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  • Helanius J. Wilkins

In My Skin: A 2021 MLK Day Holiday Reflection

In my mind, hope and Martin Luther King Jr. are synonymous. I cannot think of him without a feeling of hope being invoked or recalling his many inspiring and poetic words. I often wonder if he could make a phone call to me from his resting place, what would be his assessment of this time – this moment. How would he communicate the soul of our nation’s divide while also channeling pathways for actioning? I wonder…

Observing this year’s MLK Day holiday comes between the insurrection that took place on Wednesday, January 6th, placing white body supremacy boldly front and center and further exposing America in crisis, and two days before a historic inauguration where a glass ceiling will be broken with the swearing in of Kamala Harris as the first female, who is also of Black and Asian descent, Vice President of the United States. From one extreme – a full on threat to democracy that also sent panic waves throughout my Black body – to the next – the ushering in of a new political administration focused on bridging the divide, I find myself circling back around to hope – the kind that my thoughts of Martin Luther King Jr. often conjure.

In Merriam Webster Dictionary hope is defined as “to cherish a desire with anticipation: to want something to happen or be true.” I am holding onto hope that one day I will be fortunate enough to experience, even for a tiny moment, what it feels like to not live on alert or in a body that is not foreign to feeling trapped in an endless cycle of apprehension. With all the progress we have made, no amount of success, public fame, or access to privileges removes my Black body (or other Black bodies) from the suspect list – from being considered a threat to white America. When considering this, it is not surprising to me that Dr. King was widely disliked by the American public when he was killed, even though he is revered today.

I am not always sure what it feels like to be in my skin anymore. I oscillate between feeling and not feeling. At my best I am anchored in living, working, and dreaming in a space that uplifts humanity. I come alive in the spaces where I can inspire discovery, belonging, courage, and empathy. I become one with my art and artmaking. “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” (MLK)

In my skin I understand a need to always be ready and to stay the course. “Lightening makes no sound until it strikes.” (MLK) I selected the accompanying photo to go along with this blog post because of a favorite pair of boots that seems to be metaphoric for this moment. These boots were originally purchased to be in solidarity with the Rhythm Nation Army (LOL…a little humor is always good for the soul). I was gearing up for a joyful and exhaustive evening of dancing at a Janet Jackson concert several years ago.… Fast-forward to today, I am thinking about the heaviness, indestructibility, and sense of protection of the boots. Much like these boots, I am navigating this moment feeling a heaviness – the concern is palpable - yet a sense of being indestructible because of my determination and unrelenting climb up the mountain of NOs for the potential to get to one YES. Perhaps that one YES will be to experience what I am holding onto hope for – to experience what it truly feels like to exhale.

In my initial ruminations about the content of this blog post, I imagined a piece that would embody greater extremes and frictions, and one that would comment on blind spots, allyship, righting wrongs, and social justice work. However, in this moment, I feel less oriented to bring these topics into the fold. I simply want to sit still, inhale and exhale, and imagine that exhale is releasing from my Black body all what it means to be living while navigating systems that were not designed for bodies of culture to be included. What if my skin was not seen as a threat? What if I did not have to be on alert? Keeping hope alive…

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