We Won’t Be Safe, But We Can Be Ready: A Reflection on MLK Day

by: Angela Rose

Photo by History in HD on Unsplash

I’ll start my reflection on MLK Day, with my reflection on Indigenous Peoples Day.

It was the first time Indigenous Peoples' Day had been celebrated on the federal level in the US. then, in an in-person class, in talking about issues of transitional justice, the question of when and how do we address how white-centered and white created systems were raised. This was posed as an intellectual question, but the Native woman in the class, the Black students, and the other people from across the world spoke from an emotional and personal space. I instantly emotionally connected with them and the stories they told. These past couple of years I have also felt trapped in a constant cycle of struggle, anger, emotional and spiritual detachment, ambivalence, re-consciousness, action, then extreme exhaustion. On a federal holiday that was supposed to celebrate Native peoples, I was witnessing classmates of mine in tears. Classmates who felt obligated to come to class felt obligated to speak up in class, and then the class moved on, the next intellectual question was raised. Their perspective was noted and appreciated. I could no longer think, but my mind was racing faster than my heart. At the end of class, I was still in an emotional state and asked for a grounding. We did our breathing exorcise, then left.

I am still in an emotional state, today on MLK day, preparing my mind and spirit to start a new semester tomorrow. My thoughts are closely tied to what Gilroy references heavily in the chapter Wright, France, and the Ambivalence of Community. The consciousness and experience of that class for me was not an intellectual one. It was an emotional, spiritual, and metaphysical experience that was cut in order to have an academic and intellectual discussion. As a student, I have been asked to bring my whole self to the classroom, but the classroom in white academic culture is not safe for the people that are brought there. For those who experience and work through the continual crisis and spiritual and emotional warfare and manipulation, a discussion on justice is not purely academic exercise. Just as Richard Wright, as Gilroy shows, writes from his perspective of the multi-faceted and critical existence of Black people in Modernity that connects the physical with the political and sociological, Black and Indigenous students are asked to share their inner worlds for the furthering of White learning. Learning in a white-dominated culture might expose the complex issues that we face under white supremacy, but ultimately, does very little to change the culture of even the classroom. This has led me to believe and come to terms with the fact, there are no safe spaces in academia. At the end of the day, every word you say or write is graded, judged, and will determine your future within those halls. Even a vulnerable discussion in a classroom is something that feels very different from the other times I’ve witnessed such vulnerability in discussions. It can be draining and painful rather than fulfilling.

In early October, I was in Baltimore with a group of Black activists from across the country who Leslie Redmond brought together to re-imagine and create a Black utopia in Charm City. This group shared their personal experiences with gun violence, witnessing gentrification, drug abuse, police brutality, mental health, and a variety of community/ personal issues. Our discussions were highly emotional but also intelligent, poignant, and for me, fulfilling. The comments, stories, and vulnerability in an all-Black space were nurturing, empowering, and inspiring because it was shared in recognition of our whole selves but also in purpose for creating change and for healing. Black Consciousness and Black Expression offers vantage points into the human condition under Hegemonic Oppression, but also motivation for change. Most Western scholarship asks us to pinpoint, to narrow down, whereas Gilroy shows and analyzes the complexities of literary work and theorizes the opportunities for identity creation and political and philosophical possibilities. But I can no longer just offer a mirror or reflection in my work after working in the community and seeing the current crisis we are in, everything I do also has to have a call to action.

To be honest, I am drained. I just feel so much sadness and anger that we cannot rest, that we carry the responsibility of having to be present and be emotionally vulnerable for others to view issues of justice or change as not a thought exercise but to see the full complex lives that other humans experience. By having purely intellectual discussions in Academia, students of color are asked to bring our minds, not our hearts, to the classroom. Intellectualizing our lives almost kills the care and compassion that are needed to motivate action and change. What we create, and our expression cannot be flattened as simply a product, and our art is deeply political. Our identity and modes of identity creation are also deeply political, philosophical, and metaphysical, so we must see our Blackness not just as is, but also as what has been, what has been perpetuated, what can be, and see not just was is visible but invisible as well.

Yet, since Indigenous peoples’ day, I’ve been given hope as to how more today, and every day, can be an opportunity to highlight the importance of identity creation, movement building, transformation, and action in academic spaces. This is crucial in every environment, but not every environment supports our full selves. As an intellectual, emotional, spiritual being, my purpose for learning is for political, social, cultural change for Black people in the world. But to do that, I have needed to bring that full self into spaces built by white exclusionary ideologies. This understanding was clearly lived by Martin Luther King Jr. As he walked the world, brave and courageous enough to walk into spaces that were not safe. He and his contemporaries did not have the luxury of ever believing they were safe. To be Black in America is to constantly recognize that Safety was dreamed up by white folks who feared us. Our position in every white-built space is predicated upon how safe white folk feel with us, and to ensure their safety when we are in the room, they will hurt us just to feel fortified. So today, I’ll don my armor, fortify my protections, and prepare to be fully authentically me, understanding I might get burned. The tools I’ve learned here are crucial to moving our work forward toward Black liberation, because I am not the only one who has brought their full self to the classroom, so for me, it is worth it. I cannot detach my identity, my emotions, my spirit from my work or my scholarship, I do not have that privilege. But I am privileged to be in a community inside and outside of academia with people who are also deeply passionate about the work, the scholarship, the ideas, and the communities we serve. This MLK Day, I am gearing up for another semester exploring and learning so that I can utilize those skills for a better future for Black people in and outside the classroom. I do not expect to be safe, but I am ready.

Angela Rose Myers is the former President of the Minneapolis NAACP. Her goals are to create bridges between Black organizing and public policy

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