From my front porch
Please celebrate and share with me this story of my people and their son, Martin Luther King.
Lord, they done gone and stole our Martin Luther King, our Chile, into a materialist so much that we hardly know him or see ourselves.
On this day as we remember King, please accept this gift of recapitulation, restoration, and remembrance of a southern African American story.
Every year I listen in absolute horror as White liberals rob King of his connection and roots to the Black South. His are deep roots as are mine. Our common roots extend all the way back to the first organized nonviolent southern freedom grassroots movement, when members of the community of enslaved Africans ran away. He and I descend from enslaved ancestors who fashioned a radical and liberating Black folk theology in southern fields where they were forced under state-sanctioned violence to labor like beasts of burden to enrich the economic lifestyles of southern Whites. In the heat of those fields they carved out a theology of pragmatic optimism that blended their transcendental impulse — ancestors’ aspirations — with transactional acts of resistance and accommodation towards citizenship. The folk impulse of our enslaved ancestors radically departed from the White transactional view of us as property to our transcendental view of our being children of God and therefore legitimate heirs of the promise of democracy.
This simultaneous stream made up what Du Bois called the souls of Black folk, which our ancestors expressed and harvested in sermons, spirituals, folk tales, and prayers. The idea of revolutionary love or agape was the common theme that hitched these modalities together into an indivisible pedagogy and theology of somebodiness.
These cultural and spiritual folk modalities did not die with the end of enslavement. Rather, we expanded and kept them alive during the 100-year White Southern reign of terror and apartheid. These were our “drinking gourds” in a parched land. Our ancestors took them and watered and continued to till a counter culture of pragmatic optimism. Within this holistic praxis God, education, generations, and upbuilding our individual and collective lives centered it.
This is the fertile history that birthed, nurtured, formed, and sustained generations of young people that included M.L. King’s generation and my own. We were beneficiaries of a community project where the community pooled its resources to create what Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot called “good schools.” These good schools named Carver High, Booker T. Washington, and Maggie Walker High School flourished throughout the South. In each our teachers and principals socialized in us a deep longing to measure our success with the upbuilding of our people and community. In these schools we learned to blend the individual I with the collective We that did not privilege one over the other.
Our primary guides were Black women in headrags, Sunday hats, who dressed their bodies with exquisite care. They were designers and architects who taught us the unforgettable lesson of how to make beauty, grace, and style out of scraps.
It was in their presence and through their eyes that M.L. King, Jr. and I saw the world and our possibilities. We did not long to be White. Not were White Southerners our significant others. Rather, these Black women captivated our spirits. Their voices forever rang in our minds and hearts. Their expectations always moved us forward past our defeats and the no’s in life. These women were elastic enough to take a young, budding same-gender-loving adolescent into their hearts, hands, and care, shrugging off homophobia gossip.
Martin Luther King’s grandmother, Jennie Celeste Parks Williams, was “such a woman.” Born into a family of 13 children, she lovingly attended to two generations of children: her own and her grandchildren. Described as both pious and tender, both generations called her Mama. Historians and King note the following:
“Mama was especially protective of her Martin Luther King, Jr. “and “could never bear to see him cry.” Referring to her as “saintly,” King, Jr., acknowledged her considerable impact on his childhood. “She was very dear to each of us, but especially to me,” he later wrote. “I sometimes think that I was [her] favorite grandchild. I can remember very vividly how she spent many evenings telling us interesting stories.2”
My grandmother, Ola Freeize Sales, stood back in her legs — 4 feet 10 inches tall — and looked out at the world with unwavering black eyes rimmed in blue. She was in the vernacular of the day a “little piece of leather well put together.” She was a former school teacher who became President of the PTA and Grand Worthy Matron of the Eastern Stars. As did King’s grandmother, mine tended to her children and grandchildren. Some of my cousins called her mama too.
My grandmother indulged my disinterest in housework or any other work. Instead she took me to church where she beamed with pride as I stood seven years old before the congregation and said “ Giving honor to God and praising his name, I am so glad to be with you this morning. It was with my grandmother that I fined tuned an audacious ‘ omanishness.
I learned, as did M.L. King, Jr., that we as young people were essential to continuing and fulfilling a collective dream to “one day be free.” It was these women’s cultivation of this dream in us that bore rich fruit in young Black southern freedom fighters during the Southern Freedom Movement. Even when we pushed harder and further than they thought it was safe to go, we never broke away from each other. No matter how far we traveled in the world, they remained our first teachers and heroes. In our eyes, they continued to be our measuring sticks for beauty and grace. Although we walked in White spaces, we never stopped being their children and heirs.