Alex Gibson on the Life of Dr. King

Appalshop Executive Director, Alex Gibson, offered this keynote address at Hazard Community and Technical College to a few hundred people on January 15, 2018 in commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He also appeared on WYMT’s Issues & Answers that same evening.

The following is a transcript of his address, and while long, we hope it will inspire you as it did the audience.

I want to tell you a personal story. I want to tell you about why my life started one way and proceeded to go another. Further, I want to tell you why I think my point of view changed, and, finally, I hope that by hearing my story you find a piece of your personal truth buried within. So, please indulge me for the briefest of moments—and let’s take a walk in my shoes.

As early as I can remember I was asked, who are you, are you more King or more Malcolm? This is a critical question in the black community and one that every black person has to answer. I want to tell you some reasons why I grew up as a supporter of Malcolm, but I became an advocate for King. One generation before Malcolm and King, there was, again, two black leaders: Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. Booker T. Washington argued that blacks should serve whites as “fingers serve the palm” by learning trades; Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, the first black PhD from Harvard, advocated education and self-reliance.  Unsurprisingly, those two leaders were treated very differently in the United States—and it was for obvious political reasons. After promoting his ill-received sense of justice, W.E.B. Du Bois moved to Paris while Booker T., celebrated in America, became the first black person on a U.S. currency, and was given enough money to start a college in Mississippi. Today, some wonder if King and Malcolm X is a similar situation. Is Martin Luther King a distraction? Malcolm X made people rage and demand justice, and King, well, King made you weep.

Malcolm X, Du Bois, Garvey, and others demanded justice now! While Booker T., King and others asked us to pray, to plan, and to love. In the face of water hoses drenching children, ripping the clothes from their bodies, while police dogs, trained to hunt the smell of the hair oil blacks used at the time, ripped at their legs and feet, gnawing away any hope of reconciliation; too many, those images chewed the American dream and spit it up into in our faces. Malcolm was bold! Malcolm, well, Malcolm made us march in unison, with uniforms and promises not to drink liquor, not to gamble, or participate in white culture. To Malcolm, the only solution was complete separation of the races. For, to him, white people would never allow blacks to exist in equality. To Malcolm, whiteness represented the ethnicity of the world’s oppressors. Malcolm would ask, “What brown nation, Muslim, Latino, African or Indian, has not known the brutal whip of a European overlord questing after more and more wealth at the expense of the world’s most vulnerable?”  When I was a child, in rural Jackson County, I saw Martin Luther King as sweet, but Malcolm, born Malcolm Little, also known as El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, as an historical realist. 

I have been called an abomination, a mutt, a half-breed. I’ve been called the result of some black man who was trying to feel better about himself by marrying a white woman, or some white woman who didn’t feel “ethnic” enough, and so she got a black man. I have learned how to quickly answer the questions of my friends, and of myself, with the least amount of pain possible, but the truth is that I don’t always know where I fit in. I don’t feel comfortable wearing jerseys, I don’t rap, and I am confused when I hear country music. There is no starker difference than that of black and white. One side of me holds the historical whip and the other sweats with the plow. While most people are asked what their name is or where they are from, soon after meeting me someone asks if I speak Spanish, or if I perm my hair. My identity has become the subject of debates about the repercussions of a globalized world where national identities are changing, mutating. My life is a 60 Minutes special, a media probe, a Montel Williams show. The Vietnamese have a name for biracials; they call us the “dust children,” due to our constant fight for grounding in a world that demands truths to be either black or white with no room for gray, but I am gray.

I was born in inner-city Cincinnati, Ohio to a Caucasian mother and an African-American father.  My parents divorced when I was eight and I moved to Jackson County, Kentucky with my mother, where I spent the next ten years living in an all-white family. Due to my parents’ unhappy marriage, my vision of black people was one of hurt and pain because my father hurt my mother in the divorce. My mother tried to combat this mentality but the battle was difficult because my feelings were not always obvious, especially to me.

My experiences in Jackson County were very challenging, although they helped me develop a sort of “trial by fire.” I was one of two “black” students in a school of more than 500 Caucasian students. At a young age I understood that there was a “place” where people wanted me to be; however, I was never going to accept that “place.” When some students found out I was biracial they called me an abomination, and scribbled “Nigger” on my locker. I was told by a preacher that my parents were not “equally yoked” and that is why my parents’ coupling and my birth was a sin. Accordingly, to him, I was tainted with another type of “original sin,” the curse of Ham he, and others since, have called it. In other words, according to this theologian, I, and people like me, brown people, were to be eternally punished because Ham, Noah’s son, once looked upon Noah naked while Noah was drunk. Well, that’s bad news for me, I guess. The other black student at the school often joined in the hazing; even making racist jokes. She would twirl her hair on her index finger, smack bubblegum loudly, and talk with an accent like she was from Malibu or somewhere. I was angry, sad, and wanted to ask her why, but I didn’t. I bit my tongue; I did not understand. To this day I wonder what she would have said. I wonder if she is happy. I wonder if she still makes those racist jokes.

During my years living in Jackson County I struggled to understand who I was. I struggled with my skin color, wishing at times that I was the same as everyone else, not necessarily white, just wishing not to be so different. It’s not always easy for me to understand. My mother didn’t know how to raise me as a black or biracial man. The best my mother could do was to love me the best that she knew how. Sometimes my mother bought porcelain angels from the dollar store and painted their faces and hands many different colors with fingernail polish. I used to think she was crazy, but later I understood that there was a method to her madness and a thoughtfulness and tenderness that we could all learn from.

 My life took a very difficult turn for the worse when my parents passed away within three years of each other. My father was diagnosed with Scleroderma (a debilitating disease), which eventually led to his death. During my sophomore year in high school, my mother died of a massive heart attack after driving me to school because I had missed the bus. The death of my mother and father caused me to lose my refuge, my sense of calm. It was then I realized that I had to move my life in a new direction. I understood that I had to become an adult, even if I couldn’t grow a good mustache. Luckily, my father had been able to spend a year living with us in Jackson County before his death. During that year, I was able to understand more about what it means to be a black man in the United States. I desperately needed this type of knowledge, and so the next semester I enrolled myself in “The Piney Woods Country Life School,” a historically black boarding school in Mississippi.

 I entered Piney Woods with the thought of myself being biracial, but mostly black, because that is what I was called in Jackson County.  I was challenged from the first day. People said I sounded like Forrest Gump, that I dressed funny, and that I walked like I had a problem in my knees. My second year at Piney Woods everything changed because I learned how to act, how to pretend. I began to refer to myself as black, and while I did not deny my heritage, I rarely volunteered the information unless requested. I thought that I had finally found something that escaped me for so long, an identity. I could make jokes, have discussions, and enjoy the company of other people—I belonged. Previously I felt like an outsider always asking to be let in; at Piney Woods I felt like I had the keys.

The problems came when my friends made jokes. “White boy,” they called me most often, and I laughed because I noticed that the few other biracial kids would laugh. I figured that was what biracial people, who want to be perceived as black people, do – they laugh. I began to focus on basketball because it seemed as though the better I was at basketball, the fewer jokes I heard. I became pretty good over the years and developed a love for the game that allowed me to break down barriers and open friendships across many cultures in places such as Mexico and Thailand. It is in basketball that I noticed, between the crossovers, the cuts, and the passes, everyone’s skin color disappears.

I knew as a senior at Piney Woods that my next step was to going to be college. I had only one choice and it was Berea College. I had no parents, or rich relatives. I knew that my best chance for success was going to be at Berea College where people work for their tuition. I remember how excited I was when I got that Berea College acceptance letter. I believed this was my new shot in life and looked forward to a college where everyone is on equal standing.

 I decided while still in high school that I was going to run for freshmen class president. When I came to Berea that was exactly what I did; I ran, I campaigned hard, and I won. I was active my freshmen year and tried to do as many things as possible. In the back of my mind I wondered how a biracial man could be elected class president in a school that is 68% white. I began to question whether or not the larger Caucasian community could be classified into parameters of racist or non-racist, or whether all of them in fact saw me as different, or whether we all dangled somewhere in-between.  I believe this was the beginning of my larger quest for the reality of identity.

I was given the financial assistance to volunteer for two summers in San Felipe, Mexico teaching English to the Mazahua people, who are an indigenous group in Mexico. I remember having a discussion with some of the indigenous people about how they viewed the Mestizo (the larger biracial class in Latin America). Many Mazahua spoke of the pain that the Mestizos have inflicted on them over the years, and they told me that in all of Mexico’s history there had only been one indigenous president, Benito Juarez.  The Mazahua spoke of how their children grew up refusing to speak their dialect, listening to popular music, and marrying outside of their tradition. This reminded me of Jackson County and the other black student – I understood all too well.

 In parts of Latin America, being biracial is often valued over being either European or being indigenous. I wondered why things seemed so different in Latin America compared to the United States where biracial people search for simplicity, simple whiteness or blackness.  Americans don’t do grays. Many biracial people relish the few moments when people will call them “Black,” or “Chinese,” or “Indian,” and forget or disregard the secret that they are in fact biracial. We wait and long to be accepted by a group of people with whom we can never completely identify, yet we often pretend to.  Being both black and white, I seem all too often to suffer the pains that being black brings, yet I cannot enjoy the social privileges that being white brings. I am constantly reminded by my African-American friends that I have it better than they do because I am light skinned, but it certainly does not feel like that most of the time. 

 During the fall of my junior year, I traveled to Thailand for a semester. I wanted to go somewhere that challenged me, so for six months I had very little access to running water, hot meals, toilets, or English. I found in Thailand a people who were amazingly kind, generous, hospitable, and obsessed with not getting darker from the sun. Almost everyone goes outside with umbrellas when it is not raining; you would be hard-pressed to find a lotion without a skin-lightening cream in it; and billboards are adorned with people who have much lighter skin than does the average Thai. Later on I found out that it was the biracial Thai, Thai and Caucasian, or Lougkrung (meaning literally “half child”) in Thai, who was being depicted on the billboards, television, and commercials.  The Lougkrung is considered by many Thais to be the most beautiful combination possible.

            Being in Thailand furthered my desire to understand how people across the world grapple with biracialism. During my life I have wrestled with the question of not only who I am, but also how people, as a group, or individually, find identity when their identity is shared between two different histories. In Mexico the ruling class is biracial, in Thailand the ruling class is Thai but the “beautiful” class is biracial, and in the United States the biracial person goes ignored, unnoticed, even not talked about – biracial is…. wishy washy, which side am I on?

In the United States to be biracial is seen by some as an abomination, evidence of a take-over by the brown-skinned people that has been warned about. To others it is a symbol of human triumph, the triumph of love over hate.

            I have argued with Thai’s about why Cambodians deserve human rights, why they are not all lazy tricksters looking to live off the Thai welfare system. I have had the same arguments with Germans discussing the Turkish population that has recently moved in. I have talked with Mexicans who say the indigenous people are lazy, ugly and violent. They say that the indigenous are drunkards and drug dealers, who don’t know how to live in “civilized Mexico.”  In Romania, I have heard the Romanians hatred toward the Gypsies. They say they kill your property value by loitering and littering. They ignore Romanian law, don’t pay taxes, and get in drunken brawls. In fact, the Gypsies are treated badly across Europe. Why? Do we need a reason? I found so many reasons to hate, that, and this will sound crazy, they all start to blend in. Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants, Israelis and Palestinians, Australians and Aboriginals; Blacks sound like Han Chinese, sound like Cambodians, sound like Native Americans. It becomes obvious, over time, seeing hatred and bigotry after bigotry. It becomes obvious that we have a choice. In times of strife we can circle our wagons around those who look like us, and, for a time, we can think that those people are “us.” To do that, to define an “us,” we have to define a “them,” an enemy whose actions we view with distrust. If one of ours commits a crime, it’s viewed as “a mistake” or a “justifiable isolated event.” When one of them commits a crime, it’s a symbol of their entire race. How could you expect anything different? They are the bad guys, right? The truth is, I have found, there are very few bad guys in the world, there are, instead, people with different understandings of truth. And your truth is often the truth of your grandparents and their grandparents, as morals are passed down generation by generation along racial and religious lines. These truths are shaped by our understanding of history and culture, our sense of justice, and our understanding of God.  Often times our truths are so important to us, so vital, so TRUE with a capital T, that we will die, or kill, to defend what we understand. Step back for a moment, though, and look at this world from 1000 miles above. One Earth, many cultures, many truths, much disagreement, scarce resources – only so much food, water, and money. These conditions create a powder keg ready to explode. Martin Luther King understood this 1000 mile perspective, while Malcolm X fought only for his little slice of justice based only on his little slice of knowledge.

            The Muslim faith is aware of this fact. Part of the requirements for Muslims, called the Five Pillars of Islam, is that, if able, a Muslim is required to make a pilgrimage to the Islamic holy city of Mecca at least once in their life. About one-and-a-half-million Muslims make this trip each year. After Malcolm X returned from Mecca, where he witnessed many people of different races all worshiping together, he changed his belief. Malcolm X, once Malcolm Little, changed his name again, becoming el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. He apologized to King for misunderstanding the goal, and proceeded to live his life supporting equal rights for all and full integration. It was soon after this transformation that the forces that used to support Malcolm X, the separatist Nation of Islam, had him assassinated and replaced with another radical black leader who preached hatred. We all have choices to make, and some forces will always push us toward destruction. 

It is part of our nature to hate, but in every situation there are a percentage of people, in every nation I have visited, who reminded me of King and who reminded me of Malcolm X. Those who reminded me of King and who identified with his legacy, refused to be part of the tired cycle of racial hatred. Those people understood that we all have to find a way to live together. Otherwise, we will tear the gentile fabric of our democracy apart. Because democracy, that beautiful experiment with the nature of self-governance, requires a population that can disagree without becoming disagreeable. Democracy requires that we put aside the rule of power and force in favor of the rule of fairness and equality. Those who spend their lives fighting for the rights of others do so because they see a world that can be better than it has been. No, it will never be perfect, but every day spent trying to create a more perfect union of our nation with its ideals is an act of revolutionary importance. And when we fail, there will be honor in the failure, because we pushed the Sisyphus stone one inch more up the impossible hill. Just as the entrepreneur sees a hole in the market that needs a service, or the teacher sees something in the disruptive student, those who look to humanity for its potential, and not its failures, those who take from themselves to give to others, those who see a smile on a child’s face and just want that to keep going, well…

Those people always stand out. In fact, they stand a bit above the rest.

In closing, today when we think of Martin Luther King, think of all of those in your life who have asked you to toss away your anger and to replace it with understanding. Think of those in your life who forgave you when you didn’t deserve it. Think of grace. Martin Luther King, in the face of terrible oppression and every motivation to return violence, refused to. Why? Dr. King was assassinated because the world wasn’t ready. But just because hate defeats love in one battle, doesn’t mean it’s stronger. We will kill for what we believe in, true, but we live for what we love. Don’t forget that. Dr. King was killed because we are not a perfect union, nor are we a perfect democracy, and finally, we were not the people then that we are today. We are better now than we were then, and we are not yet there, but, I have a dream.