The Root just posted a thoughtful piece on the diminished relevance of Jesse Jackson. The writer, Marjorie Valbrun, ponders the fact that, though Jackson was present on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel during Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder, he was strangely absent from the media’s recent commemoration of the 40th anniversary of King’s death. “Perhaps it was a coincidence, but I doubt it,” she writes. “Jackson has lost so much credibility over the years and has been so overexposed, that it would not surprise me if members of the news media had consciously avoided him.”
For those of us who grew up hearing “I Am Somebody,” it’s hard to dismiss the significance of Jesse Jackson, even though many in the media and society have grown weary of him today. In some ways, this Root essay reminds me of the 2002 CT article I wrote on Rev. Jackson, as well as my chapter on Jackson in Reconciliation Blues; it’s a sympathetic yet clear-headed assessment of the man’s legacy.
Valbrun, whose immigrant family arrived in the U.S. from Haiti in 1969, affectionately recalls Jackson’s appearance on Sesame Street as a milestone moment in her understanding of what it meant to be an American and a human being. She reflects on how her father, who had endured political oppression in his native country, had come to the U.S. with hopes of finding freedom, and how he had always impressed upon his children a message akin to Jackson’s:
For my father, who never voted in Haiti, “being somebody” meant living without the yoke of political oppression. It meant raising us in a place where we could freely express a political opinion and where the possibility existed that we could grow up to be anything we wanted to be. These were noble and ambitious notions that my six year-old mind could not yet grasp.
But two years later, Jesse Jackson appeared on Sesame Street and, along with a collection of multi-hued children, recited his now well-known poem I Am – Somebody. It was a sweet television moment that embodied the hope for racial harmony for a new generation of young Americans – for my generation.
Though I was too young to fully appreciate the poem’s larger universal message, I was not too young to see the parallels between my father’s mantra and that of the famous black activist. I got the part about being “somebody.” I understood it mattered.
As I watched the YouTube clip of that Jackson appearance, I vaguely remembered seeing it back in the day. Back then, shows like Sesame Street and The Electric Company, and TV personalities like Bill Cosby and Jesse Jackson, made me feel like anything was possible–I could be anything I wanted to be. I also grew up thinking that the multicultural community portrayed on Sesame Street was the natural order of things. It wasn’t until years later that I realized, in most of America a multi-hued Sesame Street world is still a distant dream. Nevertheless, leaders like MLK and Jesse Jackson helped me believe it was possible. I still believe.