We in the museum world sometimes wonder if curators can change the world. No one, however, asks that question about Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, curator emeritus at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. We know that she has and will continue to do so. To read more about her life as a scholar, curator, activist, and musician, follow this link.
Her singing group, Sweet Honey in the Rock, performed the piece, “A Letter to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” to mark the first federal observance of the MLK holiday in 1986. To read the lyrics–actually a poem by Sonia Sanchez–see below.
Great God, my Lord what a morning Martin!
The sun is rolling in from faraway places. I watch it reaching out, circling these bare trees like some reverent lover. I have been standing still listening to the morning, and I hear your voice crouched near hills, rising from the mountain tops, breaking the circle of dawn.
You would have been 58 today.
As I point my face toward a new decade, Martin, I want you to know that the country still crowds the spirit. I want you to know that we still hear your footsteps setting out on a road cemented with black bones. I want to know that the stuttering of guns could not stop your light from crashing against cathedrals chanting piety while hustling the world.
Great God, what a country… The decade after your death docked like a spaceship on a new planet. Voyagers all we were. We were the aliens walking up the 70’s, a holocaust people on the move looking out from dark eyes. We were youngbloods, spinning hip syllables while saluting death in a country neutral with pain.
And our children saw the mirage of plenty spilling from money mad sands.
And they ran toward the desert.
And the gods of sand made them immune to words that strengthen the breast.
And they became scavengers walking on the earth.
And you can see them playing. Hide-and-go-seek robbers. Native sons. Running on their knees. Reinventing slavery on asphalt. Peeling their umbilical cords for a gold chain.
And you can see them on Times Square, in NYC, Martin, selling their 11-, 12-year-old, 13-, 14-year-old bodies to suburban forefathers. And you can see them on Market Street in Philadelphia bobbing up bellywise, young fishes for old sharks.
And no cocks are crowing on those mean streets.
Great God, what a morning it’ll be someday Martin!
That decade fell like a stone on our eyes. Our movements. Rhythms. Loves. Books. Delivered us from the night, drove out the fears keeping some of us hoarse. New births knocking at the womb kept us walking.
We crossed the cities while a backlash of judges tried to turn us into moles with blackrobed words of reverse racism. But we knew. And our knowing was like a sister’s embrace. We crossed the land where famine was fed in public. Where black stomachs exploded on the world’s days while men embalmed their eyes and tongues in gold. But we knew. And our knowing squatted from memory.
Sitting on our past, we watch the new decade dawning. These are strange days, Martin, when the color of freedom becomes disco fever; when soap operas populate our Zulu braids; as the world turns to the conservative right and general hospitals are closing in black neighborhoods and the young and restless are drugged by early morning reefer butts. And houses tremble.
These are dangerous days, Martin, when cowboy-riding presidents corral Blacks (and others) in a common crown of thorns; when nuclear-toting generals recite an alphabet of blood; when multinational corporations assassinate ancient cultures while inaugurating new civilizations. Comeout comeout wherever you are.
Waiting to be born.
But, Martin, on this day, your 54th birthday–with all the reversals–we have learned that black is the beginning of everything.
it was black in the universe before the sun;
it was black in the mind before we opened our eyes;
it was black In the womb of our mother;
black is the beginning.
and if we are the beginning we will be forever. Martin. I have learned too that fear is not a black man or woman. Fear cannot disturb the length of those who struggle against material gains for self-aggrandizement. Fear cannot disturb the good of people who have moved to a meeting place where the pulse pounds out freedom and justice for the universe.
Now is the changing of the tides, Martin. You forecast it where leaves dance on the wings of man. Martin. Listen. On this your 54th birthday, listen and you will hear the earth delivering up curfews to the missionaries and the assassins. Listen. And you will hear the tribal songs:
Ayeee Ayooooo Ayeee
Ayeee Ayooooo Ayeee
Malcolm… Ke wa rona*
Robeson… Ke wa rona
Lumumba… Ke wa rona
Fannie Lou… Ke wa rona
Garvey… Ke wa rona
Johnbrown… Ke wa rona
Tubman… Ke wa rona
Mandela… Ke wa rona
Assata… Ke wa rona
As we go with you to the sun,
as we walk in the dawn, turn our eyes
Eastward and let the prophecy come true
and let the prophecy come true.
Great God, Martin, what a morning, it will be!
*he is ours