A Year of Essays: January 15, 2022

Today should have been Martin Luther King Jr.’s 93rd birthday. Almost 54 years since his assassination, his legacy looms even more largely now during these racially roiled times.

I remember, vividly, the night of April 4, 1968. “CBS News interrupts its program for a special report,” the announcer said, before Walter Cronkite broke the news of King’s assassination. My mother gasped. I leaned in. I was seven, but knew enough to know this meant something serious. A still photo of King giving the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech from the day earlier. Another still of the men on the balcony pointing to where the gunshots came from. The shock at first. Then the outrage. Then the riots. Then the summer of civil unrest.

That was over 50 years ago, yet here we still are. Last year, I saw Shaka King’s film Judas and the Black Messiah. The film moved me on many levels.

Also last year, my university created a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusivity Action Plan, an outcome of a two-year study to explore how we can become an institution that mirrors more closely our student body. The university’s faculty, overwhelmingly White, overwhelmingly supported the plan, though there were some dissenters.

One faculty member wanted the plan abandoned. That professor referred to a survey that was interpreted as Black students didn’t see as many faculty or administrators like themselves as White students. The professor then queried: Does this matter?

That question (and the professor’s continuing rant) started an avalanche of emails. (The distribution list was substantial, including all administrators except the provost and the president.) All were critical, many were angry. The professor’s responses caused even more consternation. I debated joining the conversation, with that nagging voice of conscience whispering “Be an ally!” I hesitated, until the professor wrote: “This thing has exhausted me.”

“This thing has exhausted you? As a cis, white, queer male, I know a thing about exhaustion. Will people shun me? Will people hate me? Will people think less of me? Will my family disown me? Will people kill me? It’s exhausting to wonder about these things all.the.time. Many of my LGBTQ+ siblings can probably relate to this. I probably went into academia because there’s greater acceptance thus some respite from the exhaustion. But here’s the irony: I can hide the queerness any time by being silent or acting non-queer. Think of our BIPOC siblings. Imagine how exhausted they are. They cannot hide. They are subjected to micro- and macro-aggressions every day of their lives. Every day is a fight. A few weeks ago, I watched the recent film Judas and the Black Messiah, and I wept because fifty years later, not much has changed. Shame on America. And shame on you. Go contemplate your exhaustion.”

That was the first time I had taken such a public stand. In practice, I was always supportive of the fight for that arc’s bend towards justice. It emboldened me.

Happy Birthday, Dr. King. May you Rest in Power.



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David Russell Beach

David Russell Beach

David Beach is playwright/writer, director, dramaturg, and educator. He holds a PhD in education and an MFA in playwriting, and is a professor at Radford U.