“What happens to a dream differed?”1 Langston Hughes, a 20th century poet of the Harlem Renaissance, posed this thought-provoking question in his poem titled Harlem (popularly known as Dream Differed). If the “dream” was indeed a real, flourishing thing at one point in time, what becomes of it when it is neglected? Does it exist in a state of potentiality awaiting the day of actualization? Or like nocturnal dreams, does time seem to dwindle the recollection of it to inexistence? Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. imparted words of power to the United States of America on August 28, 1963 in Washington, DC. He had a dream. A dream that was not meant to merely exist as an idea in the minds of many, but one to be realized. For he did not hide his dream under a bushel, but instead placed it on the mountaintop for all to see. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a man of virtue whose self-sacrifice and courage should not be taken lightly. I speak boldly, as a member of the African-American community, when I say we have a responsibility to see that this dream not be lost along with Dr. King himself. If the African-American community wishes to see his dream come true, they must become a people of virtue. The premise of Dr. King Jr.’s dream was found in this statement: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”2
As it pertains to equality, I find it proper to define what we should and should not be expecting from its manifestation. Equality can best be understood as equal opportunity to reach a desired end. The essence of equality leaves no room for advantage or privilege related to accidental properties (skin color, gender, etc.). All participants have a chance to gain access to the thing in question. All participants are also evaluated through the lens of a consistent standard. Equality does not guarantee any participants’ success, but simply an equal opportunity to succeed. His dream was that despite people’s skin color and origin, they would be allotted the opportunity to change their future because from birth we inherit that right.
Now, fifty-one years after this great dream, African-Americans find themselves still enduring some injustices. Some have been more heinous than others, but injustices all the same. While I do not wish to belittle them in any way, the aim of this treatise is one of home keeping. Of late, African-Americans, as a people, have become expert finger pointers. African-Americans have developed a trained eye for discrimination, so it seems, but I would like for us to look at ourselves objectively, and with a critical eye. The two areas in which the African-American community has become considerably numb are the principles of equality and justice. Many Negro civil rights activists went to great extremes to fight for these two rights, believing that they should be extended to all of mankind. While I do not doubt that these rights are violated today in various ways, it would seem to be unfitting to liken them to the atrocities of the past. With that said, I want to help usher the African-American community into a new state of mind. Let us reorient ourselves in this new day of opportunity and encourage one another to utilize it as much as possible.
Recently, there has been an immense amount of injustices quickening the African-American community into action. On February 26, 2012, an unarmed seventeen year-old, Trayvon Martin, was shot and killed by a neighborhood watchmen.3 This was the beginning of the wave that has come to an alarming high in the past year. On August 9, 2014, another young black man, Michael Brown, was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.4 Both of these situations were tragic, not simply because a black man was killed, but because a human life was lost. In both cases, however, there was some blame on the parts of both individuals. That is not to say that they were worthy of death, but that they were not innocent of wrongdoing.5
Moreover, many aspects of what may be properly considered African-American culture are guilty as well. Black Entertainment Television (BET) is the nation’s hub of African-American media and news.6 Over 90 million households across the U.S., Canada, the Caribbean, United Kingdom, and Africa have access to BET.7 This is their mission: “BET was created to broadcast the culture, genius, beauty and talents of the black race.”8 On BET’s website, they claim that they are “serving African-Americans and consumers of Black culture globally.”9 However, they have done the African-American community dire harm by portraying a people of lasciviousness, youthful aggression, senseless violence, gang life, adultery, crude speech, rude behavior, degrading of women, and poor character. Dr. King warned us of this type of behavior saying:
But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds.10
These words seem to have escaped the United States of America in our quest to find equality and justice, but if anyone hopes to attain it we must all store them in our hearts. This may be hard on the palate, but this is a necessary burden to internalize while approaching the emphasis of this exhortation. On the topic of justice, it is beneficial to understand what exactly Dr. King was in search of. Justice in today’s culture is often crippled because of the distaste and misuse of judgment. There is an inconsistency in this way of thinking due to the intent of justice and its end goal. Justice seeks to impartially conform everything in its path to truth. Therefore, the desire for justice necessitates truth and the pursuit of virtue. Moreover, in order for it to conform all things to truth it must be able to discern what is and is not true. This requires judgment. This idea is not far from human understanding, for is it not ideal that the men of sound judgment be placed in charge of our court rooms? Understand that if things are to be made right they require judgment from a man of virtue with a sound mind.
Thus, Dr. King proclaims in regard to his children and those who come after, that one day “they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”11 He did not say that he hoped one day they would live in a nation that would no longer judge them at all. Instead, he qualified the judgment to be directed towards the “content of their character” rather than their race. He knew that in order for there to be justice at all men and women of sound minds needed to judge our character. Without judgment there is no justice, and without justice there will be no equality. Dr. King was deeply concerned with the character of men and women of all races. The very essence of his life’s work was to argue that the character of those who were mistreating blacks simply because of their skin possessed flaws.
These two points meet harmoniously and yield much fruit to be harvested as follows: a man of good character and justice, by definition, is a man of virtue. The philosopher Plato defined the cardinal virtues of mankind as prudence, temperance, courage and justice. Prudence being wisdom, or skill of discerning right actions and the appropriate times to execute them.12 Temperance is the ability to control oneself and to moderate or refrain from particular actions. Courage is the strength to do what is right even when is difficult or unpopular. Justice, then, is the by-product of the former three. Only when one is prudent, temperate, and courageous can they be a man or woman of justice. If the contents of your character are not those of virtue, then the most devastating injustice will be from within.
I have said these things so that we, African-Americans, will no longer be contributors of our own injustice and would become a people of virtue. Do not think that I have made little of the wrong that has been done towards the African-American community. Contrarily, I have been outraged by them all. In fact, I have been outraged so much so that I have vowed to live above the stereotypes in order that one day they will cease to be reasonable assumptions. Therefore, I urge you to live virtuous lives. I beseech you to refrain from assuming all injustice is from without and first analyze the content of your own character being careful not to affirm the misconceptions. Let us hold each other accountable to this practice that we may judge ourselves
and refine our character as a people.
I have also written these things to you, fellow men and women of all races, to present myself as a voice of reason and an ear of safety. A voice that gives you a tool to communicate to those who you may encounter that need to hear this message. I trust that your method and reason will operate out of wisdom, grace and humility. I also present myself as an ear of safety, approachable to discuss matters such as these, for I know there is great misunderstanding regarding racial tensions. I hope that as every person owns their responsibility as individuals, the world can collectively see Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s great dream become reality.
- Langston Hughes, Arnold Rampersad, and David E. Roessel. “Harlem.” The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Knopf, 1994. N. pag. Print.
- “Trayvon Martin Shooting Fast Facts.” CNN. Cable News Network, 22 Feb. 2014. Web. 23 Oct. 2014.
- Staff, CNN, Eliott C. McLaughlin, Michael Martinez, Joe Sutton, Faith Karimi, Mayra Cue- vas, Ben Brumfield, Michael Pearson, Catherine E. Shoichet, and Jason Carroll. “Dueling Narratives in Michael Brown Shooting.” CNN. Cable News Network, 01 Jan. 1970. Web. 24 Oct. 2014.
- “BET Careers.” BET Careers. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2014. <http://betcareers.viacom.com/about.html>.
- Juan Williams, “’BET ’ Gets Thumbs Down Award From Journalists.” NPR. NPR, 10 Aug. 2007. Web. 24 Oct. 2014.
- “BET Careers.” BET Careers. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2014. <http://betcareers.viacom.com/about.html>.
- Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream Speech.” American Rhetoric. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Oct. 2014.
- Ronald H. Nash, “Life’s Ultimate Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy.” (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan House, 1999). Print.