Not too long ago I heard an interview with Eugene Allen’s son. The recently released movie, The Butler is inspired by Eugene Allen’s life in the White House. Mr. Allen served in the White House through the terms of 8 presidents. His story first came to light after President Obama’s first election when a feature article appeared about him in the Washington Post. This feature told of how he never missed a day of work during his 36 years of service at the White House and it recalled what he witnessed from his position as butler when some of the most momentous decisions were being made, especially for black folks between1952-1988, his tenure of service. There are clearly many compelling things about his story, but there is one thing that stood out for me that actually did not come from him or the movie, but from an interview with his son. During this interview his son recalled the January morning in 2009 that he and his father, as invited guests, witnessed Barack Obama being sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. He said that he leaned over to his father and asked him if he ever dreamed that he would live to see a black man become President. He said his father responded, “I didn’t dream that I could have that dream.” To dream such a thing was a dream too far for Eugene Allen. He could not dream the dream.
When I heard his son tell that story I thought immediately of my maternal grandmother. With a 6th grade education my grandmother moved from Georgia during the times of the great migrations to Ohio, after a couple of stops finally landing in Columbus. Upon reaching Columbus she found work as an elevator operator. This was in the day when elevators were run by pulleys so you would literally ring for it and the operator sitting right inside the door would use a hang-crank to bring the elevator to you. My grandmother was the one sitting inside the door. Now, my grandmother had a dream, and that was that her four grandchildren would one day finish high school. As an investment in that dream, she sat aside money after every paycheck into an account for each of her grandchildren that we were to receive after completion of high school. This was her dream. Unfortunately, my grandmother would not live long enough to see any of us finish high school and to see her dream come to fruition. What is most striking to me, however, is that my grandmother could not even dream the dream of grandchildren and their children finishing not just high school but going on to complete college, grad, post-grad and law schools. The thought of such a dream for her, a poor black woman from the south with a 6th grade education, was a dream too far, a dream that she could not even dream of dreaming. Remembering my grandmother’s dream caused me to remember another man’s dream.
I remember it like it was yesterday. I was six years old. It was a hot Wednesday afternoon in August. My brother two sisters and I were playing in our bedrooms while my parents were sitting on the living room couch watching something on T.V. Out of nowhere with a sense of urgency my mother called the four of us to come quickly to see what they were watching. We all ran in, not quite knowing what to expect. When we got there my parents told us to sit down and watch because history was being made. I was not quite sure what they meant by that, but I followed their instructions—I sat and I watched the history that was being made on the television screen. I remember sitting there wondering why so many people, especially black people, were all gathered listening to a man giving a speech. My parents told me they were gathered in Washington D.C. and they were listening to Martin Luther King, Jr. As I watched, my six year old mind was not taking in what he was saying. That which I was taking in, however, was my parents’ reactions to what was on the screen. Both were silent and clearly moved by King’s words. They were mesmerized by his dream of a world where their children would be judged not by the “color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” At a time when we celebrate 50 years after King’s dream, I wonder if his was a dream too far.
Just four short years later, in 1967 King said this of his dream:
In 1963 . . . I tried to talk to the nation about a dream that I had had, and I must confess . . . . that not long after talking about that dream I started seeing it turn into a nightmare . . . . just a few weeks after I had talked about it. It was when four beautiful . . . Negro girls were murdered in a church in Birmingham, Alabama. I watched that dream turn into in a nightmare as I moved through the ghettos of the nation and saw black brothers and sisters perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity, and saw the nation doing nothing to grapple with the Negroes’ problem of poverty. . . . I watched the dream turn into a nightmare as I watched the war in Vietnam escalating . . . Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hope.
And so, what would King’s say now about his dream 50 years later, in this age of a black president? Would King think his was a dream too far?
On January 19, 2009 standing at the Lincoln Memorial then President elect Baraak Obama said this, “Directly in front of us is a pool that still reflects the dream of a King and the glory of a people who marched and bled so that children might be judged by their character’s content. And behind me, watching over the union he saved, sits the man who in so many ways made this day possible.” As President Obama stood on the steps of the Lincoln memorial that January night was he a signal that the nation was no longer divided by a legacy of slavery? Did his election signal a dream fulfilled or not? Just ten months prior to this speech on the Lincoln memorial then presidential candidate Obama gave his now iconic speech on race from Philadelphia. During that speech Mr. Obama recognized that we were still a nation divided by race. Quoting from William Faulkner he said, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” He continued by explaining that as Americans, “ we need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African American community today can be directly traced to the inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.” Those inequalities Obama went on to specify as inequalities in educational opportunities, in economic opportunities, especially for black men. He spoke further of the wealth and income gap between black and whites as well as the lack of basic services such as parks for kids to play in, garbage pick up, adequate housing options as indicators that the nation was still a nation divided by race.
And so it is that perhaps 50 years later King’s dream has not been fulfilled. For this is a time where according to most recent statistics white Americans have 22 times more wealth than black, that black unemployment rate is double that of whites, and of course we know that the industrial prison complex is overwhelmingly disproportionally sustained by the incarceration of black males. Audre Lorde once said, our silence does not protect us. King put it this way. He said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Not talking about race, does not make the matter of race disappear And so it is safe to say that while this may be a post-racial age in terms of our public discourse, it is not a post-racial age in terms of our life realities.
About a month ago, President Obama once again drew our attention to the persistent problem of race. He did not invite us, however, into a conversation for he said that conversations tended to yield little results. He, at least by implication, invited us into the kind of serious soul-searching and examination of King’s dream that will lead to action to create a truly post-racial society.. Several months before that during his second inaugural address, clearly inspired by the dream of King, Obama reminded us that while “we the people” affirm the promises of our democracy we have yet to fulfill those promises of tolerance and opportunity, human dignity and justice. He reminded us that a nation founded on principles of liberty and equality could not survive half-slave and half free. And so he challenged we the people to be guided by the same principles of those who fought for their freedoms at Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall as well as those he said, “who left footprints along (the Mall of the Lincoln Memorial) to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.” Is it a dream to far to think that every soul on this earth will one day be free and judged not by the color of their skin, their gender, or their sexuality but by their character?
I admit that there are days in which I think that to have such a dream is a dream too far. But then I remember that even as Eugene Allen did not dare to dream the dream of a black president— there he was witnessing it take place. President Obama is the dream that Allen dared not to dream. I remember that even though my grandmother did not dare to dream the dream of grandchildren with more than a high school education, here I am with a Ph.D., along with siblings who have masters, J.D.s and more. In the end, that my grandmother, King and perhaps Mr. Allen were able to dream at all was because of their faith in a god who had a dream for a different world. King proclaimed on many occasions that his fight for justice was fueled by the fact that Jesus was not a utopian dreamer. And so while we live in a world which makes certain dreams seem impossible, my faith tells me that there are no impossible dreams for god. And so it is as a womanist theologian, as the granddaughter of an elevator operator, I proclaim 50 years after King’s dream that while it may not be a dream fulfilled, it is not a dream too far. Left for us to do, is to work for the dream for “a new heaven and a new earth” until indeed every soul on earth knows what it is like to be free. Perhaps one day the lives of our children’s children will witness to the fact that it was not a dream too far.
Kelly Brown Douglas is Professor and Director of the Religion Program at Goucher College where she has held the Elizabeth Conolly Todd Distinguished Professorship. She was recently awarded The Goucher College Caroline Doebler Bruckerl Award for outstanding faculty achievement. Kelly is a leading voice in the development of a womanist theology, Essence magazine counts Douglas “among this country’s most distinguished religious thinkers, teachers, ministers, and counselors.” She has published numerous essays and articles in national publications, and her books include The Black Christ, Sexuality and the Black Church, What’s Faith Got to Do With It?: Black Bodies/Christian Soul. Black Bodies and the Black Church: A Blues Slant is her most recently released book (Palgrave Macmillan, Fall 2012). Kelly is also a priest in the Episcopal Church and has served as Associate Priest at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. for over 20 years.