Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

The Color of Our Skin and the Content of our Curriculum: Towards the Beloved Community

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Delivered at Derby Middle School, Birmingham, Michigan | January 21, 2003

He was one of the most important persons of the twentieth century. Perhaps no other person since Winston Churchill and Mohandas K. Gandhi, has one person had as broad an impact in shaping the conscience of a nation. The only American civilian who has a national holiday named in his honor, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., has been lauded and revered by millions of people all over the world for his contributions to world freedom and peace.

At many colleges, Universities and seminaries throughout the world, his life and thought have been subjects of much inquiry and debate. Some years ago I met a student from the Sorbonne in France, who told me that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is studied in courses on philosophy along side with such great French philosophers and writers as Jean Paul Sartre, Michelle Foucault, Albert Camus and Andre Malraux. From Harvard to Morehouse, from the Sorbonne to the University of Cape Town, courses on social philosophy, philosophy of religion, Christian Social Ethics, Church and Society, American Civil Religion, Black Church studies and American Religious History have given thoughtful and cogent analysis to Dr. King’s work. He is revered as a theologian, social philosopher, peace activist and prophet of non-violent social change.

People in various sovereignty struggles all over the world have embraced him as a thinker, read his writings and have been deeply inspired by them. While scores of books have been written on his life, analyses of his work tend to be confined to the area of American Civil Religion and social justice. The broader nuances and implications of his life and thought have not been fully examined or appreciated such as how his thought has impacted areas such as education and politics in America ..

Dr. Martin Luther King JR., was a revolutionary thinker, priest, prophet and visionary who held our nation to its highest constitutional axioms and positively transformed it into something better for all people. He challenged this nation to live up to its core values. The Civil Rights Movement that he championed was an intellectual, spiritual and pragmatic force that liberated many people; black and white; rich and poor’ segregated and non-segregated; it was a movement that united people across racial and cultural barriers and one in which many people struggled and died for the great cause of freedom. The women’s, gray and even gay liberation movements all claim the movement for civil and human rights as their parent.

Thankfully America has chosen to honor this hero and many celebrations are occurring in schools, churches and places all over the land today. They give rightful tribute to an American who gave his life for a cause in which he so deeply believed. It was a cause that was a Jeffersonian as it was American. It was a cause rooted in those great and eternal principles; liberty justice and equality for all people and rooted in a genuine concern for the welfare of all Americans. Many schools and institutions have come to value Dr. King’s work and actively preserve his legacy by incorporating into their curricula information and observances on his life’s work and the work of other African Americans. They understand the importance of telling the full story of America from different points of view and preserving King’s legacy in the area of public education. They understand that if America to grow and mature as a nation, our young people must be taught the value of his contributions.

Conversely, some institutions are content with maintaining the status woe. They have no special observances on King Day. They make no attempts to understand his thought or promote his vision. They have made no efforts to broaden or expand their curricula to include the value and contributions of other people to American history. Their faculties and administrations do not include people of different races and persuasions. They make no effort to educate their students on the importance of expanding an awareness of their world so they might take their rightful places in it.

In order to understand and appreciate more fully Dr. King’s work and its implications for us today as educators and community leaders we must delineate one of its most important ideas; the concept of the Beloved Community. The beloved community is the unifying theme of Dr. King’s work. We cannot understand his efforts without analyzing the true meaning of the beloved community and its implications for society in general and education in particular. The concept of the beloved community permeates all aspects of American life and for this reason must be viewed as one of Dr. King’s most important contributions.

The beloved community was the foundation of his dream.

Today I wish to share three basic ideas informing Dr. King’s beloved community as we still work to bring about the kind of world that he envisioned as his dream.

First beloved community for which Dr. King lived and died is a community in which all people as children of God and citizens of the global community can enjoy basic rights to subsistence, can live with dignity and hope and can actualize their potential to the maximum capacities of their God given gifts.

It is an inclusive community; a community in which the color of one’s skin does not matter just the content of one’s character. The color of one skin does matter insofar as people with different skin colors who have traditionally been excluded from participation can now be included because they have something of valuable to contribute to America and who are themselves persons of value. The color of one’s skin does matter when people are present in society but do not have full access to its resources nor are full participants in that society largely because of race. To exclude people from society on the basis of race and then expect that people to forget about race as they seek inclusion into it is a contradiction of the highest order.

This beloved community is diverse, expansive, creative and inclusive. It is a community in which the collective and consolidated strength of the American people transcends its various localities and particularities and unites people across racial, gender and cultural boundaries. Dr. King believed that our collective strength and power as a nation could not be fully realized until the people who had been systemically excluded could be given the opportunity to be included by sharing their God given gifts to make a greater society. Borrowing from Teihard De Chardin’s concept that all human beings struggle to reach finality and completion by reaching their potential, Dr. King believed that America could not complete or reach its potential until all be given that opportunity.

As a Christian theologian, Dr. King believed that the beloved community was grounded in the belief that God created each of us in his own image; that we are all children of God and people of infinite worth and that God wants us to actualize our optimum potential as human persons.

I have tried to illustrate this idea in my own writings. We might think of it this way. God is likened to a creative artist who paints on the canvass of creation people of different colors, shapes, sizes and dispositions. God’s creativity compels him to fashion a creation that is so distinct that each person bears similarities yet differences that uniquely distinguish him or her as a person.

If each of us is made in the image of God, and God has chosen to create us black, white, beige, brown and red which all reflect God’s image, I cannot say that I love God and then hate what has God created simply because he or she is a different color than my own. If we are all made in the image of God I cannot say that I hate my white brother or sister and love God. This is a contradiction. I cannot love the creator and hate what he created because what he created is in his image. I cannot hate him without intrinsically hating God. This same principle applies to issues of gender.

With this theological understanding under girding his Christian social philosophy and ministry, Dr. King’s model of the beloved community secondly sees all people possessing inherent worth as the created of God. He believed that a person’s worth, power and potential always exceeds the social labels and definitions used to classify, constrain and stratify him.

The beloved community, then, is as much a place as it is an attitude, a value system; a reality where every person is valued on the basis of what he has to offer rather than the physical characteristics given to him by God. The beloved community seeks wholly to dispel the superficial social categories that qualify people’s potential and worth on the basis of race, gender, religion or class and which incidentally not only harms those to whom the discrimination is directed but also handicaps those developing the classifications.

That’s why the Civil rights movement that Dr. King led included all people, black, white, Asian, Native, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims, women, men, children, atheists and others, young, old, abled and differently abled, gay, straight, rich, and poor. He intentionally developed a movement that would possess a broader array of participants and thus have a wider appeal to the masses. Some scholars have speculated that Dr. King’s assassination was due in part that he had such a broad base of appeal which threatened certain segments of the American power establishment.

Third, Dr. King also affirmed in this beloved community the value personal growth and development and understood how inclusiveness promotes a greater understanding between people of different races and cultures. And while the Civil Rights movement began as an economic boycott against a system of segregation that largely marginalized African Americans, it later grew into a movement that included the concerns of all people and thereby provided opportunities for learning, growth and development among them.

Also informing his idea of the beloved community was cross cultural and cross racial enrichment; which gives opportunities for people to learn from other people’s assumptive world and life experiences. Education is key here.

Let me take a few moments to explain this since this was one of the most important constructs of the beloved community. Dr. King viewed the cultures and experiences of other people as invaluable because they afforded others and opportunity to see themselves, discover something yet unknown about themselves and thus expand their personal horizons.

For example, we can learn something of importance and value not only from individual experience but collective group experiences. Each group of people has a collective experience as an aggregate community that can educate and edify not only themselves but members of other groups.

Each individual has a primary axis group of identification which shapes the broader context of who he understands himself to be. These groupings may be classified according to race, sexual orientation, class, gender, religion and so on. Each group has the capacity to develop itself by identifying with groups other than their own.

As African Americans we have had the blessing of being the beneficiaries of two primary worlds, groups and cultures if you will; Europe and Africa. We are American and African. Two world views synthesized into a unique paradigm of existence called African Americana. While I can look through the experience of my Anglo European and Anglo American brothers and sisters and see myself as I am and learn something about who I can become, other people can have the same experience by looking through the lenses and experiences of African America. The problem is that often in a country that is as racially conscious as America, the negative aspects of the collective experiences of one group or another are appropriated as means of devaluing, negating or subordinating members of that group.

Each group of people has a unique experience and story; a unique grid, prism or window through which people of other races and cultures can look to see themselves, discover more about themselves and thus grow beyond themselves. Each group of people has a collective experience by which they identify themselves as co-participants in history. And while we know that the experiences of individual members of the groups are as diverse as they are uniform, the group nevertheless becomes the primary reference point for their understanding or their own value and worth as individuals. The particularity of each experience can thus be universalized into a framework; a unifying force for community dialogue and solidarity especially when one uses that experience to see him as he is, develop his potential into what he can become and can thus value the common ground he shares with others.

When one or many groups are excluded from participating in this process based upon their unique identity as a group, both the excluded and the excluders are denied an opportunity to build community and grow beyond their boundaries and limitations. Thus in a system of segregation both the segregated and segregator lose out because they are denied the opportunity to see and forge their common ground because they have shut off the possibilities of mutual self discovery.

Unfortunately, things that distinguish us uniquely as a group of people are often the very things that extinguish our capacity for dialogue, understanding and positive change so that we can appreciate other people and their viewpoints.

Furthermore, because various groups have sought to establish cultural, social and cognitive hegemony in our society, instead of developing an appreciation and valuation of different group experiences what often results is a polarization of the groups where people become sensitive and defensive because they are not valued or have not valued the experiences of others or been compelled to see themselves through the eyes others so as to bridge the chasm of separation that divides them from others. The quest for cultural and cognitive hegemony often translates into issues of power. Issues of power inherently contain issues of parity and subordination and purport hierarchies of belief that confer value on the basis of those who have power and not on the basis of those who have unique experiences that can help people grow beyond their understandings of who they have defined themselves and others to be.

Experiences that are most edifying and enriching are those which promote discovery, imagination, the quest for knowledge and truth and ultimately promote human unity and solidarity. The quest for knowledge can be two types. We learn to confirm what we already know or we can learn to discovery what we don’t yet know. This principle applies most pragmatically to our relationships with people as individuals and with people who are members of a particular group. We can have experiences with people that confirm what we already know about them or we can have experiences of discovery where we learn something new and exciting about them. We should not allow our apriori judgment to skew what new things we can discover about them but because we have categorized them, labeled them and thus devalued them we cannot position ourselves to truly discover them. Someone once said, “We see things not as they are but as we are.”

For example, too often in American society, ethnic group experiences are stereotyped, subordinated and devalued by the larger culture because it has not developed a value system that includes those “other” experiences so as to expand its own cognitive and cultural base and thus grow beyond itself. The experiences of African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Middle Eastern, Native Americans and even Eastern European Americans and even to a certain extent Anglo Americans have largely been, omitted, dismissed or devalued because of how the larger culture has defined and limited them as persons of worth rather than fathom how those persons through their own unique experiences can offer something of value to the larger culture that will enable the world to become a place filled with the adventure of learning and discovery. Black Americans can learn much from white America, and white America can also learn much from black America. Our experiences as African Americans are much greater than has been defined and much more profound than how society describes them. The experiences of other groups, Anglo America included, is much greater have been defined. There is a whole plethora and wealth of knowledge that others can extract from our experiences as African Americans that both embraces and transcends the categories that have been developed to limit and define them.

For example, African Americans possess a deep an abiding spirituality that has given them cultural fluency, shaped their understanding of themselves, instilled within them survival mechanisms and compels them to embrace the larger culture while simultaneously creating a viable sub culture. Dr. King was a product of this world spirituality that issues from the black church. This spirituality has instilled within African Americans what scholar Monroe Forham called, “adaptive mechanisms” which have been the parental source of such creative art forms as blues and jazz and other works that have enabled their survival and success in American society. These adaptive mechanisms have been essential to their survival. They have enabled African Americans to adapt to, and utilize and coalesce elements of the larger culture with their own.

This spirituality has social and functional value. It enables them to adapt to and exceed the boundaries that have been forced upon them by the larger society. The larger culture could learn something about itself by looking through this window, especially in these troublesome times of ours. How can the expressive and adaptive spirituality of African Americans serve as a resource of hope and solidarity to this nation as America adapts to its new circumstances and conditions? If I have stereotyped or devalued the role and experience of African Americans in shaping and impacting American society and culture, I will never view them as viable and worthy sources of information.

Furthermore, mass media communications, which for many have become the pre-eminent sources of propaganda and information for people in this country, are often notorious in promoting stereotypical images of other ethnic and racial groups. The way in which these groups are often portrayed in the mass media not only says much about the limitations of the knowledge and value systems of those who create and disseminate the images, but also the images themselves inherently contain devaluational and destructive processes that disclaim and deny the persons being portrayed as having the capacity to be esteemed sources of cognitive enrichment.

All Hispanics are not drug dealers. All African Americans are not comedians, athletes and pimps. All Eastern Europeans are not gypsies and nomads reeking of garlic. All Catholic priests are not pedophiles. All Asians are not store owners in black communities. All white people are not racists. All native Americans are not alcoholics. The way that we categorize and stereotype the collective experiences of particular groups often limits our capacity to value those groups as viable sources of knowledge and growth and limits our capacity to grow in our outlook and relationship with them, with ourselves and with our world.

Dr. King understood how processes of cognitive and cultural devaluation that are inherent in American society and some American thinking in general often cripple and handicap that society’s capacity to realize its greatest potential and thus grow beyond its own limitations. If part of the unique characteristics of a society is its plurality of peoples and confluence of cultures, it would behoove that society to harness and sublimate those strengths of plurality in ways that would empower it to surmount barriers to its own growth and development. That society should seek more viable means of including those various groups into its mainstream cognitive structures.

If each cultural, racial or ethnic group’s experience can be valued and studied closely as universalizing human experience, if each group of people could look through the windows of experience of other people to both see, understand and grow beyond itself, there would be a greater appreciation for the common ground that people really have in common.

Dr. King understood this and affirmed it as a key educational concept in his idea of the beloved community. He understood that such experiences have cooperative and subversive value; cooperative in creating and celebrating viable life traditions that promote unity, welfare and peace among all people; subversive in transforming ignorance into new opportunities for growth, knowledge and learning. Learning and the pursuit of knowledge is by nature subversive activity. The goal in all of our striving is to overthrow ignorance and the oppression that issues from it.

With these three basic ideas informing King’s concept of the beloved community in mind; the beloved community is an inclusive community, the beloved community is a place where all people and their experiences are valued; the beloved community is a place where personal growth and development are promoted beyond superficial social categories and stereotypes; the question becomes how far have we come as a nation since the death of Martin Luther King Jr in establishing it? Have we realized the beloved community or have we taken steps backwards? Great strides have been made but more work must be done. Whenever great social advances are made in a society, there always risks of turning back the clock on the advances.

Have educational institutions of higher learning in this nation developed curricula that promote the development of these new approaches to human experience? In addition to math, science, history, social studies, computers and technology what courses in the curriculum challenge students to grow in their awareness of themselves and their world by giving them the cognitive tools to integrate other experiences into their own and thus enhance their compassion for others who are uniquely different?

In what ways are students in today’s world learning and acquiring the adaptive mechanisms which are the hallmarks of diversified learning, which will enable them to socially adjust and overcome the prejudices and obstacles of their present and future world? What are they learning of other people in their world and how can learning about other people coupled with their own experiences instill within in them the desire to learn from other people in ways that will expand their capacities and potential and thus enable them to transform the world of tomorrow and today?

Such educational experiences allow more than for what Paulo Freire calls the banking concept of education where students have selected information deposited in their minds by teachers for subsequent withdrawal at test time. If the world is to become better we need more than education for conformity. We need more than education as imitation. We need co-intentional education. We need education for critical and creative thinking; education for critical consciousness that will empower and encourage students to envision themselves as co-intentional transformers of their world rather than just passive recipients of it.

Dr. King’s knew the value of such educational processes and understood that it began with people being willing to exceed those social boundaries, formulas, classifications and constraints that domesticate their thinking and prevent them from discovering, realizing and celebrating what they have in common with people who are “different” than they are. He understood that such higher learning begins on ground level; not simply in the schools but in the home, where young minds are shaped and attitudes formed and expectations are actualized. This personifies the meaning of the beloved community.

Thus for Dr. King the beloved community can be actualized in the home and in the society, in the work place and in the school place, in the church, synagogue, mosque and temple; in our minds and in our hearts, in our bodies and in our spirits because it is just as much an attitude as it is an outlook, just as much a way in which we interpret, understand and interact in the world as it is a hallowed place in that world.

More importantly, it is how we model this vision of the beloved community in those places that make the true difference. It is how we exemplify these attitudes and ideals of the beloved community in our thinking and interaction that has the greatest impact upon our learning environment.

As educators promoting this beloved community which leads to a society that realizes its greatest potential, the issue then is not just the color of our skin but the content of our curriculum. It is what are we saying and what are we teaching and how are we modeling through our own lives the world that we want our children to live in that is important. How do we manifest in our own behavior and attitudes the models and feelings toward learning that we want our students to embody? We want students who are disciplined, enthusiastic inquisitive, serious, scholarly; students who take the learning and discovery of their life and world as an adventure full of the promises and opportunities of tomorrow. We do not want models of learning that emulate a closed society; a repressive society that limits it participants capacity to explore and discover and expand their potential for learning?

How we teach students to be open and progressive to knowledge and learning if we ourselves do not demonstrate that same openness; the same sense of adventure and discovery, the same sense of curiosity in regards to people who are different? It is not so much that they are different, it is our attitude toward their difference; our response to their difference; our feelings about their difference that determines whether they are worthy of expanding our awareness of them as we” as ourselves.

How do we as educators and community leaders represent and personify the attitudes of open and objective inquiry, the discovery new possibilities amid existing disabilities and compassion amid a world filled with apathy, indifference and luke warmness to those who are differently other? This speaks more to the possibilities for learning than a” of the information that we can cram into the minds of our students?

Although we need greater diversity and ethnic representation in all areas of American life, for America is richer and fuller and better because of it, we need curricula that will also reflect a broader cross section of empirical and theoretical knowledge; knowledge that issues from both traditional and non traditional sources. When I say curricula I mean more than just textual information and the courses that issue from it. I also mean contextual information that is shaped by life experiences and point to specific contexts and peoples who are different as viable sources of information. The world is a very small place and Americans should be thinking more in terms what it means to be in that world and not simply how that world can be subsumed and consumed. The question is how we can develop community and cooperation with others who are different. Is this not the meaning of America?

Expanding our boundaries also means developing a correct understanding of the various contributions of people to American and world history. This is especially a concern for African Americans.

The question is how are we bringing the beloved community into existence; a community that teaches people to value, appreciate and learn from people with different experiences; people whom the larger society says are not worthy or valuables sources of information and learning; a community that values and vouches safe life itself and surmounts the barriers to cognitive clarity, understanding and compassion among all people.

We can all work toward and manifest the ideas of the beloved community in our walk and in our talk. We have made great strides since the Civil Rights era, but we have also begun to take steps backwards with the recent forays on affirmative action.

As time and memory distances us from the great events of that era, we can easily forget. But we must not forget. We must not forget. We must understand Dr. King’s concept of the beloved community and continue to strive for the beloved community in all aspects of American life. We must never stop teaching our young people its true meaning and value so they might continue the legacy of Dr. King and all those great souls who lived and died for a cause that still is great among us.

The beloved community is all of us working together, valuing each other, encouraging each other and learning from each other as we have our life together in this great nation called America. The beloved community is one in which the walls that separate are laid down into bridges that bring us into a deep and abiding awareness of the things we have in common. This is the vision that was the basis of his dream.

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