My grandfather of blessed memory once told me that paddling a canoe on one side only creates an illusion of progress. He explained that when a person paddles a canoe on one side, the force propels the canoe to move and that creates an impression of progress. The unfortunate truth, however, is that such a one is only making a wide circle that will eventually bring them to their starting point. My grandfather’s story helped me to understand that as human beings, we sometimes confuse movement with progress and that stagnation seems to be our yardstick for lack of progress.
I had long forgotten about the above analogy of my grandfather, but the experience of being Black in America extruded this imagery in my consciousness. Over the years, Black people have been presented with a litany of illusion of progress but in many ways, like paddling a canoe on one side, we are only making a wide circle and moving nowhere. The chief document that promises progress is that of the Emancipation Proclamation which brought freedom, the greatest gift of human dignity, followed by the Reconstruction Era which proposed economic restoration to Black Americans. Yet our progress here was met with swift resistance. Losing power and resources, whites reacted through both the power of the sword and the power of the law, so that any gains that were made through reconstruction were lost as a result of the Wormley compromise of 1877.
Two other documents that point to a measure of progress are the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act which were passed 188 years and 189 years respectively after the United States declared that “All men are created equal.” We regarded these historic pieces of legislations as big strides in our struggle for humanity, and truly so, because many innocent lives were shed for that to become a reality. Yet in recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has gutted the Voting Rights Act and we are vividly told, given the current killing of blacks by cops without indictment, that the declaration of independence has not yet been extended to black folks in America.
Fast forward to the 21st Century, the unthinkable happened! On August 28th, 2008, Senator Barack Hussein Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for the highest office in America – The Presidency of United States. His election signified another measure of progress for black Americans and the American people at large suggesting that we had finally come to a point in history where we could peacefully elect a black man to be president. Yet, soon after his inauguration, those who supported white supremacist ideology unleashed an unrelenting war against blacks in America – the more subtle forms of this being Voter ID amendments and significantly cutting food aid programs such as SNAP and WIC; the more insidious forms of this war – Stand Your Ground Laws and ongoing police brutality.
What is deeply telling about Obama’s presidency, and specifically his acceptance speech, is that exactly 45 years earlier on August 28th, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Misinformed and unwise talking heads like to suggest that Obama’s presidency is the fulfillment of that dream but that’s impossible when black men, women, and children are still being killed without recourse. There is not much difference between the Mike Brown’s and John Crawford’s of today and the Emmett Till’s of yesterday.
To draw additional parallels between 1963 and 2015, let us also consider the following statistics: In 1963, during the March on Washington the unemployment rate for black males was 10.98 percent; today it’s 12.6 percent. In 1963, about 35,000 blacks were in prison; in 2015, they are nearly a million. In addition, today nearly one million black men are languishing in prison and a third of all black children live in poverty. Let the reader understand that these things do not spell progress. In fact, things have largely remained the same.
The unimaginable nature of the presidency of a Blackman in America created an illusion of progress. Though the presidency of a black man is a big landmark, given the historical exclusion of blackness from humanity, this achievement is not progress at all; we are only moving about in a very wide circle.
If a black president cannot mean progress, the question is how do we ever get to the place that Dr. King talked about? I believe the answer lies in addressing the central thesis of Dr. King’s speech: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
When it was all said and done, the most prominent part of King’s speech dealt with the discrimination that happens to little black girls and boys simply because of the color of their skin – discrimination has nothing to do with their character, nothing to do with their education, nothing to do with their belief system, nothing to do with the lack of a father figure in the home. Discrimination in 2015, has the same face of discrimination in 1963 at the delivering of King’s speech, 1955 when Emmett Till was killed, in 1865, and in 1619; it all has to do with race.
To really make progress, then, we must face our nation’s past and admit to ourselves and everyone else, that this has all been about something as arbitrary as skin color, and that skin color used as a means to mistreat, steal, colonize, and subdue for the sake of power and material wealth. Addressing race in this way is the equivalent to adding the second paddle to the canoe; finally we will stop going around in circles and actually begin to make the long, arduous trek of moving somewhere in our quest to progress beyond historic injustice in this nation.