(As prepared for delivery — February 16, 2023)
Two hundred and forty-seven years ago, upon declaring the independence of the United States of America, our forefathers wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. That among these [rights] are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Right there in the Declaration of Independence, our founding fathers started our country with the promise that we are all created equal, and all have the right to live with dignity.
And yet, those same founding fathers represented a country in which women didn’t have the legal right to vote for another 144 years. A country in which Black people weren’t even considered citizens for nearly 100 years.
Thirteen years after our independence, the Constitution of the United States came into force and opened by stating the objectives of our new nation. First among these was “in order to form a more perfect union.” So, while equality is a promise we have never fully lived up to in practice, that commitment to becoming a more perfect union provides a powerful call to action to all Americans to never, ever stop striving for the realization of our professed values.
Each February, Black History Month serves as a celebration… a celebration of the contributions Black Americans have made to our country, of the depth of African American culture and experience. It also serves as a powerful reminder that agitation and resistance against injustice have been vital elements to ensuring accountability to ourselves as we push for the implementation in practice of our national values. This has been as true in America, as in Zambia, and around the world as the marginalized have struggled to be heard, to be respected, and to contribute. These tactics continue to be necessary for us to reach our dream of truly equal rights for all.
To be sure, inclusion, respect, and equality of Black people in America has increased drastically over our history. One need look no further than the 2008 election of a Black man, Barack Obama as President to see one indicator of the magnitude of this progress. And yet, that does not mean that we’re all good. And yet, it is lost on no one that this Black History Month opened with the news of the murder of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee, at a time when our country was still reeling from the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and so many more at the hands of law enforcement. This isn’t just an issue with the police or a few “bad apples,” but reflects the persistent effects of institutionalized racism, a legacy that so many Americans are working to dismantle every day. And while the inequities, indignities, and abuses bore by Black Americans resonate most poignantly as we reflect on Black History Month, far too often, they are shared by other historically-marginalized communities as well. Here too, America is sadly not unique, and this pattern resonates here in Zambia and across the continents.
The long shadows of slavery and systemic racism hold America back from reaching our full potential. But, by facing those tragedies openly and honestly, by working together as one people to deliver on America’s promise of equity, dignity, and opportunity for all, we become a stronger nation — and we get closer to our founding fathers’ values of equality. As we look at the history of the United States and other countries, we do see progress being made in the equity and respect for historically marginalized communities. Indeed, Mahatma Gandhi’s assertion – oft cited by Dr. Martin Luther King – is true: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it does bend toward justice.” Social change does not come through one single tactic or isolated action, but by a persistent and dynamic blend of tactics: peaceful civil disobedience and active resistance, the urgent demands of the youth and methodical strategy of the wise, sustained struggle and continued, unified resistance.
While Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used and advocated for nonviolent protests and civil disobedience to combat racial inequality, he also understood the desperation behind more aggressive tactics such as riots. Dr. King said:
“[I]t is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities, as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air…. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”
Again, the United States is not unique in this struggle. Oppression because of skin color, religion, tribe, gender, and other traits continues to haunt people all over the world, including here in Zambia.
But, as I said, though, Black History Month is also a month of celebration. Throughout American history, the African American experience has also been one punctuated by celebration and pride, of Black Americans celebrating and sharing their culture and reminding themselves and those around of their beauty, their contributions, and their values.
As I recently moved here to Zambia, I am reminded of your nation’s crucial role as one of the first independent countries in southern Africa, and your history as a safe harbor for the liberation movements across the region. I am often reminded of the Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika, a prayer and a celebration of this great continent, its people, its land, and its culture. Often sung in chorus, it embodies unity, and as an anthem of the liberation movements throughout the region it blends beautifully these elements of celebration and struggle for social change.
It is, therefore, no surprise that its tune has been adapted to your national anthem “Stand and Sing of Zambia, Proud and Free,” the anthem of “One Zambia, One Nation.” Zambia’s own national anthem signifies that unity and freedom are just as valued by, and important to, Zambians as they are to Americans. But, here too, is everyone proud and free? Or just some?
Tonight, we are going to hear several poems and songs, and you will hear in them the prominent themes of pride and celebration of Black identity, but also confrontation and demand for more, for something better.
As you reflect upon the poems and songs you are about to hear, on these expressions of art and struggle that African Americans and Zambians have shared with us, think about how these stories also apply in Zambia. What can those in power do to live up to the values and commitments of our nation?
Who among our communities are we leaving behind on this walk of unity and freedom? What is our role – your role – in demanding equality, freedom, and equal rights for all?
Thank you all for attending the program today and for your willingness to examine these difficult questions along with us. Thank you for joining us as we celebrate the balance of hope and struggle in achieving equality for all.