Updated: Mar 5
“Inclusion is not a matter of political correctness. It is the key to growth.” — Jesse Jackson
Historical backdrop of Racial discrimination in America
Equality is not a utopian concept or an abstract ideal etched in Constitutions or in the words of eminent jurists. It’s a perception of universal brotherhood that flows from the natural rights jurisprudence. The United States of America, a melting pot of diverse cultures has a long-drawn history of racial discrimination. As a necessary consequence of slavery, the concept of Northern racism made headway and colour-based discrimination almost became an accepted norm. This widespread discrimination and untold stories of the suffering of the African-American community was first brought to light by the “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral,” by Phillis Wheatley (1773). The accounts of the first –ever narrative by Phillis, a woman of colour stirred debates and resentment as it threatened the very social construct.
An important political development followed this when Thomas Jefferson in 1785 in his work “Notes on the State of Virginia” echoed the sentiments of the Whites and justified slavery and the prejudicial treatment meted out to the African Americans. This marks a significant moment in the political history of America as his contribution in Constitutional legacy of USA stands unparalleled. He crusaded for the inclusion of “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence,1776. Hailed as a moment of the birth of hope for civic liberties for all, the thoughts penned down in “Notes on the State of Virginia” stands in contradistinction to his grand promises.
Following the Civil War, which changed the course of history and political discourse on racial discrimination, racial violence and instances of gross human right violations continued. While the Emancipation proclamation of 1862 instilled an unprecedented ray of hope of a better tomorrow, the stark contrast to reality cannot be missed. A report from Equal Justice Initiative, traces the timeline right after the Civil War i.e 1865-1876 also known as the Reconstruction era, where thousands of rampant lynchings and terror attacks took place against Black people. In an effort to reunite the southern States from the Confederacy, the infamous “Black Codes” were passed under the Johnson administration in 1865-66.
Despite numerous legislative measures, scattered instances of violence did continue to take place. In the 1994, the USA signed and ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). The provisions of which truly make a firm commitment to the grand premise of equality and elimination of discrimination. In terms of commitments, the country’s efforts are laudatory, however the instances of violence and disregard to human rights of persons of colour have been deeply concerning.
The “Black Lives Matter”protests: Solidarity against race-based violence
Dissent over discrimination has been a common thread tying the loose ends of the American history on racial discrimination starting way back from the Civil War itself. Fast forward to 2020, with increasing Covid-19 infections staring at the face of the nation, the Black Lives Matter movement resonated across the globe. It was a call to not just stand up against discrimination but a resounding message to not tolerate such acts of violence anymore. The origins of the movement can be traced back to a small group in Los Angeles demanding justice for the death of Travyon Martin in 2013. What started as a small movement and hushed conversations has now become the modern social revolution in the USA. The movement clearly gained traction and garnered global support in the backdrop of the demise of Micheal Brown and George Floyd which exposed the dark side of “white supremacy”.
The political developments in America have garnered global attention over the past few months which culminated in President-elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris assuming office. Strong leadership and goal-oriented progress has never been more crucial. The challenges faced by the nation are insurmountable-rising COVID-19 infections and the unprecedented economic recession. The Biden administration’s commitment to human rights issues and inclusivity in public administration portfolios could hold the keys to his success as a President. The aftermath of the “Black Lives Matter” movement has truly questioned the nation’s commitment to diversity and inclusive development. The Biden-Kamala led US administration face herculean challenges to make America - A nation for all.
The spirit of America as a nation of equals stems from the Constitutional promise in the 13th Amendment which solidified the nation’s commitment to abolishing slavery. The quest to promote racial equality has been an unspoken priority to the governments to go beyond appeasement and truly embrace acceptance.
Amanda’s Message for America
The 59th presidential inauguration of the United States of America was truly one of many firsts... Amidst the political speeches lined up for the ceremony, the voice of the dynamic youth of the country, echoed across the historic Capitol building. There she was, sharing her reflections on the ideals, this great nation has always committed itself to. Amanda Grover, a 22 year-old woman of colour, became the youngest poet to have ever performed in a presidential inauguration. Her evocative words were reflective of the Preambular words of “We the people of the United States…”  Her message instilling hope and resilience reflects the need for renewed commitments i.e. “All lives matter”. This piece is an attempt to draw inspiration from the words of Amanda Grover through the excerpts from her poetry , “The Hill we climb” in light of the Black Lives Matter Movement in America.
“We’ve braved the belly of the beast
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace.”
To look back in hindsight of the year that has gone by, it would not be an understatement to say that the Black Lives Matter protests which started in June 2020 has made global headlines, initiated conversations, and rekindled academic discussions on racial equality. With the participation of around 15-26 million people in the demonstrations that took place all over America, it has been one of the largest movements in the history of the country. The Black Lives Matter movement has been hailed the modern equivalent of the Civil rights movement in American history.
“When day comes we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry, a sea we must wade.”
The day and night imagery used by Amanda, almost reminiscent of the Shakespearean classic “Romeo and Juliet”, reflects the despair of the protesters seeking justice for those who have lost lives to the notions of ‘us versus them’. She admires the ray of hope, the protestors held on to, in their quest for social transformation. The “loss we carry, a sea we must made” stand as metaphorical representations of the history of Civil rights movements in America wading through discrimination, and struggles for an egalitarian society.
“In the norms and notions of what just is
Isn’t always justice”
Reflections on “The Hill we climb”
The poetry “ The Hill we climb” takes us back in time to one of the most impactful speeches of all time, the “I have a dream” speech from Martin Luther King Jr. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed — we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” The Black Lives Matter movement is a reflection of the resentment, the African American community voiced over the denial of this equality, he hoped for. He dreamt of a nation, where the children of the future would be judged by the content of their character over the colour of their skin.
Another interesting reference that can be picked up, to understand Amanda’s poetry as much more than a piece of literature is the symbolism in her accessories. As she adorned the relic gifted by Maya Angelou for the event, her poetry can be understood to be a song of freedom. Drawing inspiration from Maya’s seminal work, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, this song hasn’t been heard for the longest time, as they have been sung behind the cages of discrimination and archaic notions
“And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us,
But what stands before us.
We close the divide because we know to put our future first”
Representing the rich legacy left behind by writers such as Maya, Pablo Neruda who have used their literary prowess to highlight racial discrimination and social inequalities, Amanda’s work is a modern take on this narrative. Her poetry reflects the need for the American community to stand together against racial discrimination. It is time to steer clear from the commitment to ideals in spirit and truly live a life of equality and oneness.
“We are striving to forge our union with purpose
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colours, characters and conditions of man.”
The poem titled “The Hill we climb” truly embodies the uphill challenges the nation and the Biden administration face, as America braces itself for a new chapter in its political history. Her poetry truly could be a moment when history was made, as America and the countries across the world were healed by the power of her words. Dignity of individuals and the commitment to all cultures resonated amongst the global community who have been waiting to be heard, waiting to be accepted. As nations have come to realise that global peace and universal brotherhood are no more ideals, there is a need now more than ever, to collaborate than compete.
Often political rhetoric is viewed as appealing to sentiments of nationalism and reflecting the glorious past of the nation. But the Black Lives Movement protests, remind us of the importance of patriotism and guiding social discourse to take up deep concerning issues. The demonstrations are to be viewed as expressions of dissent over divergences from the commitment to racial equality. Although the widespread protests and demonstrations in the midst of the increasing Covid-19 infections were deeply concerning, the protests signify the need for America to be a nation that truly reflects, represents and respects diversity.
“Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.”
Title Image Source: PIPA Wall Art
This article has been written by Harita Ramachandran. Harita is a final year student of law pursuing BA LLB (Hons.) in Christ (Deemed to be University), Bengaluru. Her areas of academic interests include climate change law, public policy and human rights.