 160 million people participated in the democratic election. In the Georgia runoff election the election of Raphael Warnock to the senate was a history making event this year as the first senator of color from that state. Additionally, Vice-president elect Kamala Harris. She will soon be the first vice president of color. And the first women of color elected to that office. This is a significant event and historical event. Not to mention President Barack Obama.

At the beginning of this talk I mentioned the need for hope in the face of events that want to make us feel hopeless. Compassion and patience is one tool but I want to close with this final passage from “where do we go from here”

First the line of progress is never straight. For a period of time a movement may follow a straight line and then it encounters obstacles and the path bends. It is like curving around a mountain when you are approaching a city. Often it feels as though you were moving backward, and you lose sight of your goal: but in fact you are moving ahead, and soon you see the city again, closer by. “ Where do we go from here? Martin Luther King Jr.

References

Diaz, J. (2021) Ex-Capitol Police Chief Says Requests For National Guard Denied 6 Times In Riots. National Public Radio.

Freire, P (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Bloomsbury

hooks, b (1994) Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge

King, M. L. (1963) “I have a Dream” Speech

King, M.L. (1963) “Eulogy for the Martyred Children”

King, M.L. (1967) Where Do We Go From Here? Beacon Press

Teacher, social thinker, and maker

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