Régine Jean-Charles, an Africana Studies professor, is out with her third book, A Trumpet of Conscience for the 21st Century: King’s Call to Justice. How the Black feminist literary scholar came to connect the dots between Martin Luther King’s 1960s-era speeches with modern-day social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter is a story in itself.
It was early 2019 and, teaching at another school in Boston at the time, Jean-Charles was asked to deliver a King holiday speech in front of hundreds of people. She wanted to remember the civil rights icon outside of what she calls “the box” that his legacy has been in since his death in 1968.
“The ‘I Have a Dream’ box, the colorblind society box, the peace box,” Jean-Charles recalled Tuesday at a book launch event in the Cabral Center on the Boston campus. She joined Northeastern over the summer and holds the following titles: Dean’s Professor of Culture and Social Justice; professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies; and director of Africana Studies.
The idea behind her new book actually sprang from an op-ed she authored in 2019, “It’s time to take Martin Luther King Jr. out of the box.”
In thinking about what her next publication would look like, following her acclaimed books on the politics of rape and Black feminism, Jean-Charles says she was “really determined to think about King from a different angle.”
A friend suggested that instead of another work centered on King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Jean-Charles should focus on his lesser-known The Trumpet of Conscience, a series of lectures that he delivered in 1967 for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
The five sets of remarks included “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” in which King talks about his famous March on Washington address in 1963. “Not long after talking about that dream,” he said in the Christmas sermon, “I started seeing it turn into a nightmare.” King was referring to a church bombing in Alabama that same year that killed four young Black girls, the U.S. war with Vietnam, and inner city poverty.
“My goodness,” Jean-Charles said, “if people knew about this speech, would they always use ‘I Have a Dream’ as their one King speech that they quote?”
Inspired by that CBC lecture series, she had two goals in mind for her new book―to encourage people to think beyond “Dream,” while at the same time reflecting on King’s messages as they relate to contemporary social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and prison abolition, which favors rehabilitation over incarceration.
“These were movements that I taught about,” the professor said. “So I really wanted to use The Trumpet of Conscience as a lens for looking at these movements.”
As part of her book’s launch event, she was interviewed by Yndia Lorick-Wilmot, a fellow member of Northeastern’s Africana Studies Program and a senior lecturer in sociology. Jean-Charles, asked why now for her book’s subject matter, responded: “We’re in this moment as a culture where justice is having the layers of it pulled back,” she explained.
“People are finally understanding that when you say ‘Black lives matter,’ too often it felt like women weren’t included, even though women started the movement. You have to behave as though all Black lives matter,” Jean-Charles added. “It doesn’t matter if they’re Black trans lives, if they’re Black queer lives, if they’re Black poor lives, if they’re Black Haitian lives.”
She recalled attending a recent conference with U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, who is Black.
“She kept saying ‘Haitian lives are Black lives,’” Jean-Charles, a Haitian American, said. “So when Haitians are mistreated at the border, they need to stand up and say that Black lives matter around the globe.”
Contemporary social justice movements are bolder and more imaginative than those in King’s time, she added.
“It’s like those T-shirts that say ‘I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams,’ which attest to a generation that is building upon the wisdom of previous generations to go even deeper into the roots of all forms of injustice,” Jean-Charles said.
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