The City is a Monument

washington dc is a great city

Washington DC is a great city because it’s 61 square miles of roots & routes. I was there last week, losing myself in the roots and tangling myself in the routes. We all know what happened last week– the 2nd inauguration of the 1st black president on the holiday celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Poetic. Justice.

Since that’s the one you probably guessed first, I’ll start with it. Martin Luther King Jr. is obviously part of the root system that allowed Barack Obama to be President of the United States of America. But here’s the thing about roots & routes, and why I’m fascinated by the concept: One person’s route is someone else’s root.

We celebrate the legacy of MLK, and consider his work to be foundational. But for his contemporaries, MLK represented the future. He literally put folks in route to make this country better. The same will be true for BO. Now he’s leading the nation on our current path, hopefully a new path, but someday he will be history the way DC is history.

Washington DC wears the nation’s past like medals on an officer’s coat. The city is a monument. Even restaurants are museums, like Busboys and Poets or Eatonville, where waiters take the time to give you a history lesson on Zora Neale Hurston. Eatonville! What a perfect name for a restaurant, period. But when it’s also the name of ZNH’s hometown in Florida, that’s just the universe cracking a smile. When I saw the restaurant, I teared up and put my hand over my heart like actors do in those melodramatic movie scenes. Roots & Routes is the racially eclectic clientele of a minority owned business built to honor Zora Neale Hurston’s legacy.

And then, there’s the METRO. Operating since March 1976, the DC metro currently has 106.3 miles of track on which trains travel a max speed of 59 mph. It has 86 subway and surface stations and a rainbow of five lines: red, orange, yellow, green, and blue. The people, of course, are just as colorful.

For a rail fan like myself, the Metro is transcendent. What can I say? I’m transported. Where I’m going isn’t as important as the act of going. I slice through the seem of time and space. The sheer motion is entrancing. The one tragedy is that it doesn’t go on forever. It always eventually comes to a full stop.

Dr. King: Architect of a Movement

Today is Martin Luther King’s Birthday. I’d like to honor his legacy by sharing one of his sermons which I think perfectly explains how he constructed his life and became the architect of a movement.

The sermon was delivered at New Covenant Baptist Church in Chicago on April 9, 1967. In it, he explains “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life”: length, breadth, and height.

Length

I’d summarize length as self-love and purpose. In King’s words:

And you know what loving yourself also means? It means that you’ve got to accept yourself. So many people are busy trying to be somebody else. God gave all of us something significant. And we must pray every day, asking God to help us to accept ourselves. That means everything. Too many Negroes are ashamed of themselves, ashamed of being black. A Negro got to rise up and say from the bottom of his soul, “I am somebody. I have a rich, noble, and proud heritage. However exploited and however painful my history has been, I’m black, but I’m black and beautiful.” This is what we’ve got to say. We’ve got to accept ourselves. And we must pray, “Lord, Help me to accept myself every day; help me to accept my tools.”

Now the other thing about the length of life: after accepting ourselves and our tools, we must discover what we are called to do. And once we discover it we should set out to do it with all of the strength and all of the power that we have in our systems. And after we’ve discovered what God called us to do, after we’ve discovered our life’s work, we should set out to do that work so well that the living, the dead, or the unborn couldn’t do it any better.

Breadth

Breadth is showing love for others as we do for ourselves.

And a man has not begun to live until he can rise above the narrow confines of his own individual concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.

This is what God needs today: Men and women who will ask, “What will happen to humanity if I don’t help? What will happen to the civil rights movement if I don’t participate? What will happen to my city if I don’t vote? What will happen to the sick if I don’t visit them?” This is how God judges people in the final analysis.

Height

In achieving height, King says we must reach toward God.

Now if life is to be complete, we must move beyond our self-interest. We must move beyond humanity and reach up, way up for the God of the universe

You know, even on this race question, I’m not worried. I was down in Alabama the other day, and I started thinking about the state of Alabama where we worked so hard and may continue to elect the Wallaces. . . . And all of these things can get you confused, but they don’t worry me. Because the God that I worship is a God that has a way of saying even to kings and even to governors, “Be still, and know that I am God.”

And one week I can remember that I had gone through a very difficult week. Threatening calls had come in all day and all night the night before, and I was beginning to falter and to get weak within and to lose my courage. And I never will forget that I went to the mass meeting that Monday night very discouraged and a little afraid, and wondering whether we were going to win the struggle.

But over and over again I can still hear Sister Pollard’s words: “God’s going to take care of you.” So today I can face any man and any woman with my feet solidly placed on the ground and my head in the air because I know that when you are right, God will fight your battle.

When you get all three of these together, you will recognize that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth.

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George Wallace Gov. of Segregation: Does he Get his Wish?

Jan. 14 1963, George Wallace was sworn in as the Governor of Alabama with the vile cry, I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation for ever.”

The 50 yr anniversary of that damnable speech comes the day before Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday (read my post tomorrow, Tues. Jan. 15.) and exactly one week before the second inauguration of the nation’s first African American President, which happens to fall on the MLK holiday this year (Mon. Jan. 21). That’s poetic justice.

In 1960, nine students from Southern University sat in at a segregated lunch counter at the Kress Building in Baton Rouge in protest of the segregation. They were arrested and expelled from school, but eventually took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court where they were represented by Thurgood Marshall. The court decided in the student’s favor.

The Kress Building, renovated in 2008, now features a high-end art gallery curated by a black artist from Baton Rouge, Christopher Turner. On Jan. 18, 2013, the gallery will host an opening for “History & Innovation,” an exhibit featuring four African American artists living in Baton Rouge.

Beautiful.

But what is segregation? Why did the use of and access to places & spaces became such a pillar of racism?

Space, how much of it you take and how much of it you believe you’re entitled to, is a physical expression of your power, practical and perceived. 

Practical power refers to what you can do in the world, like vote, make purchases, sit in a seat, enter through a door, apply for a job, hold an office, or eat in a dining area.  Perceived power refers to how much power you feel or believe you have. It can also refer to other people’s perception of you based on how you position yourself in spaces.

The most powerful kings had the most land. The most powerful empires took up the most space on the map. Rich people’s homes take up way more space than poor people’s homes. Confident men tend to spread their legs and stretch their arms. Insecure men tend to hunch and keep their arms closer to their bodies. People often express power by invading someone else’s personal space.

For people like George Wallace, segregation was literally the way to make sure blacks stayed in their place so that whites could stay in their place of power.

Space is also about inside and outside, both physically and socially.

Segregation emphasizes the social part. After slavery, segregation was used to continue denying blacks entry into full American citizenship. The institutionalized separation of races perpetuates the belief that race is the ultimate characteristic for determining who is “one of us.”

Why talk about segregation now?

The same power play of space is still present in our everyday, micro experiences.

A few of my fourteen year old 9th graders asked why we had to talk about Civil Rights since it was “in the past.” They never asked that question when learning about history in general because such a question is really a way to avoid the sensitive topic of race. It’s not a genuine inquiry into the relevance of history, a relevance which always seems apparent for every other historical topic.

Well, much of our country is still segregated, even in our holier-than-thou states like California. That makes me wonder if George Wallace’s wish came true in some ways.

The fact that overt segregation based on race is now illegal, makes the persistence of segregation even more disturbing and troubling. It was one thing when the law said multiple races could not occupy the same classroom. But now that the law is reversed, and we still see tons of mono-racial classrooms across this nation, it’s clear that even if we’ve done away with the old laws, we’ve not done away with the old social structure.

Some of us are trying to dismantle it. Others are trying to preserve it.

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Zora Neale Hurston Born and Read

At 16, I met Zora Neale Hurston. I tucked her inside like a sterling silver pendant worn close to my heart. Her spirit traversed through decades and the bedlam of high school to appear on my desk in the form of an autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road.

This was the time in my life when I wanted to go, go, go. Zora’s words beckoned me to follow her lead:

My vagrancy had begun in reality. I knew that. There was an end to my journey and it had happiness in it for me. It was certain and sure. But the way! Its agony was equally certain. It was before me, and no one could spare me my pilgrimage. The rod of compelment was laid to my back. I must go the way. 

Zora Neale Hurston is a Daughter of the Dustleaving tracks along the many routes she’s traveled, always moving on but leaving imprints of where she comes from. Perhaps my obsession with roots & routes started there, within the pages of Zora’s book. I walk miles through her language, like the journey from a blank screen into the unknown stories we’re meant to tell.

Zora Neale Hurston

A year later, Zora and I reacquainted, this time in a novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

She was sixteen. She had glossy leaves and bursting buds and she wanted to struggle with life but it seemed to elude her. Where were the singing bees for her? Nothing on the place nor in her grandma’s house answered her. She searched as much of the world as she could from the top of the front steps and then went on down to the front gate and leaned over to gaze up and down the road. Looking, waiting, breathing short impatience. Waiting for the world to be made.

What artistry! How could a high school girl not be enchanted by such voodoo?

Though I fell in love in high school, it wasn’t until I changed my major from architecture to English midway through undergrad that I began to study Zora Neale Hurston’s text. Her depiction of a character’s emotional state and world view through their location in the scene. Geography is not only a metaphor depicting ideology, but the concrete manifestation of ideology. She tells the story of her time and her people with poetic prose.

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston

She enriched her work with anthropological research and publications on African American folklore. All of her writing celebrates the legacies crafted by blacks out of their environments, memories, and dreams. No matter how far she ascended into the Harlem Renaissance elite, or how much she traveled, she never distanced herself from those cultural roots. Rather, her travels brought her deeper, closer to them.

Beyond 1891, Zora Neale Husrton continues to be born and read, alive even today.

In honor of Zora’s birthday today, Jan. 7, I invite you to share what you know and love about her in the comments below or on Facebook.

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