In 1951, the great American poet Langston Hughes, in his poem, “Harlem,” asked:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
According to the white people in my inbox, he failed us.
If Hughes was still living, someone would undoubtedly ask Langston why he keeps asking dream deferment questions if he doesn’t have a solution. I’m sure he’d receive emails, tweets, and DMs explaining how Obama’s election proved that black dreams are now treated equally. A MAGAmuffin would inform him that President Trump has done more for black dreams than any other president. The MayorSapiens and Bernie Bros. would tell Hughes that they have a comprehensive dream postponement plan to address the issue.
Sadly, Hughes is no longer with us.
But if you’re wondering why our dreams continue to dry up like a raisin in the sun, you should know that raisins are not a monolith. What about the California raisins? They’re doing pretty well. Plus, Langston’s poem is inherently bigoted against galaxy-centric stars. What I’m, trying to say is:
“Not all suns.”
Our first batch of correspondence comes from people who are upset with our coverage of MLK day, including a self-admitted white moderate and a literal “not all white people.”
To: Michael Harriot
Martin would have wanted you to either be white, or smart. Your mother should have picked a better john.
To: Michael Harriot
If you really wanted to celebrate the legacy of Rev. Martin Luther King, you would take one day off from race-baiting and acknowledge the Christian ideals that he lived by. I agree that racism still exist but I’m still waiting for you to prove that most white people aren’t trying their hardest to eliminate it.
Not all white people are the racists you make us out to be. Maybe you should acknowledge that on this sacred day.
Dear white people:
Every year, on the third Monday of January, America gets to see a magic trick. On this day, white people somehow manage to abracadabra a radical freedom fighter who died at the hands of a white supremacist murderer during a battle for racial equality into a blind, deaf, mute who never witnessed, heard or spoke about the people he was fighting against.
Who was Martin Luther King fighting against?
There’s no need to speculate. We know what he said.
In August 1963, while sitting in a Birmingham Jail, he wrote that the “great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice.”
When talking about white people in a 1956 article, King noted that if white people “would ever rise up” instead of being concerned about the money, political power and their “so-called way of life...we would be able to solve all of the problems in our nation today.”
In that report on the Montgomery Movement, published in Liberation magazine, King told author William Faulkner that, “It is hardly a moral act to encourage others patiently to accept injustice which he himself does not endure.” He used the word “Jesus” and “God” once each. He mentioned the word “love” zero times.
He referred to “white people” or white men a total of 19 times.
I am not as eloquent or as inspiring as King, nor am I as objective as the pollsters who note that more than two-thirds of “white Americans” had a negative view of King in the last survey taken before he died. Instead of parsing one speech, I point out that Martin Luther King Jr. repeatedly explained who he was fighting against.
But, of course, I might be denigrating the memory of this great freedom fighter by paraphrasing his flowery language into my own vernacular. Perhaps, King used colloquialisms for the population who I refer to as “white people.”
Here’s what he called them, instead:
- “Many white people who sincerely oppose segregation and [discrimination], but they never took a [real] stand against it because of fear of standing alone.”
- In their relations with Negroes, white people discovered that they had rejected the very center of their own ethical professions.
- In the past, we have sat in the back of the buses, and this has indicated a basic lack of self-respect. It shows that we thought of ourselves as less than men. On the other hand, the white people have sat in the front and have thought of themselves as superior. They have tried to play God.
- I am convinced that the white people are not going to move on if the Negroes don’t. It is going to depend on whether we continue to move and our method in moving will arouse the consciences of the white people.
- I have repeatedly warned my people that victory would not come if they wait for the white people to furnish the dinner while they merely furnish the apetite.
- Again, I say although the white man has done us wrong it is our Christian obligation not to do them wrong.
- [During the Montgomery Boycott] Things were going well for the first few days, but then about ten or fifteen days later, after the white people in Montgomery knew that we meant business, they started doing some nasty things.
King did not hate white people and neither do I. He used harsh language to challenge them. Somehow, the illusionists managed to co-opt King’s quote about “the content of their character” while making the part about “vicious racists”—which is quite literally the very next sentence—disappear into thin air.
Who the fuck do these people think were judging children by the color of their skin?
Still, the annual display of prestidigitation pulled by Caucasian illusionists who yank a lily-white MLK rabbit out of their ahistorical tophat every year isn’t just maddening to me, it actually defames his life’s work. Celebrating King’s sacrifices without discussing the white racists is like honoring WWII veterans but not mentioning the Nazis they were fighting.
But, if all of this isn’t proof enough for the white moderate necromancers who insist that their now-beloved Martin Luther King Jr. never played “identity politics,” “played the race card” or broadly condemned the actions of white people, here’s one last factoid that even Harry Houdini couldn’t escape.
On March 31, 1968, four days before a white supremacist put a bullet in his head, Martin Luther King said, out of his own mouth:
“I must say this morning that racial injustice is still the black man’s burden and the white man’s shame.
It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle—the disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic.”
A lot of white people were upset about the article about the National Review’s criticism of the 1619 Project. The Daily Caller even wrote about it, suggesting that I didn’t know that Peter Kirsanow was white. (No, I’m not gonna provide the link.)
Dear Root Readers,
I’m sure all of you know that one of my favorite pasttimes is playing the victim. I know Peter Kirsanow is black. However, I am willing to accept full responsibility for this mistake.
I blame “toxic masculinity.”
Because I essentially have the sense of humor of a 12-year-old boy, I sometimes resort making to boorish, stupid jokes. I can’t help it. I was born this way (a man).
One of the ways I overcome this debilitating syndrome is by listening to black women, who are usually smarter than I am. One of the women whose opinion I respect the most is Contributing Editor Angela Bronner Helm, who edits most of the stuff I write (Honestly, the only reason I pay attention to her is that she often threatens me with bodily harm).
Angela Helm is a feminist.
One day, I am going to release a compendium of my favorite insults that she deleted. They may or may not include me comparing a certain Yale-educated police caller’s body secretions to goat milk or applauding Stephen A. Smith for donating his neck to the same organization to which Melania Trump bequeathed her buttocks.
But, for the sake of full disclosure, I would like to note that the original draft of the article contained this paragraph:
For weeks, a group of white historians have been arguing that, while white history might be a little bitter, in regular doses, it’s actually quite nutritious. Having scoured the earth for a black person willing to criticize the 1619 Project, the National Review finally settled on Peter Kirsanow, whose handlebar mustache is reportedly waxed with Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina-scented candle, allowing the uninterrupted sensation of sticking his nose up white people’s ass.”
But I will never forget that Gwenyth Paltrow tried to sell pussy rocks. (Personally, I’ve never wondered what sex would feel like if I could make it a little more gravelly. But, then again, I also never thought white people would burst into tears when someone revealed the historical truths of slavery.)
I knew Angela wasn’t having that.
After it was deleted, I simply failed to replace it with the mention that Peter Kirsanow is black. Though I could argue that Kirsanow’s race isn’t important, or that the parable of Mithridates taking small doses of poison illustrates the point; it was actually an oversight.
I apologize to anyone who read the article and assumed Kirsanow was white.
I also apologize to the people who thought it was important to note how I whitewashed a historical figure. I only ask that you do one thing:
Keep that same energy.
To: Michael Harriot
I read your article. And then I read it again. I have questions, which, given your article, I realize are born out of my “whiteness.” This embarrasses me. I didn’t realize that failing to see color meant that I failed to see YOU. I didn’t realize that even as a woman, I’m placed above YOU. I have a 16 year old son and a 10 year old daughter. I was hoping that I could engage in a dialogue with you, ask you my questions, so that I’m not raising the next generation of people like me. Could we please do that?
About every six months, I receive a letter similar to yours and I make the same point every time. This time, I want to illustrate it with an analogy about the importance of education.
As I have often mentioned, my mother homeschooled her children.
When she decided to allow white people to educate us, we all attended the same elementary school for a while, until we finally split up. Even after we entered school, we had a certain number of books we had to read each week. When we came home from school, she would be at work, but there was always a list of vocabulary words taped to our doors that we had to look up.
Every night, we competed in Jeopardy and we attended some kind of educational camp each summer. My mom forebade us from using profanity (including the word “lie” and “fool”) unless we were telling a story. We couldn’t eat any food with yellow dye No. 5 because she believed it caused behavior problems (It has since proven to be a neurotoxin and a carcinogen). Every Friday, we got to choose our own flavor of Lifesavers, which is the only candy we were allowed all week because my mother believed that sugar erodes the brain. We also attended church four days a week and studied the Bible.
My youngest sister, Comelita, was (and still is) an outspoken, rebellious person who people are intrinsically drawn to. She was always in the in-crowd and attended public schools. My mother took in my cousin Robin and raised her as our sister. Robin was always smart and was essentially the same age as Comelita. However, Robin was put in the “gifted” program as soon as we started going to public schools. I actually skipped two grades, which should have put me in the same classes as my oldest sister, Seandra. But, because Seandra was quiet and a little rebellious, my mother sent her to a private school where she was literally the only black person in the entire school.
Years later, my mother took in her grandniece Nikey and used the same methods. At first, Nikey attended a private school until she was kicked out for singing a song called “Black is Beautiful” that Robin and I composed and forced Nikey to learn.
One summer, our church took a trip to Charleston, S.C. After visiting the city, Comelita vowed that she would live in Charleston for the rest of her life. She attended Charleston Southern University, married a man from Charleston, had four kids and currently works in the administration of a Charleston college. Sean and Nikey graduated from HBCUs and eventually became teachers. Robin came to Auburn with me.
If you ask my mother, she would give you an entire lesson plan on how to raise kids who graduated from college. She would tell you, in detail, about the importance of reading and an expanded vocabulary. She can explain why extracurricular activities are necessary and why diet is important. Most of all, she will tell you that Jesus is the only thing that can protect children from the path of sin.
Most of that would be bullshit.
As an adult, I hardly adhere to any of those rules. I eat Krispy Kreme doughnuts. I don’t go to church. I cuss a lot.
A whole lot.
And, while it may have had some effect on us, none of us climbed out of poverty because of vocabulary words or dietary restrictions. All I ever learned in summer camp was to get on the team with the most white kids if I wanted to win the swimming relay race. It’s not like I vacillated between a career in crack cocaine distribution and bank robbery, but decided on writing after remembering what the Apostle Paul told Timothy about money and righteousness (I Googled that).
I am my mother’s son. I lived in a world that she created. It was not her rules, daily readings or her explicit lessons that formed me; it is her example that shaped our lives.
Brianne, there is nothing I could teach you that you couldn’t find out on your own. If you are intentional and unflagging about raising anti-racist kids, whatever you come up with will probably work. Trust me, they will remember.
How can I be so sure of this?
Well, I’ve never had a class that studied Mithridates, Martin Luther King Jr. or Langston Hughes. I learned all of this random bullshit before I reached a double-digit age from books that were just laying around the house. Most of those books were around because my mother always wanted to be a writer, which was a long shot for a poor black woman from South Carolina.
And, if she’s being honest, my mother would probably say that she channeled a lot of her life’s dreams into raising her children. I’m sure she doesn’t know much about the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, Greek history or white revisionism.
But if I ever wanted to know what happens to a dream deferred...
I’d ask my mama.