Recently I appeared at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Penn., for a talk entitled “Making America As Good As Its Promise.” So you don’t confuse the theme of my talk with the slogan of a particular presidential campaign, let me delineate the difference.
I disdain the way Trump is exploiting it, but I actually understand the anger that many of his supporters feel. I believe those questions, in fact, represent their pain better than he does. While I’m not an angry black man, I do have a righteous indignation that burns inside me about the myriad of injustices that result in a daily contestation of people’s humanity. The question is whether that feeling of being left out or left behind will be channeled into love and justice or hatred and revenge? I told the students at Lehigh that evening that I’m going with unarmed truth, unconditional love and being creatively maladjusted to injustice.
But at the conclusion of my talk, I was introduced to another question that still haunts me. I had handled most of the closing Q&A questions. Then one student hit me with this:
“Mr. Smiley, do you believe that given the crisis state of our democracy, we black folk could ever find ourselves enslaved again?”
Whoa. Didn’t see that one coming. Neither did the mostly white audience. A quiet fell over the room. I swallowed hard.
Looking directly at the student, I could see he was dead serious, and I wanted to treat his question with the soberness it deserved. But, truthfully, I stumbled as I began to respond, not knowing how to properly frame my response.
My answer? Yes.
So, could the Constitution be thwarted and black folk end up enslaved again? Legal scholars, of course, will find the question ludicrous and laughable.
It wasn’t farfetched for the young student who pressed me at Lehigh that evening. And, honestly? With the hair-raising, bone-chilling, spine-breaking, nerve-wracking path we’re on right now, I shudder to think where this democracy could end up one sad day, if we don’t get off this low road and make our way to higher ground soon.