Two Score and nearly 10 years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who was as consequential to our story and our success as any of our greatest Founding Fathers, gave a speech about where he saw the path of this nation leading and where we have tread since. Four years prior to that point, Dr. Martin Luther King had laid out his dream, a dream where this nation was able to leave behind the bonds of racial inequality and disparity and embrace what the promise of this nation has always been about: the equality of ALL, no matter their race, class or gender. However by 1967, Dr. King had slowly begin to realize that the dream he had was becoming a nightmare. We were being bogged down in foreign wars. His struggle against intolerance with his own brand of tolerance was being ignored. And he also begin to see that racial prejudice often went hand in glove with economic deprivation.
In the 1967 speech that Dr. King gave, he noted that if this nation is to realize the dream that he laid out 1963, America must undergo a revolution of values. He also described what that revolution will look like when he said:
“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
A year after he said those words, Dr. Martin Luther King was shot and killed.
However, in the 50 years since, this nation has come a long way down that road. Our schools have desegregated. Our workforce has diversified. Our neighborhoods and communities have been largely amalgamated to a degree where a complete disassociation of someone outside of your background is a near impossibility. And the hallmark of all of this was realized in 2008 when men, women, white and those of color elected the 44th President of the United States of America, Barack Obama.
Born during the very years that Dr. King’s dream of racial equality was just that, Barack Obama is nothing short of a direct product of that dream. With a African father, an Asian stepfather, a white mother raised formatively by white grandparents, Barack Obama married an African-American woman and has been the head of a middle-class American family. If that were the end of his journey that would be remarkable enough. But what has aided his path to becoming our nation’s duly-elected leader was not just his uniquely American experience, but also his ability to speak to us and open our hearts and mind and to connect to our humanity in a way that has been unmatched by an other leader of this nation’s history.
What drove his his path to the presidency was the fundamental idea of hope. A hope for a future where the dream of a Martin Luther King can be a reality. Not just a dream of racial equality, but a dream of economic and social fairness. And that was the motif with which he not only campaigned on but would be the precipice of his presidency. And it is also that hope of his example that many of us outside the mainstream wanted to see revered. The unfortunate reality of Dr. King’s dream is that the image of the Black American man has changed very little over the last 50 years. Many of the same obstructions that has hindered our progress in 1967 still exist in 2017. Yes, some are self-inflicted, but many others are due to the structure of society that continues to produce the societal ills that cannot be fixed by the efforts of a few.
But Barack Obama was an emergence from that image. In a society that often sees Black males as criminal, he was a constructive force. In a society that often hears about the miseducation of Black males, he was a Harvard-educated law professor. In a society that often is subjected to Black males absent in their families, he has raised two daughters to be beautiful young women. In a society that often thinks of Black males as a drag on societal resources, he gave back to his community, his state and ultimately his country. Individually, as Black men, our lives are sorted. Some have done better than others and collectively we show the world who we are. Fairly or unfairly, we are judged because of it. Barack Obama has done in life what we all could hope to accomplish. He has not only become our example how how to lead our lives, he’s become America’s example of what we can be. He is not only Martin Luther King’s Dream, he’s also the American Dream.
Without a shadow of doubt, Barack Obama is the best of us. Not because of his politics, but because of what he was and what he became; Successful. However, as much as we wanted this to be an example of who we are and what we can do, I have come to the slow realization that, while he’s been a success, one battle does not win the war. What I have see isn’t an acceptance of the image of what we can be, but unrecognition of who we actually are. His very words and intentions, which are completely familiar to Black America, are often misinterpreted as something more duplicitous and egotistic. The last eight years have been a reminder of how disconnected we still are on lines of race and class. And sadly, that was the legacy many outside Black America perceived from Barack Obama. But for us, Barack Obama showed us who we always thought we were and who we wish the world would see.
But what we have left is the society that has produced a Barack Obama. Have we been able to achieve the dream with which Martin Luther King informed us about? Again, while we have been able to produce a Barack Obama, what has it amounted to? He has still been reviled, maligned and disparaged, no matter how accomplished he is. The many aspersions he’s experienced have only prevented him from being able to restructure the edifice that continues to plague our society. American exceptionalism would indeed be exceptional if it weren’t for the exceptions we have continued to accept. We have indeed come a long way in 50 years. But if we are to judge the reaction to the realization of what one of our greatest Americans could only dream of, we have not come nearly far enough. What good has it been to achieve a dream when the reality is still a nightmare for so many others?