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Open Society President Patrick Gaspard on the Meaning of Citizenship

Still image from "Patrick Gaspard Honored with the NAACP's Spingarn Medal"

Patrick Gaspard, president of the Open Society Foundations, was given the honor of a lifetime in late July: the NAACP’s 2019 Spingarn Medal, which is bestowed annually in recognition of outstanding achievement by an African American.

In his acceptance speech, Gaspard called on the next generation of activists: “Go where the silence is. Hear a stranger’s name and let it mean you. Go to where the silence is, and feel a child’s dying heartbeat at the border and let it be yours. Go to where the silence is, stand still, and speak where you sing.”

To watch Gaspard’s speech, please see the video above. You can also find a full transcript of his remarks below.

A man could not be more overwhelmed. Reverend Sharpton. Rev Al. Reverend brother. Thank you for the cloak of your introduction which allows me to feint as if I can locate my own meager efforts in the stream of history you’ve expounded. Thank you for your brotherhood that has made the journey that much lighter. Thank you for your sacrifices that have extended a halo of protection in America’s streets for all of our children in the crosshairs. Rev, you and I will always have the Slave Theater in Bed-Stuy. Tonight, Rev, as I acknowledge this extraordinary honor, I will pick up the theme of this conference and speak a word about what it means to fight back in dark times, but I’ll also raise a question about the fundamentality of our citizenship. These are issues that you and I have litigated in the streets of Brooklyn, as one more black light has been extinguished by repressive policing, and in the streets of Broward County where in the richest nation in history, our people have to plead for a minimum wage in an age of reason. I can’t help but observe that thirty years ago this summer, Rev Sharpton and I were in the streets demanding justice in the aftermath of the race-based slaying of 16-year-old Yusuf Hawkins. This grim anniversary reminds us that the conditions in America demand that each generation fashions its own radical citizenship.

Chairman Russell, a salute for your dynamic stewardship of this historic organization. President Johnson, thank you for all you’ve done to revitalize the tools of struggle at a moment of great vulnerability. I cannot observe protocols at an NAACP function without a bow to the activist godmother of so very many of us, a woman who will tell anyone who listens that she raised me up from protest to the White House—the indomitable Hazel Nell Dukes—the fiercest pound for pound fighter in the world. 

Friends, family, brothers, and sisters of the NAACP, architects of the Beloved Community, If the humble are crowned with salvation, tonight I am truly saved in a humility that is bottomless. It is not by my own hand that I arrive here in the shadow of prophets, and champions. A man has got to know his limitations. It’s clear that some divine mixture of the hand of provenance, the tutorials of mentors, and the love of family, has put me on a path that leads me inexplicably here—undeserving and unanticipated—as the recipient of an honor that makes me acutely aware of my smallness, even as I gain proximity to the distinction. There is no false modesty in stating plainly that my accomplishments, however trumpeted by the good reverend, who doubles as my hype man, need to be bloated in order to stand alongside the works of past recipients. But here I stand, in the fading echo of an old question that that still resounds—“Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” and meekly, I am saying, “here I am, send me.” 

So despite the weight of history, and with the audacity that this current era demands, at a moment when we dare not let the politics of performance trump the politics of principle, I am accepting this honor, not as a sinecure for past works, but rather as a provocation to spur me to step boldly and righteously to meet the onrushing demands of justice. I accept this with a knowing nod to my wife and children who were the real ambassadors to South Africa, and with a salute to my siblings here who are still wondering if I’ll ever come to anything. I accept on behalf of those seated who accompanied me here as friends but who first took me under their wing as their little brother in organizing for the rights of workers and the most marginalized. I accept in the orbit of Spingarn recipients of the past century who have defined the shape of our diaspora in the Black Atlantic that spreads from Dahomey to Detroit, I accept in the spirit of WEB Dubois’ radical scholarship; in the spirit of Paul Robeson who taught us that there is salvation in losing it all as you stand your ground to speak where you sing; in the spirit of A. Phillip Randolph, mobilizing the aspirations of laborers who had nothing save the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen. In the spirit of Langston Hughes who took up our dreams and hearts melodies and wrapped them in words to protect them from the too harsh fingers of the world. In the spirit of Barbara Jordan who showed that a woman’s voice is the earthquake that bends the arc. In the spirit of John Lewis who marshaled love as the greatest force in the universe; in the spirit of Jesse Louis Jackson who counted up the cost, and yet marched on; in the spirit of my great hero, Harry Belafonte whose soul’s high song carries our unblemished beauty and our unbroken solidarity.

In the spirit of my mother, Constance Gaspard, who arrived, a stranger in a strange land, who did all to claim a space for her immigrant children in this American story. Who cleaned up after the barons of Park Avenue to feed and ultimately to affirm. Hers is a citizenship that is staked and earned. (NAACP, there’s a queen sitting there—a Haitian American Queen.)

A citizenship that is earned. In essence, that is what the epic African-American journey is about. The quest for full citizenship animates our history—and the broader struggle over it poisons our politics. Citizenship has been the central feature in my work, starting with my first protest to my leadership of the Open Society Foundations. From campaigns to enable communities to access better education and healthcare; to demonstrations to liberate Haitian asylum seekers held in Guantanamo Bay; to boycotts and rallies, fists raised with Black South Africans disenfranchised in their own land; to civil disobedience in solidarity with Puerto Ricans seeking self determination; to organizing mass sit-ins in police stations in the wake of the denial of Amadou Diallo’s humanity; to mobilizing for access to the ballot for the formerly incarcerated who also need to be able to express their democratic aspirations. 

This lifelong investment in citizenship led me to be alarmed by an exchange that I had with my son in the run up to this engagement. It was a few short weeks ago, on the occasion of the celebration of America’s imperfect Independence Day. My son watched the assemblage of armored tank units on the people’s mall, a place that excites reflection, a place where a King once marched to cash a promissory note from America. My son saw the tanks, and considered them in the context of a government that strategically and viciously has locked up and separated brown children at its borders. He realized immediately that this marshal parade and the silence of the many married with the complicity of the powerful, had an incongruence with the projected values of his nation. He then said to me plainly and plaintively, “I can’t be in America.” I can’t be in America. Just like that, as I heard it, he was prepared to forfeit the citizenship staked and earned by his grandmother. The citizenship of his maternal grandfather, born and raised in the shadow of the Fourth Street Baptist church in Montgomery where four little girls gave the best of themselves to a cause. A citizenship that bled out onto the streets whenever my father took to the picket line to strike for dignity or to the public square to protest against the latest authoritarian receiving the embrace of an American president. My beautiful, American born son, my brilliant American born daughter, this pearl of great price is not yours to cast aside. This is an hour where your resolve and your resources will be tested past breakage. But you will not break. You will not cede your citizenship to those who govern with a savage hatred in their hearts. Know that surrender, silence, and retreat in the face of brutal forces are the choices of the privileged. On behalf of past and future citizens of our diaspora, you will fight back. 

This new generation, stirring at the shores of a morally malnourished America, has been drafted to craft a citizenship that can salvage the democracy itself, even while holding arms wide open to invite communion with those who fear you. You are not the first African Americans thus summoned. One hundred years ago—in 1919, in a sweltering season, in what James Weldon Johnson called “The Red Summer,” at a juncture when the President in the White House gave succor to white supremacists spreading terror in the streets—Black men, women and children were viciously beaten and lynched in over 30 U.S. cities. This American carnage followed the start of the Great Migration and the return of Black soldiers from fields of battle in Europe where they bled for this nation, even while their status had barely evolved beyond what Lincoln termed “a peculiar and powerful interest.” One hundred years ago this season, these economic and political refugees found themselves in the midst of a competition between the working class, that was fanned and exploited by cheap politicians and prospering elites. Their government left them to the mob, without the protections of nationhood. They, we, were supposed to die. But Black life found a way. Nineteen nineteen became 1920—Black workers organized, the ranks of the new NAACP swelled, women obtained the vote and a new Negro movement in arts and culture lit a flame from Harlem to Haiti. 

A citizenship staked and earned. But citizenship and belonging in this republic has always tracked along a chain of evolving values. Feel this truth in this present swamp fever that’s afflicted us. The mutability of citizenship was twisted into barbed wire in the 1880s with the Chinese Exclusion Act, which explicitly denied naturalization to all of Chinese origin. The noose was further tightened in 1923 when the constitutional term “free white persons" was interpreted in this democracy to rule out Japanese and Indian migrants. Well into the 1960s many state laws prevented Native Americans from exercising their full rights as citizens. In truth, this sacred American citizenship, was only made great and given value through the sanctified blood of people of color, bloodied yet unbowed in the march towards a more perfect union.

History should be studied in reverse, starting with all the messy little bits in our present amnesia. This is how we locate parallels and our own brave voices. Who knows what 2020 might hold. There’s nothing akin to the sensation of crossing over to the other side of the river of history, by dipping in your own oar to stir the current. I have known such stirrings against the tide. I can remember a crisp autumn day in 2008, in St. Louis, Missouri, at the lip of the Mississippi, when I traveled with a young senator who dared us to join him on an improbable quest. On that day, over 100,000 Americans of every stripe gathered in the public plaza to take up his call. I could see in the proximate distance the gleaming dome of the St. Louis Courthouse where Dred Scott had been deemed less than a man, and never a citizen. How the current stirred on that day.

But to get to renaissance, we can’t avoid the dark night of our American soul. We have to walk through the breech, aflame in the light of our radical citizenry. 

But with modesty, as I greatly revere this new generation of activists, allow me to offer some words of guidance from a man who yet burns to lead for justice, but who knows the power of being a follower. I’m ready to be led by this new wave. But I would warn them to be mindful that they are the first generation to be organized as consumers instead of citizens; I might ask them to interrogate whether the grenade that feels good when launched on a digital platform is impactful in building common purpose and unity. I would implore them to be daring, but sober to the unrelenting ways of power; I would tell them citizenship when expressed passively is a devalued currency, and that democracy is a full contact sport; but I would be quick to add that being an active citizen means being an exposed person. I would allow that power is not fixed and can be disrupted, but that disruption can only be sustained through the building of institutions and the collective action of communities in correspondence. I would ask them to be attuned to the lessons of those who came before, but to not build cathedrals to a romanticized past, and to honor those in the trenches with you right now for their sacrifices—because in a fight, a living dog is better than a dead lion. And lastly, I would ask them to go to where the silence is; go to where the silence is. Hear a stranger’s name and let it mean you. Feel a child’s dying heartbeat at our borders, and hold on. Go to where the silence is, and say something. Stand still and speak where you sing. Like Claude McKay, the Jamaican immigrant who in 1919 gave voice to the anguish and radical citizenship of Blacks in America in the Red Summer with his iconic sonnet, “If We must Die”:

If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!

Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

And so we fight on, to the other side of citizenship. We fight on when the tongues of presidents are barbed with spitefulness and a brutish ignorance; we fight on through the hypocrisy of those who have traded away all decency for a toehold on power. We fight back and dare to be a powerful people, captured in the mirror of history which reflects back our radical beauty.

Thank you NAACP. Thank you my fellow citizens. Love one another too well, and keep the faith.

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