by Susan K. Williams Smith
The celebration of the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King has come and gone, and what is troubling is that so many who are working against everything he stood for had the audacity to give tributes to the man and to his work.
It was a sham of epic proportions. Even as the possibility of voting rights legislation being passed hangs by a thread, those who have said publicly that allowing it to pass would be a violation of the Constitution praised Dr. King, who wrote in 1965 in a New York Times article, “Civil Right No. 1: The Right to Vote. “
The words of these people, coupled with effusive praise of Dr. King given by corporations that are funding Republicans who are supporting the making and passage of voter suppression laws is all the evidence that one needs to understand that there was and is nothing genuine in their words.
Howard Thurman, in The Luminous Darkness, wrote about the “sound of the genuine” that we listen for in others. Specifically, he wrote, “There is some region in every man that listens for the sound of the genuine in other men.” When there is no fellowship between persons, however, Thurman says the “sound will not come through and the will to listen to it is not manifest.”
There is no fellowship between “us” and “them,” teams that have been a part of the American infrastructure since the beginning of this country. There have been times, notes Thurman, when there was a sort of fellowship between Black and white people in the South, but under the terms determined and dictated by whites. As long as Black people stayed in their lane, and understood their place, the two races could communicate. But the fellowship was false because there was no agreed-upon foundation for that relationship. Black people could not offer or ask for what they needed in order to feel validated and affirmed as human beings.
It seems that we search for the “sound of the genuine” not only in our relationships with people of other races, religions, and ethnicities but often in our relationships with each other. We know when something is amiss in our conversation with another person, someone we purport to know. Our spirits tell us. We become uneasy, and very often, we will back away from those relationships rather than do the work required to create an honest and authentic relationship, where there is, in fact, genuine caring and concern for, and understanding of, the other person.
Searching for the sound of the genuine is difficult work in any relationship-building, but more so when it comes to the relationships between Blacks and whites in this country. Our relationship broke down hundreds of years ago – based on the acceptance of a faulty belief in white supremacy, causing the white race to believe in its superiority over Black people. The human spirit – that which is in every one of us – rejects that type of denigration, even as it struggles to find its place within it. Whites and Black people have made each other an “it” as opposed to a “thou,” and in so doing, have decreased if not eliminated the possibility for genuine fellowship and thus, a sharing of the “sound of the genuine” in each other. If we juxtapose that against the words of Jesus, who believed in and taught the Great Commandment – that we love our neighbor as ourselves, we find ourselves in a difficult position. The command of Jesus seems as unattainable as it is undesirable. We do not want a relationship with the “its” in our lives. We are content to stay far away and not even think about looking for or expecting the sound of the genuine in them. They have already shown us who they are, and, as Maya Angelou advised us, we have chosen to believe them.
What do we do, then, when we are spiritually and morally offended by the type of dishonest “honoring” of one who worked until he died for a “beloved community,” including in it even those whom we doubt have the capacity for genuine love within them? We have to step back, away from our raw anger, bitterness, and resentment – which Thurman says becomes a residue in us that becomes “hate.” Some kind of way we have to inhale the spirit of God which says that God is greater than the hypocrisy and hatred and determination to destroy the quest for freedom of Black people and all others who are oppressed in this country. Our relationship with God has to come front and center and move us to understand that within everyone, even those whom we despise, there is a place that is human and not political, and that place can be reached but only when we are committed to the truth that God is greater than any foolish, painful, and destructive “ism” that works to destroy others.
What words do we whisper when our very souls are cringing with resentment? What do we do when we remember the words of the Great Commandment, or the words of Jesus that we are to love those who persecute us, or worse, love our enemies? Maybe just this: that God is truth. Octavia Butler famously said “All that you touch, you change. All that you change changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change.”
In search of the sound of the genuine, those of us who have the strength to push forward and work to “touch” the evil that hurts so bad must do it, and in so doing, show the rest of us how to move. It is only God who can water the dried-out spirits that are so dry that their capacity to release their “genuine” parts is badly limited. Maybe we who are able can work to touch those dried-out spirits, first in ourselves and then in those with whom we would rather not, for the sake of building of the Beloved Community here on earth. Amen and amen.