Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Keep Your Lamps Burning

CNN anchor and special correspondent Soledad O'Brien taps her foot in time and softly sings along with the New Alpha Missionary Baptist Church Children's Gospel Choir as cherubic preschoolers join the honeyed voices of their older brothers and sisters, captivating a capacity crowd in Ira Allen Chapel. Gathered in celebration of the work of Martin Luther King Jr., the music captures the message of O'Brien's keynote speech. As the gospel song intones, "Keep your lamps trimmed and burning 'til your work is done."

"I don't believe in getting angry," O'Brien says before the event. "What are you aiming at? Go get that accomplished." Her power as a speaker reflects that attitude. O'Brien's mother, she says, got mad -- threw plates even -- so she takes a gentler persuasive tact, one based in her experience as a mixed-race first-generation American with black, Cuban, Australian and Irish roots; studying King's speeches, his private papers and interviewing his closest advisers; reporting on disaster both natural and societal.

Soledad O'Brien

"The only way you can lead effectively in a challenging environment is to serve," said Soledad O'Brien at her Jan. 26 speech in memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. "By being a serving leader, (King had) the authenticity, the consistency, and ultimately the authority and his message came through." (Photo: Rajan Chawla)
This talk, the highlight of a week of events designed to explore King's ongoing relevance, was heavily shadowed by the earthquake and its aftermath in Haiti, where O'Brien was working just days ago. President Fogel, in his introduction, indirectly evoked circumstances there when he quoted from the Reverend Andrew Harris, found to be UVM's first African American graduate, class of 1838 (not George Washington Henderson as previously believed), in a speech he gave before the 1839 meeting of the American Antislavery Society:

"'If the groans and sighs of the victims of slavery could be collected, these walls would tremble, these pillars would be removed from their foundations, and we should find ourselves buried in the ruins of the edifice.'"
The connection between slavery in the U.S. and the current crisis in Haiti is one O'Brien would likely find apt. She was quick to point out that the earthquake was merely one event in a long history of human neglect.

The failure of Haiti as an infrastructure is a hundred years old," she says. "Haiti did not happen in a vacuum. They have a government that fails them. You cannot ignore a country for so long and then be surprised when there is a price to pay."

According to O'Brien, pre-earthquake Haiti had an 85 percent unemployment rate, 60 percent of the population had no access to healthcare, an estimated 225,000 children were working as slaves, farmed out as household help.

"As we sit and watch the pictures," she says, "we have to ask ourselves, 'Are we okay with this?'"

The current problems -- and solutions -- that O'Brien sees, beyond Haiti to what she deems a crisis in the education of young blacks and Latinos, are intimately connected with her close analysis of King's writings and of his unique characteristics as a leader. She views King as a shepherd, leading his people by serving, by example, by being as courageous and willing to suffer as he expected them to be.

"The only way you can lead effectively in a challenging environment is to serve," says O'Brien. "By being a serving leader, (King had) the authenticity, the consistency, and ultimately the authority and his message came through.

O'Brien clearly states that King's goals went deeper than feel-good relations between blacks and whites. She is purposeful in quoting pieces of his "I Have a Dream" speech that go beyond the easy and familiar. From that same speech she quotes King:

"The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges." And, "The negro has come to our nation's capital to cash a check."

King wanted, she notes, economic justice and justice before the law. And he believed in the ongoing fight, even as he foreshadowed his own death in his Memphis speech the day before his assassination. Personalizing that same confidence, O'Brien tells the story of her parents, their races making marriage illegal in Maryland where they both attended Johns Hopkins University, friends telling them, after they married in another state, not to have children at least.

But they had six and persisted in a faith in this country that went beyond their present reality, being spat upon on the street, even years later having a daughter told by a Harvard adviser to drop her major because blacks and women don't do well in physics. She didn't listen either. Now she's a Ph.D. and an M.D.

Their parents had told them, says O'Brien, "America is better than this. We won't settle for it because the goal is greater and when the goal is greater the risks are greater. Just because people tell you that you won't succeed doesn't actually have any correlation to whether you will succeed or not."

And so O'Brien is staunch about the morality of service. She says that was clearest to her watching the grim effects of inaction during Hurricane Katrina with an overwhelming sense of abandonment of people.

It recalls for her Dante's quote, "The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality."

"Think about that," she says. "There is nothing worse than doing nothing and saying nothing when your voice is needed. Even the perpetrator of something bad is less bad than the person standing by who has an opportunity to speak or to act and chooses not to."

In O'Brien's channeling of King, a world where some people fail is a world that has failed. "There are talkers and there are doers," she says. "Which are you? Which am I?"

Release Date: 01-27-2010 Author: Lee Ann Cox1 Email: LeeAnn.Cox@uvm.edu2 Phone: 802/656-1107. Fax: (802) 656-3203

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