2016 Hurt Bad… So Don’t Sleep Through 2017

6 minute read
Smiley is host and managing editor of Tavis Smiley on PBS and author of 50 for Your Future: Lessons From Down the Road

I could have made a very handsome year-end profit, if I had a dollar for every conversation since Election Day where I was asked by my friends on the political left thoughts on how to survive this impending political nightmare.

As one friend put it in the wee hours of the night, just as Donald Trump was being declared the winner, “Tavis, I’m going to sleep now, wake me up in four years.”

Oh, if we could just sleep this off like Rip Van Winkle

On Sunday, March 31, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a Passion Sunday sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. King preached a powerful message about the importance of “remaining awake through a great revolution.” It was his last Sunday morning sermon.

Indeed, King talked that day about Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” who slept twenty years and woke up “completely lost, he knew not who he was.”

Said, King, “One of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses that the new situation demands.” King went on to say that, “Whenever anything new comes into history, it brings with it new challenges and new opportunities.”

But King dismissed the notion that the mere passage of time could address the critical challenges we face.

“Time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively,” said King. “I am absolutely convinced that the forces of ill will in our nation, the extreme rightists of our nation—the people on the wrong side—have used time much more effectively than the forces of good will. And it may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, ‘Wait on time.’ Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. So we must help time and realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”

Did you feel that? Talk about prophetic witness. That was King almost 50 years ago. His admonition was prescient then, it’s perturbing now.

So, how do we maximize this moment by using our time wisely?

One. We need a “revolution of values.” With all due respect to the brilliant artist Gil Scott-Heron, it appears that the revolution will be televised after all—especially if Donald Trump has anything to do with it. And he’ll likely want to be credited as an executive producer. But the racist revolution that Trump is fronting is not at all what King had in mind. Rather, King called for a “revolution of values” that will cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past, present and, dare I say, future government policies.

Two. Live for today but fight for tomorrow. It’s abundantly clear that America is struggling with an identity crisis. I don’t think we have a clue about who we are, really, because it’s impossible to juxtapose the lofty ideals we profess with the lowbrow ideas that are about to take hold. Our national dysfunction has caused some to surrender their right to be outraged. Not me, not now, not ever. Each of us gets to decide the who, what, when, where, why and how of our individual protest. But now more than ever, we must all protest. It’s time to reclaim our democracy from the Lost & Found. The democratic seeds we plant today can yield a freedom harvest tomorrow.

Three. Be hopeful even if you can’t be optimistic. Optimism suggests there is a particular set of facts, circumstances or conditions—something you can see, feel or touch—that gives you reason to believe that things are about to get better. I grant you that for millions of fellow citizens, or even simply you and yours, that is absolutely not the current situation. Hope, on the other hand, allows us to fight for those things we believe in, even in the absence of any evidence that our struggle is winning or worthy. It’s hard for me to be an optimist in this present moment, but I am unalterably and eternally a prisoner of hope, because hope itself is a form of resistance.

Four. Spit truth and stomp toes. It’s time to make the truth matter. Fake news is a farce. It seems the truth is whatever folk determine it to be. It’s only true if you believe it. None of us has a monopoly on the truth, but there must be some objective standards on what’s real and what’s fake, what’s true and what’s false. No lie can live forever, but lies have legs. We have to chase them down and tackle them in the open field, because “democracies die behind closed doors.”

Five. Misery must never have the last word. My grandfather used to always say to me, “Tavis, there are some fights that ain’t worth fighting even if you win, but there are other fights you have to fight even if you lose.” Dr. King was fond of saying that, “When a man straightens his back, he’s going somewhere, because a man can only ride your back if it’s bent.” You see, misery is no match for moral courage. We need to summon that moral courage. If we then conjoin that with unarmed truth and unconditional love, we might, just might, be able to save a democracy in danger.

Unlike Rip Van Winkle, we cannot afford to sleep through this critical moment in the narrative of our nation. Lest we wake up in four years, completely lost, not knowing who we are.

We are the founders of our future. Which begins now—not in four years, not even in the New Year. This is no time for sleepwalking. Remain awake.

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