Another brilliant epistle from the front porch of Ruby Sales.
On this day as we remember King please accept this gift of recapitulation, restoration and remembrance of a southern African American story.
Every year I listen in absolute horror as White liberals rob King of his connection and roots to the Black South. His are deep roots as are mine that extend all the way back to the first organized non-violent southern freedom grassroots movement when members of the community of enslaved Africans ran away. He and I descend from enslaved ancestors who fashioned a radical and liberating Black folk theology in southern fields where they were forced under state sanctioned violence to labor like beasts of burden to enrich the economic lifestyles of southern Whites. In the heat of those fields they carved out a theology of pragmatic optimism that blended their transcendental impulse –ancestors’ aspirations — with transactional acts of resistance and accommodation towards citizenship. The folk impulse of our enslaved ancestors radically departed from the White transactional view of us as property to our transcendental view of our being children of God and therefore legitimate heirs of the promise of democracy.
This simultaneous stream made up what Dubois called the soul of Black folk which our ancestors expressed and harvested in sermons, spirituals, folk tales and prayers. The idea of revolutionary love or agape was the common theme that hitched these modalities together into an indivisible pedagogy and theology of somebodiness.
These cultural and spiritual folk modalities did not die with the end of enslavement. Rather, we expanded and kept them alive during the 100-year White Southern reign of terror and apartheid. These were our “drinking gourds” in a parched land. Our ancestors took them and watered and continued to till a counter culture of pragmatic optimism. Within this holistic praxis God, education, generations, and upbuilding our individual and collective lives centered it.
This is the fertile history that birthed, nurtured, formed and sustained generations of young people that included ML King’ s generation and my own. We were beneficiaries of a community project where the community pooled its resources to create what Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot called “good schools.” These good schools named Carver High, Booker T. Washington and Maggie Walker High School flourished throughout the South. In each our teachers and principals socialized in us a deep longing to measure our success with the upbuilding of our people and community. In these schools we learned to blend the individual I with the collective We that did not privilege one over the other.
Our primary guides were Black women in headrags, Sunday hats who dressed their bodies with exquisite care. They were designers and architects who taught us the unforgettable lesson of how to make beauty, grace and style out of scraps.
It was in their presence and through their eyes that ML King, Jr. and I saw the world and our possibilities. We did not long to be White. Nor were White Southerners our significant others. Rather, these Black women captivated our spirits. Their voices forever rang in our minds and hearts. Their expectations always moved us forward past our defeats and the no’s in life. These women were elastic enough to take a young budding same gender loving adolescent in their hearts and care, shrugging off homophobia.
I learned as did ML King, Jr. that we as young people were essential to continuing and fulfilling a collective dream to “one day be free.” It was these women’s cultivation of this dream in us that bore rich fruit in young Black southern freedom fighters during the Southern Freedom Movement. Even when we pushed harder and further than they thought it was safe to go, we never broke away from each other. No matter how far we traveled in the world, they remained our first teachers and heroes. In our eyes, they continued to be our measuring sticks for beauty and grace. Although we walked in White spaces, we never stopped being their children and heirs.