Today we gathered at the Grove Park Inn (a local resort and tourist hotspot) to celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr with a skimpy plate of lukewarm breakfast and a full program of fired-up and satisfying speakers.
Culminating with a high-spirited and inspiring keynote address by author and social activist Dr. Joy DeGruy-Leary, whose book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome is making waves across the nation, the line-up included a tribute poem, the announcing of various award winners and folks deserving of recognition for their contributions and even a visit from our newly elected Congressman, Representative Heath Shular. Interspersed amongst the speakers and the recognitions were various singers, groups and other musical performances. (I sort of felt bad for the musicians, though, since every musical break signaled an exodus of attendees headed for the bathrooms, so as not to miss the speakers.)
Dr. DeGruy-Leary, as I’ve mentioned, enraptured the audience with a keynote that was both inspiring and informative. Her platform, that slavery created a generations-long traumatic experience that has yet to be addressed in a healing way, provides a unique way of looking at the racial tensions and divides in this country as a symptomatic display of the pathology of PTSS. She noted that, when visiting South Africa in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s election to the presidency, she found less racial tension between the whites and blacks there than she did in the Portland airport at the same time, which she attributes to the fact that the white South Africans owned their responsibility for Apartheid, offered some manner of apology and made reparations, while we have yet as a nation to do the same.
She also noted that those who try to dismiss the concept of generational slavery-induced trauma with platitudes like, “But you’re free now and have been for some time,” and wonder why black people don’t just “get over it” NEVER say the same things about the concept of generational repercussions of Jewish Holocaust survivors and their desire to keep the memories alive and both accept and understand the need for generations of healing. Just running the numbers shows that on the lowest end, 9+ million African-Americans died in slavery, which obviously doesn’t take into account the nearly 10 million that died on the ships before they even got there. Estimates for the Holocaust range from 9-11 million on average, including all persecuted minorities. The persecution of Jews and minorities took place over a 13 year period, although the period of time we generally refer to as the Holocaust only lasted from 1938-1945. Slavery went on for over 200 years. Jewish people are honored for their suffering and the numbers of the dead appall us. But black people are supposed to just get over it and move on and quit being so bitchy about things that happened in the past.
One insight she offered that sent a chill down my spine was how the African-American habit of “modestly” and deprecatingly playing down a child’s accomplishments in front of others (“Shoot, you should see him at home – he’s a mess!”) is a not-as-yet-unlearned habit from the time when acknowledging such achievements could very well encourage the loss of the child for sale or breeding purposes. That, and other such “adaptive behaviors” that were learned during slavery and which later became part of the unseen and unrecognized cultural war on the self of black Americans, are what make up the symptomatology of her Post Traumatic Slavery Disorder theory.
With this address, the uplifting poems and the inspirational music, on top of the big name movers and shakers and the recognition of those who are keeping MLK’s dream alive, it was a very interesting morning indeed.
I did have one major complaint, though (aside from the inevitably lame breakfast – what is it with high-end, fancy-pants resorts and their lame-ass “rubber chicken” conference food?), which was the fact that we were told for months that this would be a breakfast that important and powerful people would be attending – politicians, local businessmen and businesswomen, pillars of the community from all walks of life – and we weren’t given the opportunity to meet and talk to any of them!
Instead, immediately after the closing we were all trooped around to several “photo shoot” sites at the inn to take our “official” team group picture for the year. Now, granted, I know that several of the team thought it would be cool to take our team photo at the breakfast because we’d all be dressed up, rather than some other time when we were just in our traditional Americorps gear. But the end result is that by the time we walked all the way to the bottom floor and managed to organize a few shots by the architectural water fountain, then decided they weren’t working and walked all the way up several flights of stairs to the top floor terrace and took a few out there and then – oh look, the mountains! – so let’s take a few more facing that way (with all the attendant delays for arrangement of bodies and waiting for passers-by to clear the area for each and every shot) – well, there quite simply wasn’t anyone left to meet and shmooze back at the breakfast venue except the few remaining stragglers in line to buy Dr. Degruy-Leary’s book.
I mean, c’mon – our newly elected Congressional Representative was there! The mayor was there. City council members were there. Whole flocks of pastors, preachers and other congregational leaders were there. Youth winners of the MLK award (lauded for their pages of volunteer-work resumes) were there. All people it would have been very useful and enlightening and possibly event-making to connect with. And all of them gone by the time we finished immortalizing the proof of our ability to clean up nicely at 8am.
Maybe it’s just me, but I would have thought that the point of the venture was to be visible (otherwise, why insist on all of us wearing our Americorps pins?). To put ourselves and our cause in front of the folks who can make it work. To shake some hands and make some connections with the people who dedicate their lives to helping groups like us. Don’t get me wrong – I was thoroughly motivated and inspired the program. And I even ate my warm-ish scrambled eggs with some attempt at enjoyment (although the hashbrowns quickly plasticized beyond edibility and a colleague’s boyfriend got the bacon). I even allowed myself the rare two cups of coffee. I’m not counting it a wasted day so much as a wasted opportunity for it to be more than just a chance to passively partake in the spirit of MLK and shoot the nicest-dressed group picture.
Maybe it’s just me.