In Brooklyn, New York, on Mother’s Day, 1960, I was born in Brooklyn Jewish Hospital. I was born in a mixed, mostly “colored” neighborhood called Crown Heights. I am the female descendant of enslaved and oppressed Americans of West African origin, with some Western Europeans mixed in. I was born in a de facto racial caste system. I was not born in a pristine democracy, but one whose laws and norms were based on economic and racial constructs. It is identified as a repressive democracy. In 1960, Martin Luther King was becoming co-pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. He was 31 years old.
The United States was still struggling to practice small “d” democracy when I was 3 years old, the year the March on Washington took place. I clearly remember it; not because of what was repeatedly told to me, but from what I watched with my own eyes. I remember not only seeing it on the news but hearing about it through adults talking in “the grapevine,” the news that was considered “behind the vale.” At 3, I wasn’t part of the conversation, but was a sponge with ears. (I was taken almost everywhere; no such thing as a nanny.) This was information not shared in the mainstream, but shared at fellowship hours, the beauty salons, barbershops, storefronts, or kitchen tables in Negro neighborhoods, Chocolate Counties, and Browntowns.
At least twice in over 240 years, Americans worked on “a more perfect union,” with the second attempt peaking in the 1960s. This country attempted to practice true democracy only in the past 50 years, as long as I’ve been alive. It’s been longer than the Reconstruction era, which was about 12 years, not counting over a hundred years of segregation, a.k.a. Jim Crow. Remember Jim? He was around not that long ago. After the Civil and Voting Rights Acts of the 1960s, and the 1970s saw body autonomy for women, we, to this day, still struggle for the acceptance of (complete) self-agency. The battle for a more perfect union was still being fought when Martin Luther King was protesting for the rights and jobs of sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968, the year he was assassinated.
We are a great nation. We are also a nation that for hundreds of years created a caste system that violently oppressed the freedoms of Black Americans. A system so oppressive and successful, it was studied and copied. America’s economic and industrial complex unsuccessfully attempted to conquer Native Americans, then exterminated and subjugated the Indigenous nations. America found its work force and prosperity in kidnapping, importing, and exploiting Africans for hundreds of years, working human beings to their deaths, while declaring one could sustain life, obtain liberty, and pursue happiness. That invitation of pursuit did not include my ancestors.
So, by the time of the Civil Rights Act, generations of oppression had created the legacy of conditions, norms, and lessons that were imperative for me to learn. Not so I could be a part of that more perfect union but to survive its imperfections. I was told to stay humble, do everything by the book. You may still be held back, but no matter what, stay patient, be exemplary, always. You don’t get a second chance. Most of all, I remember the tone of voice when someone said, “You stay woke now,” and “Watch the moves they make!”
The “they” would always pertain to the European mainstream, a.k.a. white folks.
My generation has been living in America’s Second Reconstruction. With some improvements from the first in the 1870s, we still fight for inclusion, seek diversity, and hope for equity. We can now erect monuments to the martyrs who died for that more perfect union. But by 2011, Reconstruction 2.0 was beginning to grind to a halt. The wheels of progress drew a flat. History was being bastardized. An example of this is from the King Memorial:
When the memorial opened, they inscribed on a pillar a paraphrased quote: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” This sparked controversy when the author and poet Maya Angelou said it made King “look like an arrogant twit.” King’s original words were:
“If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”
He asked to turn that desire to stand out — to be a drum major — into service to others. King wished aloud not to be remembered for his awards and education, but because he “tried to give his life serving others,” and “tried to love and serve humanity.” This message of selflessness was conflated, which reflects how history can be recorded if we are not vigilant about telling the truth and instead we interpret it. We must shun those myths constructed to deflate the achievements of what generations accomplished and not mythologize the man with what is considered “comfortable.”
That’s where we are now. At the crossroads of Backwards Boulevard and Can’t Take the Truth Street. We can U-turn and find an avenue of escape, but the democratic way is to make your voice heard, take action, be in Good Trouble. Today, the same racist nationalism, misogyny, religious extremism, and homophobia of 1874 seeps out of the mouths of people in power in 2024 and rips through the soul of our country. It rips through my soul.
I was taught not to say but do. If you didn’t like something, find a solution and be a part of the fix. And it was always better to give than receive. As I have aged, I realized that my actions do speak louder. I see my involvement in community outreach as a way to empower, uplift, and care. But most of all, when I am writing, I feel like I am where my soul finds joy. I am free to stand for truth, and I stand in my truth — my life as a female descendant of enslaved and oppressed Americans of African origin, born in an economic and racial caste society.
What is painful is when diversity, equity, and inclusion become as much a trope as the annual replaying of four sentences in “Normalcy, Never Again,” the original title for King’s epic speech, which has been commercialized and edited to fit sound bites. One, “Normalcy, Never Again,” showing camaraderie with Jewish Americans, was about the end of the status quo. Two, there was the historical impact of the word “normalcy,” as in “Return to Normalcy,” a campaign slogan for Warren G. Harding’s 1920 presidential election. In 1920 lynching was normal. Jim Crow was normal. Race riots (i.e., white mobs terrorizing Blacks) were normal.
But in 1963, some thought the title was not “nice” enough. That day, Mahalia Jackson called out to King during the speech to talk about the dream he had, a part of a previous sermon. Thus, “I Have a Dream” is eternal. But King was not talking about everyone holding hands, singing “Kumbaya.” He was saying on that hot, humid August afternoon his version of “Get Off of Our Necks!”
I remember hearing the vitriolic epithets of the “negras” not knowing their “place,” and calling King “Martin Luther Coon.” You see, though it is easier to dream, declaring to mainstream America in 1963 that their “normal” was no more, let alone wrong . . . well, that’s why, then and now, there are people who hope to “Return to Normalcy,” so they can “Make America Great Again.”
There are times I’m disappointed, but I won’t give up.
Let’s Make Democracy Work Again.
Lora René Tucker, a Sag Harbor poet, is the poetry editor of African Voices magazine, the author of “Writes of Passage,” and studying for an M.F.A. in creative writing at Stony Brook Southampton. She facilitates poetry and writing workshops for Stony Brook Southampton Hospital’s Wellness Center, leads antiracism and cultural empowerment workshops, and hosts an open mic every second Sunday of the month at the Unitarian Universalist meetinghouse in Bridgehampton.