Black History Month 2003
Tavis Smiley on the Importance of Celebrating Black History
Tavis Smiley is the host of The Tavis Smiley Show on NPR.
Years to Remember: Resistance, Revolution, and Redemption
NPR's Tavis Smiley
NPR file photo
By Tavis Smiley
In my estimation, the 2003 African American History Month is going to be uniquely and unusually special. While black Americans always have reason to reflect and celebrate, I think this particular year has all the makings of a very special moment indeed. In August of this year, the entire world will celebrate the 40-year anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Additionally, for those who are unaware, 2003 is also the 100-year anniversary of W.E.B. DuBois' famous book The Souls of Black Folk. As if that weren't enough, this year also marks the 140-year anniversary of the so-called Emancipation Proclamation, the decree by which many people incorrectly believe that Lincoln freed the slaves. Needless to say, as an African-American man, I hope that every person on the planet will take a genuine moment to reflect on the life and legacies of these, and other, towering individuals.
As I think about these three individuals in particular, I can't help but think about how far African Americans have come in this country, and especially how far we have to go. More specifically, when you look at the lives of King, DuBois and Lincoln, one gets a very sober and symbolic perspective of the meaning and measure of freedom. Let me share what I mean.
For me, Black History Month has always been a celebration of three pillars of African-American culture: resistance, revolution and redemption. When I think of resistance, I am immensely thankful for the countless noble names that immediately come to mind: persons like Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks, just to name a few. However, when you think of racial resistance in the American context, I don't think that there has been anyone who has been able to articulate the spirit of resistance better than the editor of the NAACP Crisis magazine. Read the words of Dubois from 1906:
"We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American, political, civil and social; and until we get these rights we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America! The battle we wage is not for ourselves alone but for all true Americans. It is a fight for ideals, lest this, our common fatherland, false to its founding, become in truth, the land of the thief and the home of the slave, a byword and a hissing among the nations for its sounding pretensions and pitiful accomplishments."
African Americans have been a people who have been unduly and unfairly bound to the necessity of resistance. However, while we know that resistance has always been required of black folk, there have also been courageous soldiers who have heard the deeper call of revolution. Similar to our brothers and sisters in Haiti, there have been many African Americans who have hoped and fought for a complete reformation of black America itself. For them, and for me, it has not been enough to simply fight against something -- racism, Jim Crow, colonialism, etc. -- it has been more imperative to actually fight for something. In this respect, I give very special thanks for such persons as Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington and every other black fist who has tried to build a new sense of sanity, spirit and soul in our people. Still, as we know from the unfulfilled mission of the latent Black Power movement, the revolution has yet to be truly tried, tested or televised. But stay tuned.
Finally, when we think of resistance and revolution, it is impossible to fully escape the connected concept of redemption. After all, what are we fighting for except for the just recompense for all the things that have been stripped from us? However, what we learn from King, more than any other person, is that in order to truly achieve our mission in full, we need to be extreme.
"So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice -- or will we be extremists for the cause of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill, three men were crucified. We must not forget that all three were crucified for the same crime -- the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thusly fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment."
-- Letter from a Birmingham jail (April, 1963)
So what does Lincoln teach me? In my mind, he shows us, most clearly, that freedom for African Americans has always been precarious. What do I mean by this? As I stated earlier, my guess is that many Americans believe the Emancipation Proclamation was the act that "freed the slaves." To the contrary, the truth of the matter is that this move by Lincoln only freed slaves who were in states that had seceded from the Union. The historic and unspoken reality is that the toiling slaves in peaceful southern states were not even affected by this decree at all. The point is, both then and now, freedom for African Americans has always been awkwardly conditional. The challenge that King gives us, both today and tomorrow, is to do something about it. Here's what I mean.
For King, his inspiration came from the word of God, and I believe that there is a special message waiting for us as well. According to Scripture, the children of Israel, upon their emancipation, wandered 40 years in the desert before possessing the land of milk and honey. In the same way, the people of African descent have also wandered 40 years in the American desert since that great speech in Washington. However, what we should learn from our ancestors is the fact that while God had given them the land, the children of Israel were still required to seize the land. In the same way, I think the time has now come for African Americans to seize all of the opportunities that have been given to us. We need to seize the dream and then seize the moment.