My 18-year old nephews share a birthday with Martin Luther King Jr. When we as a nation are celebrating the man and the movement towards equity, I am also celebrating two very special young men of color in my life. Each year, I hear at events, the reading of the “I Have a Dream” speech and I think of how his dream has been realized in my nephews. This year, as my nephews come of age, I have an open letter to them and other young men of color. Men who benefit from the progress, but aren’t yet equal, safe or guaranteed America’s unalienable rights.
Dear Micah and DeShaun,
Happy Birthday to Ya! May this year bring you all that you set out to accomplish. Set those goals high. You are the realization of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I look at the opportunities you have had and the dreams you’ve discussed and am truly proud. I hear older White men, men who likely protested desegregation, compliment you and cheer you on as part of their community. Young men at this time in our nation reap the rewards of the marches and boycotts. You can dream miles above what men your age saw possible in the 60s. The people before you have demanded space for you. We kept going after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death and the deaths of so many other Civil Rights activists toward his words, “We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.” Gains have been made.
Yet, you still live with fears. Racial injustice has not ended. The road to resources and opportunities does not have a welcome sign for all in all areas. And, many young people your age, voting for the first time in a presidential election said, “I just don’t have anything to vote for” or “my vote doesn’t make a difference.” We’re still in the fight for equity and justice, for you. And, you are fighting along.
You had no choice in whether you would join this fight. Your Walk, No Matter the Path you Take, is Revolution. While your White friends begin to learn about race this first year in college in their Intro to Sociology class, you have been living it. Not only are you called on to speak for all people of color, you’re used to prove racist views or you’re called an exception or “not really Black” when you don’t prove them. You’ve made strong relationships with those White people who are our allies in the continued fight. Yet, sometimes they say and do things that make you wonder. They make mistakes. You have always handled these moments with calm and let it roll off you. But, as you get older you’re called on to speak out loud that it is unacceptable. You must share with them your pain. Oh how I know this is difficult. Remember the times we’ve had to point out privilege to your grandfather. Be aware that not all people who make mistakes will react as he has, with thankfulness for the opportunity to change and be better. Some will be defensive and try to focus on their intention instead of their impact, some will blame or punish you, some will just end their relationship with you. While you believe it is a simple thing to say, “When you said that it felt racially oppressive to me.” it is too strong a challenge for many to accept. Your voice is revolutionary. Know there are many who will respond with another statement that seems simple but is revolutionary, “Sorry, I’m gonna work to do better.” Their unlearning oppression is revolutionary.
As Martin Luther King Jr. said in the speech many White people have “come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny”. Hateful people have tried to say, if people of color do better than we lose. We know that to be untrue–the fight for equity gives us opportunity AND makes our country better. Remember this when you are in the fight and make gender equity part of your fight. All Women are Deserving. I am always so impressed at how you treat your cousin. She is not the “girl” in your group. You uplift her skills and are still able to recognize her looks and personality. You listen to her, when she knows more you defer to her. You don’t stumble over being respectful and helpful to her. It is smooth how you interact with her. You do better than men three times your age. Treat all women the way you treat her. There are not good women or bad women, ladies or whores, deserving or undeserving. There are just women. If you find yourself putting women into categories it surely is a result of society’s views of what a woman should be and feeds into oppression. Recognize that all forms of oppression are tied to keeping the system of oppression in place.
You both are so smart and talented with amazing sense of humor. Discern Between Smart Humor and Oppressive Mocking. We’ve sat around the kitchen table and joked. You’ve made my sides hurt laughing. As I watch television and movies, I hope that you choose those that are smart humor. There are options out there that make fun of race and gender differences. They bring light to our issues while being entertaining. Support those. There are also those out there that are creating barriers, feeding into stereotypes and providing acceptance of existing oppression. Deconstruct and dismantle those.
Your Safety is Always a Fear of Mine. Police brutality is such a real fear for young men of color. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of it at the March on Washington in 1963, “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” And, my life has been littered with it in 2016, seeing the news and working on the issue in my work. I know not all police are violent and that not all men in prison are innocent. But, every story I see could be one of you. You’ve become talented drivers; I see Black men being shot in their cars. You’re amazing athletes; I see Black men being rounded up at community athletic fields. You stand up for others; I see leaders in the movement put in jail. You sometimes make poor decisions; I see Black men serving exorbitant time for childish mistakes. The statistics for young Black men make me pray for you every night and every morning. My prayer is always, please let the world change into a place where each man of color is seen and treated as a human being. Let us get to the point described by Martin Luther King Jr.