By Kelly Harris, BrassyBrown.com Founder/Editor
Last year I sat on a panel called Creating Community for Writers of Color with fellow Melanated Writer members at the Rising Tide Conference at Xavier University. The all-black panel stared back at a predominantly white audience. We began a little sluggish, perhaps nervous or not quite awake for the early Saturday session.
We discussed the struggle writers of color often face trying to remain authentic to their cultural roots while demonstrating a commitment to craft. It’s a tightrope with very few soft places to fall. Publishing industry preferences and the stress of academia can overwhelm writers of color who feel conflicted about consciousness and cash.
“So I am ashamed for the black poet who says, ‘I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet,’ as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world. I am ashamed, too, for the colored artist who runs from the painting of Negro faces to the painting of sunsets after the manner of the academicians because he fears the strange unwhiteness of his own features. An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he must choose.”
Langston Hughes, THE NATION, 1926
Jarvis DeBerry served as moderator and posed a question to the panel about accountability (see video below at 00: 15:51). I responded with a story about being in graduate school and having my entire class and instructor tell me to take Mahalia Jackson out of my poem because they did not know her name or her story. In that moment as a grad student, I held myself accountable for the past and future and refused to bow to my workshop participants.
After the panel, my friend in the audience told me she had yelled from the back: “Tell ‘em bout the dream! Tell em bout the dream!” I laughed.
If you don’t get it, you don’t know history. The story goes, Mahalia Jackson said, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin,” during Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech at the March on Washington. It is then that Dr. King abandons his prepared notes and taps his inner strength and faith to close one of the most beloved speeches of American history.
Perhaps she was abiding in the black church tradition of hyping the preacher. You know how it’s done in church: Come on, preacher! You better preach! and so forth. The type of urging also continued into the black power movement when leaders were urged to peak Speak Truth to Power or Make it Plain.
We should not forget it was Mahalia Jackson, the Queen of Gospel and New Orleans native who sang “How I got Over” at the March and stirred the crowd before Martin took the podium. She was positioned on the agenda among all male speakers and did not flinch.
In the clip below, Mahalia Jackson amps the crowd before King addresses the audience. He was left speechless and primed for racial battle.
Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks, Daisy Bates, Diane Nash and many other women artist and activists pushed the Civil Rights Movement forward with their courage, conviction and swag.
New Orleans elections are less than three weeks away. We should do like Mahalia Jackson and press our leaders to recall the dream. King’s dream was to end poverty, injustice, violence and racism. “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter, “King said. If we don’t push our leadership in the direction of King’s dream, our silence will destroy us.