In October 2017, Challenges to the Dream: The Best of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Awards at Carnegie Mellon University was published by CMU Press. I started the awards, a poetry and prose writing contest, back in 1999. This anthology is a selection of the powerful and imaginative poetry and prose that the Awards have. We invite in local Pittsburgh-area high school and college writers students to write honestly and creatively about race. We had the first reading by anthology contributors on our campus on October 13th—winners from 2002, 2005, and 2006 presented their work to a large crowd celebrating the grand opening of the new Center for Diversity and Inclusion on our campus. What struck me that day—and others, for a number of attendees told me they felt the same way—was that the experiences with discrimination that the readers were describing could easily have happened yesterday, today, and that things could even be worse than they were a dozen years ago. It was hard not to feel despondent, or at least bittersweet—acknowledging the power of their stories, but also acknowledging not just how little progress we have made as a country, but that we may have regressed.
I think it hit home the most when Brittany Boyd, now a graduate of Howard University, who returned to Pittsburgh to work for Communities in Schools, a nonprofit focused on quality education for all students, read her piece entitled "Another Challenge to the Dream," which inspired the title for the anthology. Brittany had won an award in 2005, and her essay had been reprinted in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, our daily newspaper. At her high school, she received a letter afterward with a Robert E. Lee address label on it, and a Confederate Flag copied on it as well. Here's one quote from the letter: “I don’t call it discrimination for us whites to take reasonable self-protective steps to protect ourselves against black violence and black crime."
While I'm excited about sharing this anthology's powerful evocative writing with a larger audience, I am also saddened by its timelessness. After the reading, the celebration of the opening of the new Center felt a bit muted to me—as if the readings were a shared reminder of how much work needs to be done. Every year, it seems that we say, "In light of recent events, these awards are more important than ever." Will there ever stop being "more recent events"?