Celebration or Ritual?


By Dr. William Small, Jr.

The practice of effectively organizing and celebrating the importance of events is validated by its existence in all cultures. Celebrations on their face speak to values which define and affirm a people.

Christmas, Columbus Day, the Fourth of July, for example all say something about the soul and character of America. They speak to “the history of America” in a way that embraces and affirms its truths, myths and lies.

Similarly, ethnic group celebrations have comparable self-affirming and empowering impacts for the group and for others who share the occasion.

Dr. William Small, Jr.

These celebrations are self-energizing and they generally exist independent of the need for the endorsement of “non-group” members.  The Jewish holidays such as Hanukah, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah speak not only to the history and culture of the global Jewish community, but they also and most importantly speak to the future of the Jewish people.

Jewish holidays when celebrated have global implications which extend from Israel to the most remote corners of the world.  When the Irish celebrate St Patrick’s Day, they too are rightfully asserting, for the primary benefit of themselves and for the correlative benefit of others who might care, the value that Irish people assign to themselves and to their place in the universal order of things.  These celebrations are globally impactive and self-empowering experiences. This holds whether the holiday is being celebrated in New York, Savannah, or Dublin.

Black celebrations, however, seem to lack universal resonance.  The recently completed celebration of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., exists in stark contrast to the pattern and type of ethnic celebrations that I have described above. In fairness, I argue that the same can be said for any other “broad based celebration” that takes place in the African American community.

The format for the celebration of Black interests that has evolved over time raises some very serious questions about what we as African descendant people want for ourselves and expect from America.  Our pattern of celebration, I submit, is fundamentally flawed in several essential respects.

It is a cultural, fundamentally a historical, permission seeking and erosive in political structure and content.  After over a half century of observation and participation it pains me to say that. It is equally painfully, but necessary, to publicly confess this conclusion.

This brief essay is certainly not a criticism of Dr. King.  Dr. King was assassinated a half century ago.  This brief essay is a critique of the living and what we have done, and failed to do, with the legacy of our ancestors and our struggle for freedom justice and equality. Because we as African Americans, so desperately, seek permission “to be included” on America’s pages of history, we are reluctant to tell the entire story – “less we offend”.

For example, our accepted definition of Dr. King “and the movement” is frozen in 1963. That image of each is also encapsulated and insufficiently analyzed in the “I Have a Dream” speech.

A speech no matter how beautiful and timely recited, cannot on its own stand as a description of the hope of a people; neither can it serve as a strategy to address the battles that remain to be fought and the victories that are yet to be won. Our celebrations must become as reflective of our concerns for the future as they are concerned with the events in our collective past.

Too many contemporary Black leaders have seemingly put the burden of eliminating racial injustice on “the shoulders of the dead”.  We now seem to celebrate death and not life.  We celebrate sacrifice and not gain.  We have permitted our legacy and story of human suffering to become an ordinary page of the American narrative. We fail to weigh the cost of being a people who live without living heroes.

Perhaps it is a consequence of social conditioning that the pattern of celebrating our collective selves has gotten so twisted.   

A viable agenda for celebrating the interests and empowerment of African descendant people would exist today if we “honored death” and “celebrated life”. Today, no such active agenda exists. In fact, there is very little in the Black lexicon of celebrations that exalts life “on this side of the “Jordan River”.

Our special celebrations are consumed by the very concept of death as the pathway to liberation, and unconditional love and forgiveness as the bridge to “eternal life. This political frame of reference and approach to understanding and valuing “Black specialness”, positions our heroes and our sheroes somewhere between the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy as agents for the fostering of meaningful social change.

We must be better than we are. Our future generations deserve more.

Dr. William Small, Jr. is a retired educator and former Trustee and Board Chairman at South Carolina State University.

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