contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on
scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the
overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with
superfluity. If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is
necessary to adjust this inequity. It is not only moral, but it is
also intelligent. We are wasting and degrading human life by clinging
to archaic thinking.
lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Who is this ______?
Everyone in the room, from my
dissertation chair, department chair, and dissertation committee
members, were about to rise from their seats. Everyone promptly sat
back down. He’s the graduate administrator sent to this
dissertation defense in the English department, and he’s
looking straight at me. I, a middle-aged, 40-something Black woman,
am segregated from the others in this conference room, by the glare
of this middle-aged white man in suit and tie.
I look at him, of course. He’s
waited until the end to ask this question, the one that now appears
to remind everyone about that elephant in the corner of this room.
The elephant seems to have been pushed to the center. It stands now
on the table.
And the guy in the suit thinks he’s
all knowing. Thinks he has an answer. Thinks he imagines someone he
wouldn’t think to have lunch with - let alone dinner.
The name he’s calling out,
________, appears on the dedication page of my dissertation.
I shrug my shoulders, as if I didn’t
quite hear the question. I’m challenging his audacity with a
Who’s this person?
It looks to me as if his nose is
slightly more elevated than before, but his gaze never leaves my
He wants to know, in other words,
what does this name, I’ve taken upon myself to inserted into a
narrative to be accredited at an institution as a legitimate document
of worth - what does this name represent? Because it’s
certainly not a name we’ve heard of! So what’s this name
representing that we don’t value at this kind of institution?
But he doesn’t speak again.
It’s dead quiet.
It’s the middle of the 1990s.
In fact, 28 years have past since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was
assassinated on that balcony in Memphis. Twenty eight years.
I haven’t diverted my eyes.
He was my grandfather!
After another moment of silence in which the elephant slowly retreats
to the corner of the room, the chatter begins, and everyone in the
room is in movement. And you, sir, are a representative of
the gatekeepers against alternative ideas!
remembering, as I gather up my papers. He was a janitor! A
janitor! I would liked to shout.
I look at the man and the others, talking among themselves. A
janitor! Before he died of a
final stroke in 1974. Five years after Dr. King, Jr. comes to stand
with sanitation workers protesting the inhuman conditions they face
as Black men and Black workers, hauling the garbage.
grandfather wore the stripped overalls of janitors who hauled large
trash cans over their shoulders, up and down back stairs of tenement
apartments buildings on the South side of Chicago. They mowed the
lawns in front of these buildings and shoveled the snow. Inside these
buildings where many lived at discount rates or free in the basement
flats with their families, they shoved coal into furnaces and mopped
the basement floors of laundry rooms. They were painters and
electricians and plumbers. And they did so most, like my grandfather,
without an office, without a
sign that said maintenance, without
a name plate that spelled out their names.
My work in order, I finally rise
from seat, smiling at the memory of my grandfather…
He was a janitor! And he was a man!
anniversary of Dr. King’s death, the national ceremonies
honoring his memory - featuring the sanctimonious and reflections on
the days leading up to Dr. King’s death - failed to see the
elephant had long taken center stage.
Two men, sanitation workers, were
forced to sleep in those filthy garbage trucks because they had no
other place to sleep, to other place where other humans would honor
even their money, if they had it then. Two men, two human being, were
accidentally crushed to death! In America!
America, 50 years later, we’re remembering Eric Garner, a
father, not “rich” by America’s classification of
humanity, on the ground, surrounded by police officers. Garner is
struggling to breathe. I can’t breathe, he
says, 11 times to the officer with a choke hold around his neck. But
the officer doesn’t see a man. So he can’t hear Garner.
And when the officer is acquitted,
as many of the officers in the past who have been acquitted, watch
America’s gaze soon turn elsewhere. Unlike Dr. King when he was
alive, America loses no sleep over the response to the loss of Black
In the wake of the killing of 17
people, 14 students and 3 teachers, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High
School in Parkland, Florida, America is, once again, made to hear the
rapid fire of gunshots from police officers, firing 22 rounds into
the body of young Stephon Clark who is just reaching his car, parked
outside his grandmother’s home. He has a cell phone, and the
officers imagining a gun in Clark’s hand, commence firing.
Eight bullets land in Clark’s back. The officers didn’t
see a man. A human being.
The selling of guns and
military-style weaponry goes on. America’s number one in the
selling of weapons for mass destruction!
day after the ceremonies, April 5th,
I heard the mayor of El Paso, Texas talking about how his community
feels relatively safe, so close to the Mexican border. We’re
not having any problems. We don’t need the re-enforcement of
either the military nor any additional walls. No, El Paso tries to
help the Mexicans become “middle-class citizens.” That’s
what it’s all about! Get the Mexican people, suffering from US
intervention in their politics with the so-called “War on
Drugs” and NAFTA - get them jobs, and then they will not want
to come and - what - steal
jobs from Americans. They want try to come over the wall and
burglarize our homes and rape our women.
Get them hooked on the value of
money and they won’t to just breathe! Make them think, middle
class - not an end to a system that does not and cannot have the life
of human beings as it’s central concern. It’s not being
men! women! Humans! It’s about profits.
And that will never change as long
as the only business of worth in any town in the US is the
manufacturing of profits.
Does America really cares to know
the likely pool of unarmed Black Americans to be shot dead by police?
What about the next mother or child or college student to be deported
back to Mexico or Haiti? Do Americans really care to know who they
Or is it a matter of obtaining a
confession of unworthiness, so as to justify the legalization of
can’t imagine Dr. King sitting around some table, surrounded by
“admirers,” giving himself a congratulatory pat on the back! He’d be
too busy fighting tyranny, in all it’s various guises of democracy.
grandfather wouldn’t have wanted to sit at the lunch counter or dinner
table with the administrator in his suit, trying to look down at him.
My grandfather knew his worth. He could see the choke hold on the neck
of the enablers.