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What Hope Actually Meant to Martin Luther King Jr. and President Obama

Here’s an exercise: If there’s someone near you right now, ask them to define hope. Quickly. What did they say: was it motivational? Did it deal with future ambition, expectation, and desire? Historically, hope has not always had such sugary connotations, and at one point—not so long ago, actually—it was more about confronting suffering in the present than mentally projecting yourself forward to a time where you have overcome your suffering. Drawing from an 1886 painting by George Frederic Watts called ‘Hope’, which inspired Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1959 sermon ‘Shattered Dreams’, Andre C. Willis presents a view of deep hope, a method of facing adversity that is woven together from the African American Protestant tradition. This video was filmed at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism, a three-year initiative which supported interdisciplinary academic research into significant questions that remain under-explored.

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So what I can share with you today is not an answer to the question of “What is hope?” but I can share with you about how a tradition that I’m involved in studying and that I’m linked to has a take on what ways of hoping may be better or more useful than others.
So my understanding of this tradition that I have studied and engaged with for a few years now is the African American Protestant tradition of hoping, that’s crafted over centuries of despair and dehumanization. And I think it has something to teach our nation.

Our nation that has in some ways undermined this very tradition of hoping. And the nation in some ways has trivialized hope itself, made hope into something that’s largely a market-driven quest for getting our aspirations, for reaching our goals, for achieving our aims.

I think one of the things that not unpacking this distinction between Obama’s hopes and King’s hopes—based on the painting which I’m going to describe now—is it leaves us more vulnerable to romantic conceptions of hope. We tend to fall into this way of thinking about hope that’s more reflective almost of what Shelley called in ‘Prometheus Unbound’, 1822, he said he wants “to hope till hope creates from its own wreck the thing it contemplates.” It’s a beautiful line, right, and I’m susceptible and seduced by that kind of hope.

But when I think about King and Obama and this painting I tend to get more clear about what is deep hope, right. So I want to highlight quickly the distinctions between both King and Obama and then I’ll be done, because I think this will help us understand both what I’m trying to get at and where we are now. So first, King’s hope, his description of hope is always disappointed and never realized, while Obama’s hope guides us past disappointment and is realizable. So here we have a clear difference between the Protestant embrace of a tragic sense of life and the kind of democratic politics of hope that aims to resist the politics of cynicism. And that’s fine. So the important thing to remember though is that the difference in the Protestant embrace of tragedy attenuates our inclinations for happy ending. It works against that romantic conception that I argue, I pointed out Shelley was referencing in the 1822 ‘Prometheus Unbound’ quote, right. Its romantic sense: to hope until hope reaches what it contemplates.

Second, King’s hope is a discipline of the present moment. It’s a social practice done in community with the aim of reminding us that our lives are always incomplete and unfinished. Our deep hopes will not come to fruition, is King’s point. In this way we might say that King’s hope is a way of relationship. It is a relating to suffering. It tells us to just keep going.
Obama’s hope on the other hand is the aspiration for the future. It’s a rational belief about the probability of attainment. Attaining one’s ambitions.

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