For Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: some black American voices that spoke to me recently

I believe today was the first time in my life I’ve officially celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

This means many things to me as an American (I am an Asian-American, son of immigrants).

MLK Day became an official holiday at work, finally

First of all, I didn’t go to work today.

This year, 2015, was the year that MLK Day finally became an official university holiday at Carnegie Mellon University! Our new president, Subra Suresh, decided to finally end the weird CMU tradition of observing MLK Day only as a half-day holiday for students, and turning it into a full-day holiday for everyone (see 2014’s schedule of events for an example of how things used to be). I am proud of President Suresh for taking the step of turning MLK Day into a full holiday.

Some recent black American voices I heard

The media frenzy over the shooting last year in Ferguson may have ended, but I have not forgotten my vow last year to begin engaging more publicly in discussions about race in America.

So I’m starting off small, by linking to eloquent, heartfelt writings I’ve read and saved in the past year (independent of Ferguson, just part of what comes my way online) by black Americans who shared their various life experiences so that those of us who are not black can better understand what they have dealt with in their lives in the US. I’ve deliberately chosen articles by high achievers to highlight what still remains even after doing all the “right” things to try to live as normally as possible as a black American.

“The price of black ambition”

This is an essay by a black female writer, Roxane Gay, daughter of Haitian immigrants, whose life was marked by great ambition and hard work. She kept hoping that it would be enough to overcome racism. She writes, “I have come to realize how much I have, throughout my life, bought into the narrative of this alluring myth of personal responsibility and excellence.”

“The other side of diversity”

This poignant essay by a black woman discusses what it has been like to work in a predominantly white male tech community, thereby facing the dilemmas of minority status in two dimensions (race, gender). She has found it challenging to simply be who she wants to be, “…a black woman who happens to work in the tech industry”, rather than something additional seemingly expected of her.

“I taught my black kids that their elite upbringing would protect them from discrimination. I was wrong.”

This article by Lawrence Otis Graham talks about how he and his wife tried to shelter their children from racial discrimination by giving them an upper-middle-class upbringing. “My wife and I, both African Americans, constitute one of those Type A couples with Ivy League undergraduate and graduate degrees who, for many years, believed that if we worked hard and maintained great jobs, we could insulate our children from the blatant manifestations of bigotry that we experienced as children in the 1960s and ’70s.” Especially check out the detailed “rules” of behavior that they taught their children in hope that they would not be mistakenly targeted through racial profiling!

MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham jail”

Finally, I want to simply quote MLK himself from his brilliant essay, “Letter from a Birmingham jail”. The key to his work, often forgotten or deliberately obscured, is this:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Political “moderation” is often praised and held up as superior to “extremism”, but in fact, the “moderate” is often a large part of the problem when it comes to change and doing the right thing. I have more to say about this general topic, but not right now.

Meanwhile, read the whole letter, one of the most brilliant examples of the art and science of that rhetoric I have ever seen.


I observed MLK Day today by reviewing writings by black Americans and rereading MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham jail”. In the US, we still have a long way to go in race relations, but we continue to make progress.

How did you observe MLK Day today? What is on your mind today? Did you participate in a reading or a march? Do you oppose what MLK did and believe there should be no holiday in his honor? Or do you feel he didn’t do enough, that nonviolence didn’t work?

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