One month into the Trump Administration, at the close of Black History Month and as our social media feeds become ever-more contentious, I’ve been thinking about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Half a century ago, in December 1964, King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. He spoke of the ongoing struggles of the Civil Rights movement, when people who only wished to exercise their right to vote were confronted with firehoses, police dogs, and murder. Then he said:
I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsom and jetsom in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.
“The eternal oughtness” is really key here. When we talk about race and racism in America, we all too often point at the other side and say, “they ought to….” We all too rarely look at ourselves and thinking about what we ought to do. King gave us the answer in the same speech:
Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.
Unfortunately, right now, we’re in a period where revenge, aggression, and retaliation are presented as virtues, and love and empathy are disregarded and despised. I’m an optimist and believe that the current U.S. Administration’s policies are the step backward that precedes the two steps forward of human progress. That doesn’t make living through this regressive period any easier, when King’s children are openly judged by the color of their skin. As a white woman, I have never felt their humiliation, but as a human being, I have empathized with it. And I have suffered the shame of racism, when I’ve listened to relatives speak in hateful ways and, more directly, when racist assumptions about strangers and friends have crossed my thoughts. All my life, I’ve fought an internal war between a rational belief that people of color are not different from white people, and an irrational suspicion, rooted in my upbringing, that nonwhites are less (less smart, less trustworthy, less…you name it). I have always tried to speak and act according to my rational beliefs rather than my irrational suspicions. I haven’t always succeeded.
I suppose this internal struggle is why I’ve approached race the way I have in my fiction. The inhabitants of Knownearth descended from the racially diverse crew of a marooned spacecraft, and over the three thousand years that passed between settlement and A Wizard’s Forge, people have forgotten their earthbound ancestry and cultures and formed societies where skin color is no more remarkable than hair color. Moreover, the majority of Knownearth’s people (and most of the principal characters in A Wizard’s Forge) have dark complexions and wiry hair (so, in contemporary terms, they’re black). I wanted to posit a world where, as King hoped in another speech, people really are judged “not by the color of their skin.” This is motivated less by liberal bleeding heartism than by wishful thinking—I’d like to live in that world where black people aren’t unjustly arrested or killed simply because they’re black.
Does that mean I posit a culture where people are always nice to each other? No. In fact, the plot of A Wizard’s Forge is all about “revenge, aggression, and retaliation.” Cultures still clash, and Knownearth’s people haven’t found a way to “live in peace,” as King hoped for humanity. This is partly because a good story requires conflict, but also because I also think that human beings will always struggle between violence and nonviolence. But I do believe we, as a species, will in time overcome the “is” and achieve some measure of the “ought.”