02/10/2015 12:13 pm ET Updated Apr 12, 2015

Hope and Struggle


Only in the last few weeks has the temperature in New York City descended to consistently freezing lows, yet I've been numb since last summer. I am contemplating still the murder of Michael Brown.

His memory endures because it was not only his death that precipitated this feeling. It was the twelve bullets that were meant for his body and the seven that reached their target. It was that his lifeless body was left in the street for four hours. It was the assassination of his character at the first public press conference meant to identify his killer. It was the militaristic response to nonviolent protesters. It was the refusal of an ethically compromised prosecutor to recuse himself. It was Darren Wilson's painstaking depiction of Brown as an animalistic, superhuman predator. It was the grand jury's failure to indict. These repeated and unqualified denials of justice and respect have engendered in me an unshakeable spiritual discontent.

As we enter Black History Month, a time usually reserved for celebrating Black lives, I find myself mourning not only the loss of his life, but also a piece of myself, which was slain with him. Some latent faith, that America can be better than it has always been, or some subconscious belief, that progress has been made, was stripped from me. In a word, I am lamenting the loss of hope.

In times like these, we've been conditioned to trust in legal reforms, new laws robustly written and rigorously enforced. But even a chorus of condemnation from every government official in America would be drowned completely by the bellows of American history, echoed in the murders of this past year, that Black lives on American soil are worthless. I am compelled to renounce any comfort in political palliatives; for me, symbolic gestures neither satiate nor sedate.

My generation is not the first, of course, to experience the torment of justice callously denied. In a letter to his nephew, James Baldwin admitted that he, too, had been changed by the racism of his era: "[A]ll policemen have by now, for me, become exactly the same, and my style with them is designed simply to intimidate them before they can intimidate me. No doubt I am guilty of some injustice here, but it is irreducible, since I cannot risk assuming that the humanity of these people is more real to them than their uniforms." Baldwin knew, as I have come to learn, that in coping with the depravity of American racism, we experience (perhaps inevitably?) some diminishment of ourselves.

It has been said, however, that losing hope endangers the spirit. Dr. King, for instance, warned that the degenerative emotions that often accompany a loss of hope "poison the soul and scar the personality, always harming the person who harbors them more than anyone else." But to clutch hope, amid the cruel irony of this moment in American history, seems like self-torture, a form of spiritual masochism. Through centuries of struggle, Black people in this country rose from the scorn of enslavement to the prestige of the presidency -- the supposed pinnacle of racial achievement -- and still we are not saved.

The question is not whether to struggle -- to work daily for the preservation and recognition of our humanity -- but how we conceive of that struggle and find meaning in it. Far from acquiescence to oppression, what I have expressed here is an acknowledgement that I no longer find inspiration in "hope." Rather, I find guidance in the words of Derrick Bell, who found meaning in struggle even though he concluded that racism is a permanent fixture of American society. He believed that "[c]ontinued struggle can bring about unexpected benefits and gains that in themselves justify continued endeavor. We can recognize miracles we did not plan and value them for what they are, rather than always measure their worth by their likely contribution to our traditional goals."

As I anticipate the struggles that lie ahead, I do so with sobriety that is unthreatened by the inevitable disappointments that hope invites. My resolve is reinforced by a spiritual investment in the work itself, not in the expectation of a revolution in America's moral potential.