Jack Johnson, MLK, Barack Obama: owning our citizenship in 2012
As we settle in and start to get comfortable with 2012, I find myself trying to temper a still-simmering anxiety over several 2011 events that got under my skin, leaving this nagging question pounding inside my head: What is going on with my people?
First, there was the criminal conviction of Jack B. Johnson, the two-term executive in Prince George’s County. Putting aside Johnson’s thievery and his blow-off of the public’s trust, I submit the reaction of the many Prince Georgians who defended Johnson with sanctimonious clichés about forgiveness and redemption, even while Johnson continued to present a non-repentant and deceptive public posture.
Then there was the happy-hour sage who suggested to my brother that criminal corruption by elected leaders was a fair trade for the political power African Americans have enjoyed. Without full support, the sage advised, “we” could lose the county executive’s office, and “we can’t have them telling us what to do!”
It’s hard to know where to begin picking apart that warped thinking. At the very least, this individualistic rhetoric ignores the legacy of family and community that gave black Prince Georgians a strong sense of culture and connectedness long before Jack Johnson resided within our boundaries – and which could move us beyond the money-worshipping, status-seeking limbo we now symbolize. The legacy of the Jack Johnson administration is not to be treasured or honorably memorialized.
Which leads me to Martin Luther King Jr. and President Barack Obama. On October 16, the National Park Service dedicated the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. On two visits to the monument, I watched the proud and respectfully subdued reactions of visitors as they posed for pictures, reverently circled the stone image and read King’s words inscribed on the statue and surrounding wall.
“What is it grandmommy? came an inevitable question. I thought about how we as a people will answer that question in the years ahead, and of what this monument will become to African Americans. With King preaching to us from this hallowed plaza, I got excited at the thought that he might again spur us into action.
Only a few weeks earlier, Troy Anthony Davis had been unjustly executed in Georgia. Occupy Wall Street protests were blasting the nation’s shameful economic disparities, even while being dismissed by some blacks as irrelevant. A number of states were advancing legislation to undo hard-won voting rights.
Now, with King’s powerful presence on the National Mall, would we at last be shaken out of our civil rights movement reverie, out of our false sense of having arrived, and spurred into action to push further for peace and social justice? Or would King’s monument become just another stop on the black history tour?
During the dedication, as one of the speakers addressed the crowd from the podium, the jumbo screen showed a live shot of the Obamas taking a private tour of the monument, which was out of view of the crowd. Reacting to the image on the screen, a few in the crowd began to chant: “Four more years, four more years!”drowning out the speaker, who had been invited to the ceremony to honor King.
Granted, the Obama presidency has brought to fruition the hopes, dreams, and perseverance of King and probably every single person of African descent who ever called America home. Yet, as the chants waned, another question surfaced: Are we so enraptured with President Obama that we are making this presidency itself a monument? Among black folks, sensitivity to criticism of the president’s positions and policies is constant and increasing. A frequently expressed fear is that black criticism of the president will cost him re-election.
However, those of us who cried, hugged, and fell on our knees the night of the Obama election should not let this demonstration of our electoral power be the complete victory. This could be the era not only of the first African-American president but also of unprecedented engagement in democracy among African Americans, a time when we fully take hold of our democratic privileges to speak up, engage, and dissent. Electing a black president and placing the full weight of progress on his shoulders robs him of the benefit of an aware and engaged citizenry. Our history in America notwithstanding, it is time to own our citizenship, not just in symbolic ways but in the tangible, change-making things we do to keep humanity moving forward.
I am worried and hear myself lamenting, What is going on with my people? So, a few weeks ago when radio station WPFW asked its morning listeners to call and share their thoughts on the question, “What‘s on your social justice agenda for 2012?” I thought, You should say something. This is where I start.
Avis Matthews Davis is a high school history and government teacher in suburban Maryland. She has been a public relations director in local government and was an editor at the former Journal Newspapers.