Last month we celebrated an American hero, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As the holiday drew near I began to wonder at his legacy. I wondered what he will make of America today. My 8-year old was responsible for focusing King’s legacy on my radar. I had to rushed to the junction to pick him up from the school bus. As he got off the bus he excitedly showed me the library book he had picked up for his independent reading assignment. An Illustrated account of “The March on Washington: Journey to Freedom”. I leaved through the pages, all the while wondering if all of America’s children will have the opportunity to read such books. To this question, I could only say maybe! I am still hearing of parents dueling with school authorities over which books should be allowed in school curricular and libraries.
The Cover of My Son’s Library Book
In this climate many American children may struggle to get the opportunity to read books like “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or “To Kill a Mockingbird” as part of their curriculum. Our political climate is so polarized and risk averse that these American classics are easily classified as offensive or unAmerican. Many bein are being banned by school boards. This is a really sad situation for a nation that constitutionally supports freedom of speech. The first amendment guarantees that but state and local school boards are doing just the opposite. Whilst many may think this is a right wing issue, this is inaccurate. Both sides of the political spectrum are using similar arguments to silence the dialogue that we need to have to address issues of race and representation.
How Must The Nation Address our Slave & Racially Segregated Past?
The question on how to address race in America has no easy answers. We however do not serve the nation well by burying this under a mountain of political correctness or censorship. In August 2019, almost 600 years after the first Africans landed on these shores the New York Times started “The 1619 Project“. This project was designed to place the US slave experience and its consequences on the center of our cultural narrative. Unfortunately this project was met with a lot of resistance in certain segments of the political right.
The 1619 project has become the poster child of “Critical Race Theory” or CRT. A social boogeymen intent on shaping young minds to hate their heritage. Though most do not see anything wrong with such projects, CRT is now a four letter word to some Americans. Today in many circles the mere mention of CRT immediately stifles any real dialogue with most retreating to their ideological corners.
Must We Continue To Shut Down Black Voices?
Maya Angelou one of the greatest authors of Modern American literature has been described as the most banned author in America. Her book “I know Why The Caged Bird Sings” which describes rape and abuse has been criticized by some parents as profane. This book often appears on the list of the most challenged and banned books in America. Unfortunately she is not the only black author whose books appears on such lists. “The Hate You Give” by Angie Thomas and “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison are both commonly seen on such lists.
The beauty of American democracy is that unlike religious autocracies where a cleric like The Ayatollah Khomeini could unilaterally ban a book we in America conspire together to decide on which books are not appropriate for our young minds. Fortunately in this country we also have mechanisms to protest such determinations. So in these dark days of excessive censorship there may still be hope for us. In York Pennsylvania a student led group “The Panther Anti-Racist Union” fought an all white school board for several months to reverse the banning of books by several black authors in their school. The list included books about Rosa Parks and the black cultural icon and philosopher James Baldwin.
Finding Family Across The Racial Divide
Some of these decisions on censorship are driven by race, a social construct created by us to institutionalize oppression. Today many of us unfortunately continue to cling to this concept and continue to define our existence through a racialized lens. This illusion was only made real by our policies and we have continued to to feed this over several centuries. The human genome project and several thought provoking experiences continue to show that race does not hold up when examined scientifically. In the first episode of the documentary series “Race The Power of An Illusion” students are surprised when after their DNAs are analyzed and compared they had more sequences in common with individuals from different racial backgrounds than some of their same race colleagues.
Geographic genealogies suggest that features like skin color, hair color and texture, physical attributes used to determine race are actually from recent genetic changes. These characteristics most likely diverged after man spread out from Africa. The use of ancestry DNA products like Geno 2.0 and 23 and me have revealed some surprises including helping some supposedly white families re-unite with black family members. Beyond the issue of genetic variations and similarities across racial lines centuries old US racial policies attempted to create human demarcations which were and continue to be spurious. These policies have only served one function, they have divided us and reduced our power and influence.
How Did Dr. King’s Campaign Handle These Divisive Racial Policies?
We so often forget the focus of Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy. To understand Dr. King and his struggle which probably cost him his life we need to go back to what the March on Washington was about. My son’s book which he got from his school library is titled “The March on Washington: Journey to Freedom”. The title failed to highlight one very important principle which made the March on Washington a radical idea in Dr. King’s day. King recognized that racial equality is a hollow word in a society where opportunities were unequally distributed, so the March was was advertised as “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom“. In his speech Dr. Kings called for colorblind policies across different sectors of the US system, education, economy and the legislature. The March called for self government for Washington DC, something we are still grappling with today.
The Obvious Disparities & Inequities Across US Law Enforcement Systems
Dr. King recognized the limitations of addressing civil rights as only an issue of race. Today many of us are coming to the realization that race is not real. Race is the illusion that ‘we’ have used over centuries to divide each other and create opportunities for a a narrow elite. Today most of us are recognizing that that racial policies that keep minorities and some white Americans under oppression are built into our systems and will need to change to make civil rights a reality.
Is Race an Illusion Reinforced By Racially Biased Policies?
As we celebrate Dr. King legacy and contemplate black history month in February let us all remember race is an illusion. As a physician I was taught to consider race in many issues related to health. Today I am beginning to realize that even in situations when most of the health issues around race have a biological basis they are mostly driven by centuries old policies of oppression driving changes in genes. So next time you ask yourself the question if there is something wrong with being black remember the answer is no, but there is definitive something wrong with keeping a group oppressed for so long the system of oppression is expressed in epigenetic changes which can be inherited across generations.
Feature photo: Martin Luther King and President Lyndon B. Johnson in the oval office, March 3, 1963. Source: LBJ Presidential Library
By Dr. Leonard Sowah an internal medicine physician in Baltimore, Maryland