In 1982, as I was finishing my final courses for the master of divinity degree at Yale University, I wrote an op-ed piece for Newsweek’s “My Turn” column. I had the belief that the editors would look favorably upon a soon-to-be Yale alum, and I did not think that my elitism was grandiose or ill-advised. What I had typed at the time was a brief essay called, “Sacrifice and Enlightenment.” The main thrust of the article was to suggest that a major antidote to racism is the recognition of this blight against humanity by white people and their making proactive sacrifices to their privileged statuses to forge a new society inclusive of everybody and offering opportunities for all. What follows is an excerpt of that commentary.
White people are misled when they firmly believe that they do not need to sacrifice. They fail to realize that such sacrificing is redemptive, that they will benefit greatly from the strengths and beauty of diversity. They seem not to remember that black people as a whole have been suffering for centuries—that white people in the main should be earnest and assiduous in assisting blacks to reach the status of full-fledged human beings and welcome civic contributors to a new America.
A little sacrifice (and concomitant suffering), relatively speaking, on the part of white people and a greater awareness (and understanding and endurance) on the part of black people can coalesce to bring about a better America. If a better America is what we truly want, then, with a genuine change of heart, we shall do just fine.
It was not so much that I was naïve and unsophisticated at the time, albeit my writing style has markedly improved (or so I believe). Quite frankly, I just felt it simply needed to be said. I was angered momentarily by the rejection letter I had received from the managing editor, Kenneth Auchincloss, which states: “Dear Contributor: Thank you for your submission to NEWSWEEK’S ‘My Turn’ column. I am afraid your piece is not quite right for us, and I am returning it to you.” It did not seem like a form letter, though maybe it could have been. But I was struck by and stayed stuck on the words “not quite right for us.” I was uncertain what that meant. I felt that my intentions were honorable and that I was trying to suggest how we could work to put this insidious specter of white racism from following us into the future.
At that time, I had already read many of the works of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois and had heard and read many of the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. Du Bois and King were heroes of mine. During their careers as movement leaders and public intellectuals and cultural critics, they had argued for white people to sacrifice their superior position to help advance those systematically exploited and oppressed. The great author, James Baldwin, had also slipped this sacrificial recommendation in some of his novels and opinion pieces. So I realized I was in good company. Nevertheless, I wanted to restate the case during a period of time when I felt the burgeoning national administration under President Ronald Reagan was inevitably going to turn back the clock on all the gains the classic Civil Rights Movement had accomplished.
As a director of a campus multicultural center, I was able to invite a variety of speakers to the university to discuss racial and ethnic group relations in the United States. Two persons I was delighted to have come by a few times are Tim Wise and the late Manning Marable. The latter explored the destructiveness of racism in our political landscape, and the former discussed what white people needed to do to repair the damage that white racism has caused in multiple and cumulative ways. Their unique perspectives and rhetorical styles reached similar conclusions about steps that need to be taken to make the experiment of America finally become a reality of inclusion and pluralism.
It had been thirty-five years since my unpublished piece meant for Newsweek was unceremoniously returned to me. Yet the idea of sacrifice à la Du Bois, King, Marable, Wise and me has not dissipated. In part, it is a driving force behind Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America. The esteemed professor of sociology at Georgetown University also had graced the podium under the auspices of the aforementioned center. His eloquence and impassioned speaking style are inimitable, and his dynamic rhetoric both convicts and charges listeners. I imagine that people can be easily intimidated by his erudition and his ability to characterize the multifaceted human condition in black and white. His literary style may remove the haranguing that some can hear, but its sharpness, blatancy, and searing truth can also be disturbing. However, for people who are interested in learning more about how blacks continue to be mistreated—from the killing of unarmed African Americans to the support of white nationalism and Donald Trump—and what must be done to keep this country from returning more deeply to its xenophobic and racial morass, then Dyson’s book is a must read! After all, Dyson is an ordained Baptist preacher and he laments the moral depravity and structural ineptitude that supplant progress and democracy.
Check back here in two weeks as a guest blogger shares his understanding of Dyson’s book as a way of analyzing race relations today from a white person’s perspective. A dialogue between the two of us initially may generate further conversations with others as we address this perduring American legacy in search of extirpation.