It is Martin Luther King Jr Day as I write this. January 17th, 2022.
Had he lived; he would be 93. I wonder what he would make of this time.
It is 54 years since his assassination. Thirty-nine years since President Ronald Reagan declared the third Monday of January a federal holiday in his honor, but only 22 years since all 50 states recognized it. Up until then, in Virginia it was celebrated as Lee-King-Jackson day, sandwiching his memory between celebrating two generals of the Confederate Armies during the American Civil War.
It is 62 years since Ruby Bridges, a small pig-tailed six-year-old black girl, surrounded by US Marshalls, walked up the steps of the William Franz Elementary school in New Orleans, and integrated it.
A year ago, when I originally wrote a version of this article, it was only two days before the swearing in of Kamala Harris as Vice-President of the United States, momentous in so many ways. The first woman. The first Black woman. The first woman of Indian descent. There was so much promise in that moment, so much hope after experiencing a presidential administration determined to roll us back into the 1950’s.
It was also 12 days after the insurrection, an attack on the Capitol Building and on democracy that killed nine people (either before, during or after as a result). The riot, egged on by the lies of a stolen election and aided by some members of Congress, left more than 100 police officers injured. Four officers who faced the mob, committed suicide within a few months. For weeks tens of thousands of National Guard are encamped at the U.S. Capitol, the first time since the Civil War, to protect against the white supremacist terrorism that has been planned for the Inauguration both in Washington, DC, and at state capitols around the country.
I thought about all of that – and a new administration heralded in with the searing words of a 22-year-old Amanda Gorman – as I crafted an introduction for the study guide for UNTIL THE FLOOD (now streaming at GoodmanTheatre.org/UntiltheFlood through Fall 2023). In Dael Orlandersmith’s searing quasi-documentary performance about the aftermath of the murder of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in 2014, she digs deep into eight characters she spent months interviewing, researching and, in some cases, compositing. It is a performance – and a play – that wrestles with difficult questions of race, class and white supremacy. Writing this then, I found, even within its difficult portraits, seeds hope for unity.
One year later, I am not as hopeful.
As we enter a third year of a global pandemic; as we see those we elected subvert the very foundational girders of a democratic society; as we grieve for our lost lives and loves taken by violence and by virus, is it even credible to think that we can seriously find our way back to “one Nation, under God”?
The reality is we have always lived in a divided country. Can we restore trust in our civic institutions when justice continues to be inequitable? How do we confront the racist history of this country without a reckoning and re-education on its full history?
As we re-watch UNTIL THE FLOOD and reckon with the history of policing from its roots as slave patrols; as we experience the City of Bones of our ancestors in GEM OF THE OCEAN, we must remember that the fight for equality and against white supremacy has never ended; it has only morphed, transformed and transmuted for 2022, and perhaps that necessitates looking away from Dr. King’s vaunted “I Have a Dream” speech to those epistles that trouble the waters.
A few days after declaring his opposition to the Vietnam War in 1967, King spoke to a crowd at Stanford University and advocated for economic and social equality. In his “Other America” speech, King described “two Americas” to highlight the growing poverty gap in the United States as a root of inequality.
“Abused and scorned though we may be our destiny is tied up in the destiny of America. Before the pilgrim fathers landed at Plymouth we were here. Before Jefferson etched across the pages of history the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, we were here. Before the beautiful words of the Star-Spangled Banner were written, we were here. For more than two centuries, our forebearers labored here without wages. They made cotton king. They built the homes of their masters in the midst of the most humiliating and oppressive conditions. And yet out of a bottomless vitality, they continued to grow and develop.
And I say that if the inexpressible cruelties of slavery couldn’t stop us, the opposition that we now face, including the so-called white backlash, will surely fail. We’re gonna win our freedom because both the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of the Almighty God are embodied in our echoing demands…
With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discourse of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to speed up the day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and live together as brothers and sisters, all over this great nation. That will be a great day, that will be a great tomorrow. In the words of the Scripture, to speak symbolically, that will be the day when the morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy.”
This MLK Day, one year later as we head into an even more uncertain future for ourselves and our planet, I find inspiration not only in Dr. King’s rhetoric, but his legacy of eloquence and action channeled through Amanda Gorman on the steps of a damaged Capitol Building: