Coming of Age in America? The Dream Fifty Years Later*

While the blogosphere has been lit up with discussion of Miley Cyrus’s and Robin Thicke’s Video Music Awards spectacle – a sad caricature of just how deeply racist and artistically vacuous much of the entertainment industry has become – the nation’s attention is also turned today to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. The two events seem to occupy two very different cultural universes, hardly worth comparing. Yet the convergence is worth noting, even if a little depressing. Is this what coming of age, at least among the privileged and beautiful, looks like in America today?

I won’t rehearse the observations already made by more eloquent bloggers than me. It is interesting that even those most critical of Cyrus are mostly silent about their own participation in the beast against which they rail – a virtual media culture where one’s very identity is secured by the number of hits one gets on their blog. (A mind-frame I too have to resist.)

What leaps out for me is not what’s happening on stage but the faces and figures in the audience, illumined by the warm glow of cell phone cameras. Miley and her handlers have already won the game. It’s all about the capturing the image and the sale. We seem more and more to be a society addicted to the SPECTACLE, each manifestation a little more outrageous than the last, an un-ironic caricature of itself, no longer even pretending to be art. Next time it will be some other youthful pawn in the game, we’ll post the pictures and our reactions to our blogs, collectively yawn, and wait for next pornographic thrill to grab our attention. Fr. Adolfo Nicolas, the worldwide leader of the Jesuits, calls our cultural sickness, much of it driven by new technologies, the “globalization of superficiality.”

Thinking about it makes me sad and a little nauseous, especially on this day when something real and quite remarkable, even miraculous, happened in this country. Not that the March and “the Dream” hasn’t also been packaged into something a little quaint and merely beautiful, a kind of feel-good American artifact, shorn of its hard historical edges.

In fact my thoughts are most haunted today not by Miley Cyrus or even Dr. King but by a young African American woman named Anne Moody, who 50 years ago was about the same age as Miley Cyrus. Maybe it’s unfair to Cyrus (she could be just another-very-nice-kid-trying-desperately-to-be-what-she-thinks-is-an-all-grown-up-and-sexually-liberated-woman) but the contrast between the two young women, at least symbolically, and the respective glimpses they provide into American culture, couldn’t be greater.

I’m grateful to my colleague Dr. Walker Gollar who shared with me this passage below from Anne Moody’s classic account of growing up in the rural south, including her participation in the March on Washington, a book called Coming of Age in Mississippi.

Merely to get to the March on Washington on August 28 fifty years ago Ms. Moody had to risk her life, driving up “through most of the Southern states in an integrated car,” knowing at any moment she could find herself the target of racist mob violence. I’ll let her take it from here:

On August 27 at 6 a.m., we headed for Washington. There were five of us, three whites (Reverend King, his wife, and Joan Trumpauer), and two Negroes (Bob, a student returning to Harvard, and myself). In the beginning, we were all a little uneasy, but somehow we made it through the Southern states without incident.

After driving all day and night, we arrived at the grounds of the Washington Monument just in time for the march, and joined the section of the Southern delegates. Up on a podium near our section, various celebrities—Mahalia Jackson, Odetta, Peter, Paul and Mary—were singing. During a break in the entertainment the Mississippi delegates were asked to come to the podium and sing freedom songs. I got up and followed the others to the platform reluctantly. I think I was the only girl from Mississippi with a dress on. All the others were wearing denim skirts and jeans. We sang a couple of songs and shortly after, it was announced that the march to the Lincoln Memorial was about to start. Thousands of people just took off, leaving most of their leaders on the podium. It was kind of funny to watch the leaders run to overtake the march. The way some of them had been leading the people in the past, perhaps the people were better off leading themselves, I thought.

The march was not in full motion, and there were people everywhere. Some were on crutches, some in wheel chairs, and some were actually being carried down Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues. There were all kinds of signs and placards—one group of men acting as pall-bearers carried a casket that said BURY JIM CROW.

By the time we got to Lincoln Memorial, there were already thousands of people there. I sat on the grass and listened to the speakers, to discover we had “dreamers” instead of leaders leading us. Just about every one of them stood up there dreaming. Martin Luther King went on and on talking about his dream. I sat there thinking that in Canton we never had time to sleep, much less dream.

I left Washington two days later with Joan Trumpauer and the Kings. As we drove out of town, no one had very much to say. I guess they were thinking about the historic event that had just taken place. I was thinking about it too, and I was also thinking that this was the first time in well over a year I had been away from my work with the Movement and away from Mississippi. I had really forgotten what it was like to be out of an atmosphere of fear and threats. I had even gone to a move. The last movie I had seen had been in New Orleans the previous summer. “It’s kind of strange,” I thought, “I never really think of going to a movie when I’m in Mississippi.” There was always so much work, so many problems, and so many threats that I hardly ever thought of anything except how to best get the job done and survive from day to day.

Here are the hard historical edges of a personal commitment to reality on the ground that no black-and-white footage or lavish TV production or cell phone camera will ever capture. Anne Moody is an artist because she sought to live and tell the truth, and tell it without adornment. The act of telling the truth – even the hard, ugly truth — is not only courageous and a mark of authentic human being. It is beautiful. Think of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” or Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin.” (See Hope Sings, Ch. 4). More to the point, Anne Moody made of her young life a work of art. And then, only then, did she tell us about it with unadorned artistry in her book.

In her recollection of the March above, it is striking how impatient the young Anne was, and deeply skeptical, of all the big-time “dreamers” on stage in Washington that day. Rarely do the iconic images and speeches touch the hard edges of reality down at street level, where people struggle day to day simply to “get the job done and survive.” How easy it is to turn Dr. King and his eloquent dream into a beautiful statue! The young Anne Moody seems to have understood the dangers and temptations of the image and grand spectacle more than most.

On the other hand, it may be that Dr. King’s most powerful gift to us was truly the gift of imagination, inseparable from the hard-bought faith of the black church in which he was formed. Dr. King showed us that another way forward is possible so long as we have the will and the courage to choose it. But to choose the difficult road we first need the capacity to imagine it, to hope for it, to “dream” it. King had no illusions that the road would be easy. Quite the contrary. No matter the color of one’s skin, to reclaim our mutual responsibility for one another is the most demanding kind of spiritual work.

While such a commitment can bear a high personal cost, it can also transform our lives with unexpected joy. But unless our actions on the ground follow our lofty rhetorical imaginings, others will rightly accuse us of “merely dreaming.” A beautiful idea, a nice show, another spectacle. Now let’s get back to the real world, shall we?

What will it mean to finally “come of age” in America? By all accounts the US appears poised to bomb Syria. Call me a dreamer but “those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.” (Matt. 26:52) As a nation we continue to believe and enact into policy our collective belief that Jesus, Gandhi, and King were mere dreamers. Everybody knows that it’s not possible to practice nonviolence in the real world. It’s just “the way things are.” The hard sacrificial edges of King’s discipline of nonviolence and his sharp warnings about US militarism (also tied to race) have been smoothed over and largely forgotten. To come of age is surely to grow up and learn from hard lessons of the past. We seem as a nation very far from such maturity. Our drone program all by itself will prove Jesus more right than wrong.

As our youngest generation comes of age today, to whom will they look for role models? For my money, for my kids, for my students, and for me, I’ll take Anne Moody, who made of her life a true work of art. I’ll take John Lewis, Rosa Parks, Somaly Mam, Malala Yousafzi, and ten thousand others whose names are hidden but who risked everything to try to make the world a more just and beautiful place for all, and not just the privileged few.

Wherever she is I hope Anne Moody feels some peace of mind today, and feels a little of the nation’s gratitude, for her more hidden yet no less significant role in the Civil Rights Movement. And above all, for telling it like it is.

 * Author’s note: this is a substantially revised version of the original post, which was unwieldy and too much of a screed or cultural broadside. Thanks for your patience!

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