As the nation honors the legacy of one black man with a dream and anticipates the first black man in the White House, one in nine black men is in prison. Today, on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and the eve of President Barack Obama’s inauguration, we find ourselves in this reality. I wish that you, the man who died too soon, were here to see this climactic and prosaic moment. But your life was cut senselessly short by the structural violence perpetrated by our education, health, and criminal justice systems. Today, even as we look at our stamps, and read our poems, and stay home from work, men that look like you are more likely to be murdered than graduate college. And I can’t get over that.
You could of course be Fred Hampton, who was killed by racism, Tupac Shakur, who was killed by urban discontent, or Oscar Grant, who was killed just this month by police brutality. You could also be any of the one quarter of deaths among black men caused by heart disease every year, brought about by the inequities in our food systems that disproportionately place more fast food than fresh produce in low-income neighborhoods. You could also be one of 21 percent of uninsured black men who didn’t have the “magical” healthcare that Magic Johnson can afford to buy, and instead died of HIV/AIDS.
You could also be my father, a man who would, if he were alive, truly understand the meaning of this moment—the acknowledgement of our history, the hope for our future, and the multi-dimensional but overwhelmingly dire state of black men in America. Daddy, you were a man who, like President Obama, raised two beautiful daughters. You are a man who, like Dr. King, was a minister working to better his community. You are a man who, like so many others, was pulled over often for driving in white neighborhoods, just for being black. You are a man who the media has never quite been able to capture—not in CNN’s two-hour long special focused on you or the Washington Post’s series covering the lives of men like you. You are a man of service and integrity that accomplished great things and achieved success—spiritual, familial, professional—in a nation fundamentally set up for your failure.
If you were here today, what would you say? You would undoubtedly have a more nuanced analysis of our times than that given by media outlets struggling to balance the ascendancy and historical significance of this moment with the present day context and realities in which many black men still exist. Without you here I am lost. Should I intellectualize the discourse and highlight the substantive differences between Dr. King and President Obama so that African American history doesn’t compress two great, but very different leaders to be one and the same?
Or should I instead use this moment as an opportunity to draw the stark contrast between the two of them and the alarming rate of social devastation that millions of other black men are facing … even as children read “Ode to Dr. King” poems and parents prepare for inaugural balls?
Or should I highlight the fact that there are also millions of other African American men just as great as Dr. King and President Obama, in cities and neighborhoods all around the country taking care of their family responsibilities and working hard for their communities? If too many comparisons have been made between Dr. King and President Obama, too few have been made between you and them both. You were the touchable Obama, the everyday Dr. King, a person that believed, like Cornel West, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
I struggle with the question of whether celebration leads to complacency and a false sense of utopia or if it instead inspires and uplifts. You would probably see it as inspiration without the guarantee of redemption. After all, redemption only comes through justice. Maybe you’ve made me too cynical. I do not make the assumption that the color of President Obama’s skin guarantees the advancement of a full civil rights agenda, just as I am not confident that Dr. King’s belief of love and equality would have extended to transgender rights or full workplace equity for women. The vision of equality King proposed was incomplete, just as the vision Obama proposes today is. You would tell me to get to work fighting for a repeal of mandatory minimum sentencing, abolishment of the death penalty, equal prosecution of crack and cocaine, an end to the war on drugs, an end to police brutality and racial profiling, an increase of resources given to public schools in lower income communities, an increase in the Pell grant, universal and preventative health care, and many other policies that will close the gap between black men and the rest of society.
As I struggle with these questions and the daunting challenges that face our generation, maybe I should do more than stay home from work today. Maybe I should do more than party like a rock star for Obama’s inauguration tomorrow. Maybe I should ask the question to all black man who die too soon. What should I do to fight for you?