By Charles D. Allen
Events of past weeks have challenged the assertion of progress toward racial justice within our American society. As Black Lives Matter assemblies have occurred across the nation and the globe, some people are sensing a shift in mood and just maybe a change in our culture.
How does it feel to be Black in America? That question is at the root of our persistent problems within the United States. For those people who are born of color–black or brown–the feeling is that we are not wholly American, especially as viewed by others in our nation.
While we aspire to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream for people to “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” the lack of empathy by some of our fellow citizens is clearly in evidence through behaviors demonstrated in communities across America.
How can others gain empathy? Well, it is unlikely they will follow the path of John Howard Griffin who underwent medication and ultra-violet light treatments to darken his skin.
Griffin spent several weeks in the South to briefly experience life as a Negro/Black man that he documented in Black Like Me published in 1961. It would be simpler to read Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man, which won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction. Or read Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” penned in April 1963, four months before his “I Have a Dream” speech given at the March on Washington DC.
What are the feelings of being Black in America? After delving into these three texts from nearly 60 years ago or longer, the feelings of outrage, sadness, and, yes, hopelessness are understandable.
Empathy will lead to the judgment that such conditions are inconsistent with our espoused national values and are unacceptable, thus we must take action to be true to what being American really means.
Col. Charles D. Allen (U.S. Army, ret) is a professor of leadership and cultural studies at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. His work appears occasionally on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.