Words of Wisdom from DeRay Mckesson

Two summers ago, our neighborhood library hosted a book festival that included a panel with authors April Ryan, journalist and White House correspondent; Michael Eric Dyson, professor and contributing opinion writer for the New York Times; and DeRay Mckesson. I recalled Mckesson’s name from a recent conversation with college students who had been excited to host him on their campus. The students were surprised that I did not know who Mckesson was, asking them how to spell his name, since it was the first time I had heard it.

Now as Mckesson was on the neighborhood library’s panel with Ryan and Dyson, I wondered what book he had authored. As the panel spoke, I never discovered whether or not Mckesson had written a book. All I knew was that he was an activist who shared his experience in Ferguson after the police shooting and killing of Michael Brown.

On the Other Side of Freedom book coverAt some point, I read an OpEd piece Mckesson had written for The Washington Post and, since I live outside of Baltimore, I heard that he had raised money as part of a campaign to become mayor of the city. Despite hearing his name several times, he remained on the periphery of my attention. A few weeks ago, I saw Mckesson in Washington, DC, at the Atlantic Festival. Mary Louise Kelly, a host of All Things Considered on National Public Radio, interviewed him about a book he had written titled On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope.

As he was describing some of his experiences and sharing his opinions about activists and protests, I downloaded his book to my Kindle. The next day, I was on a phone call with my dear friend and long-time colleague, Caryn McTighe Musil, and she told me that she had been up since very early morning reading a book that her daughter had sent to her. The book was Mckesson’s On the Other Side of Freedom. As she described what she was reading, she emphasized that Mckesson wrote that “hope was work.” Even as Caryn explained her interpretation of what Mckesson meant, I did not grasp the way he might be connecting hope and work. Then I read the book. OMG!

If I were not reading the book on Kindle, I would run out of tape flags to mark the pages I want to reread:

  • I flagged the pages where Mckesson contrasts and compares faith and hope.
  • I flagged the pages where he reveals the findings of the Mapping Police Violence
  • I flagged the pages where he shares his concept of God in the context of activism.
  • I flagged the pages where he distinguishes between an ally and an accomplice, and on and on.
  • Particularly poignant is the essay about identity and coming out of the quiet; I flagged many of these pages.

This young man who shows up everywhere in his blue vest brings the message for the times we live in. He both deconstructs and enlarges the media sound bites and snapshots of protests to reveal the motivations and sacrifices of those who know the urgency of sounding the alarm for those who have become complacent or have chosen to accept things as they are. Mckesson’s book can inspire by helping readers understand that hope is about the work that needs to be done to create the world we must imagine.

I’m late to the conversation because others have already recognized Mckesson with honors and accolades. This gifted young man is a quintessential leader for our time. Mckesson is no longer on the periphery of my vision and attention. My eyes and attention are locked on him because I think he is the real deal. He writes:

I often think about God in the context of activism as reminding us of our moral courage—of being a compass as we navigate key moral issues, those of good and evil and those of justice. Moral courage is the courage you summoned because you are firmly rooted in the righteousness of the task at hand. (11)

From the essays in this book, I believe that his work is his church. I think that his congregation consists of all the people he meets along the way who are voicing the wrongs and outlining the way toward the right. The essays indicate that his sacrifices are real.

That activists and protests mattered then and now should never be in doubt. Mckesson confirms this for me when he writes that “protest is a precursor to the solution [and] creates space that would otherwise not exist, and forces conversations and topics that have long been ignored into the public sphere.” (122)

I encourage others to read this succinct and brief dispatch filled with words of wisdom. It could change your mind and your life.

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