Honoring Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream: Integrating the Wisdom of Toni Morrison and Brené Brown


By Rachel Rutkie, PsyD, psychologist at SokyaHealth

The writer Toni Morrison is not alone in her assertion that race in the United States, the constructs of White and Black in particular, was created to establish a sense of belonging and communion between light-skinned, European immigrants during a fearful time when they had left their homelands to begin anew. She describes that with all their differences in language, culture, and class, “what they could all do is not be Black” (Manufacturing Intellect, August 19, 2019).

In addition to the cruelty, dehumanization, and horror that has resulted, the construction of a racial divide may hinder wellness for people of all races. And, their desperate attempt to cultivate community and belonging is inherently faulty. Researcher and social worker Brené Brown (2017) conveys the trap of connecting with others on the sole basis of hating the same people; she refers to this phenomenon as common enemy intimacy. It is superficial, unhealthy, and, in the case of the racial divide, morally corrupt.

Martin Luther King Jr. courageously dreamt of a society where common enemy intimacy was dismantled and replaced with a genuine understanding of human interconnectedness. A society where opportunities are equal for all. In his I Have A Dream speech (1963), Martin Luther King Jr. asserts:

“We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.

And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.”

Many of his assertions are likely relevant today, and the burden of dismantling racism does not lie on Black people alone. In the broader picture, we need new policies and systematic changes. Furthermore, I believe that substantial, sustainable change is possible only when the vast majority of people do individual, emotional work. This involves a confrontation with ourselves, which many of us spend a lifetime avoiding.

We all have harmed others, betrayed ourselves, and/or subscribed to problematic beliefs to cultivate the illusion of belonging, community, and/or emotional safety. We are wired to prioritize our inclusion in the community for survival. Most of us have attitudes that uphold the idea of ‘the other,’ which thrives when we compare our worth to others and seek ways to position ourselves ‘above’ others. This is relevant in racism, sexism, ablism, fatphobia, homophobia, transphobia, all of it. In addition, it can be even more subtle. Believing we are better than the person who cries at work. Believing we are more valuable because we went to college. This plays out everywhere.

As Toni Morrison asks in a 1993 interview, “What do you need this for?” and later declares, “If you can only be tall because somebody’s on their knees, then you have a serious problem” (Manufacturing Intellect, August 9, 2019).

So, what do we do with this serious problem of ours? What do we do with the fear, the pain, the self-loathing that surfaces as we confront the fragility of our own self-concept and self-worth?

There are various options. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Confront and process the emotions that come up when acknowledging that race (and/or education, body size, etc.) does not inherently increase (or decrease) our inherent worth. Notice the defensiveness. Notice the denial of relevance. Sit in the remorse/grief when acknowledging the ways you have benefitted from a society that preserves the illusion that certain qualities are superior, while grossly mistreating, and even dehumanizing, millions of people.
  2. Answer the questions Toni Morrison poses: “But when you take it away, if I take your race away, then there you are all strung out, and all you got is your little self. And what is that? What are you without racism? Are you any good? Are you still strong? Are you still smart? You still like yourself? I mean, these are the questions” (Manufacturing Intellect, August 9, 2019).
    1. Consider expanding these questions to additional domains: If your status, whatever it is that makes you feel better than some, is taken away, what are you left with? What is your sense of self when there is no one to make you feel tall? (& What is your sense of self when there is no one to make you feel small?)
  3. Explore Brené Brown’s research via talks, podcasts, and/or books to learn more about how to navigate emotional discomfort and breed connection. Consider her definition of True Belonging, which reads: “the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are” (Brown, 2017, p.40).
    1. In short, Brown (2017) describes True Belonging as a paradox. To experience a sense of  belonging with others, we first and foremost need to belong to ourselves, which directly involves confronting ourselves, understanding our values, challenging our fear-based beliefs/reactions, and acknowledging our inherent worth.
  4. And, when in need of support, engage in therapy or a support group.

We can use Brené Brown’s research to understand how the early European settlers’ attempt at communion was defective. In addition, her extensive research offers numerous tools to expand self-awareness, to practice accountability, and to change our perceptions and behavior. Though so much would need to change, a healthier society is possible.

I cannot offer a prediction of how long the emotional work will take or when we could expect palpable change. What does feel palpable is a sense of urgency. The fate of humanity at large and of this planet seem to depend upon whether we work toward healing and collaboration. Alongside the necessity for the rewriting of policies and the dismantling of corrupt systems, I wonder if the most efficient route toward transformation is to hone our focus on individual, emotional work.

References

Brown, B. (2017). Braving the Wilderness. Vermilion.

King Jr., M.L. (2022, January 14). Read Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in its entirety. https://www.npr.org/2010/01/18/122701268/i-have-a-dream-speech-in-its-entirety

Manufacturing Intellect. (2019, August 9). Toni Morrison Interview on Jazz (1993) [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsiETgcYM7s

Manufacturing Intellect. (2019, August 19). Toni Morrison Interview on her Life and Career (1990) [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=53F0lFMSwpc

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