Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Broken Glass/Living Otherwise: Naming the Nightmare, Reimagining the Dream

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Broken Glass/Living Otherwise: Naming the Nightmare, Reimagining the Dream

Article excerpt

A speech delivered at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Community Breakfast, Goshen College, January 18, 2016.

In March of 1960 the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed an audience here at Goshen College. "We have broken loose from the Egypt of slavery," King said. "We moved through the wilderness of segregation. We stand now on the border of the promised land of integration." But in the same speech King also reported to his Goshen listeners that he had just sent a telegram to President Eisenhower, asking the president to help end the "reign of terror" by police against the students protesting in Montgomery, Alabama. (1)

The theme for this 2016 Martin Luther King Day Weekend is "Trouble I've Seen: Naming the Nightmare, Reimagining the Dream." When I reflect today on the remarks Dr. King made here in 1960, I see a dream that needs to be reimagined--the dream of the promised land of integration, on the border of which King saw black America standing more than fifty years ago.

While we have certainly seen changes in the ensuing years, and though it is clear that the civil rights movement transformed this country, we have also seen the promise of integration fail. We have seen it punctured by destructive urban planning that isolates neighborhoods, by predatory lending practices, by the mass incarceration of African-Americans through the war on drugs, and by the intense militarization of the police and the permission they enjoy to use deadly force with impunity.

Of all the remarks King made at Goshen College, it was his mention of the police "reign of terror" in Alabama that seems most relevant today, because this is something we know intimately in twenty-first-century America. We have seen it in Ferguson, Missouri and other cities.

Naming the nightmare, reimagining the dream. I want to reflect today on art, which is how humans both name the nightmare and reimagine the dream. In art, we name the trouble we've seen; and through art we imagine alternatives.

I have called my talk "Broken Glass/Living Otherwise." The "broken glass" part of that title addresses the nightmare--which is the shattering of the very possibility of art through the violence of an armed and racist state. The "living otherwise" part reimages the dream: the dream of a different way of life for all of us.

I'm going to talk about two artists whose names may or may not be familiar to you--Michael Brown Jr. and Aura Rosser. Both died at the hands of police officers. Michael Brown Jr. was shot and killed on August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Aura Rosser was shot and killed just three months later on November 9, 2014 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Mike was 18 years old. Aura was 40. Both were African Americans. Both were artists. Among the photos circulating after the killing of Michael Brown Jr. was an image of his lyric jar. This was a glass jar he filled with the scraps of paper on which he wrote his rap lyrics. During the summer after his high school graduation, a few months before his death, the teenager had begun rapping under the name "Big'mike." He recorded a few tracks and uploaded them to Soundcloud, where in the aftermath of his death they would become, like everything else about his life, subject to scrutiny and used as evidence for or against him. (2) Mike was a thug, some said, who would "chop you up with a machete." He smoked marijuana: "I've been smoking weed since 9." Others said the sex-drugs-and-violence bluster was just typical of the genre, and the real Mike showed through in other lines: "Proud graduate for Mom and Dad/ Proved everybody wrong/Wishin hopin and prayin I can bring my niggas along." (3)

When I think of this young man, I think of his lyric jar crushed beneath the boot of the state. Look at all this broken glass.

Aura Rosser was killed after officers responded to a domestic violence call. (4) She was holding a fish knife. Officers allege that she was attacking her boyfriend with the knife, and that she came toward them with the knife raised. …

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