The Sound of the Genuine
Finding community through chaos in Atlanta and beyond
In 1963, I tried to talk to the nation about a dream I had had, and I must confess to you today that not long after talking about that dream, I started seeing it turn into a nightmare (Dr. King, 1967)
This past week I discovered these words at Dr. King’s Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, during a week in which much of the world felt like we were indeed living in a nightmare.
Together with a group of Echoing Green Fellows — with hearts fragmented and in search of hope — we quietly entered into the humble Ebenezer Baptist Church that Dr. King had pastored. And as we sat in reverence on the wooden pews, Dr. King’s words began to fill the small sanctuary and the not-so-small cracks in our faith, reminding us that:
The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
Outside of the church, standing next to Dr. King’s burial place, his message burned on through the Eternal Flame, a 24/7 fire that “symbolizes the continuing effort to realize Dr. King’s ideals for the ‘Beloved Community,’ which requires lasting personal commitment that cannot weaken when faced with obstacles.”
A few days later, we met with President John Wilson of Morehouse College, the historically black college where Dr. King earned his BA degree. During his keynote address, President Wilson shared with us from Dr. King’s “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community,” reminding us that we’ve been here before and encouraging us that there is nothing wrong with the world that can’t be fixed by what is right with the world.
He went on to talk about another true role model (and Morehouse grad), Dr. Howard Thurman, who wrote about the Sound of the Genuine: that unique something that each of us possess, but that can only be discovered when we move through the noises and rumblings and traffic and confusions, and get still enough to hear the genuine in ourself.
Dr. Thurman goes on to describe the one thing that we as a humanity might desire most out of life:
I want to feel that I am thoroughly and completely understood so that now and then I can take my guard down and look out around me and not feel that I will be destroyed with my defenses down.
I want to feel completely vulnerable, completely naked, completely exposed and absolutely secure. This is what you look for in your children when you have them. This is what you look for in your husband if you get one. That I can run the risk of radical exposure and know that the eye that beholds my vulnerability will not step on me. That I can feel secure in my awareness of the active presence of my own idiom in me.
So as I live my life then, this is what I am trying to fulfill. It doesn’t matter whether I become a doctor, lawyer, housewife, that I’m secure because I hear the sound of the genuine in myself, and having learned to listen to that, I can become quiet enough, still enough to hear the sound of the genuine in you.
Perhaps it’s through these words that we can start seeing — or, hearing — a way forward. By not just listening and following the Sound of the Genuine in ourselves, but in trying to hear it in others, in “the other.” The people who voted as they did not because they are a racist/bigot/misogynist/xenophobe, but despite all of their deep concerns about these terrible things.
President Wilson went on to share the beloved quote from Mark Twain:
The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.
He claimed that Morehouse is a “second day” campus, where he, and Dr. Thurman and even Dr. King had their second day. And that perhaps this is the path to building character as a nation and to building a way forward from where we are today: by finding and following the sound of the genuine in ourselves, and then becoming still enough to hear it in others.
It certainly will not be easy, but as Dr. King said, we are ultimately measured by where we stand not during moments of comfort but during times of challenges.