We Are Promissory Notes

In GREATER GOOD, Isa, a Black teacher, is assigned to serve on the gala committee. During her conversation with the parents who run the committee, she pushes back against their insistence on fancy centerpieces and fingerbowls, asking them instead to consider the true mission and purpose of a school. In doing so, she invokes the image of the “promissory note” — similarly to the way Martin Luther King Jr deploys it in his “I Have a Dream” speech.

ISA:
The thing is.
The thing is.
We do not.
We don’t.
Make anything.
Schools do not make anything.
We are promissory notes.
Who trusts a promissory note?

— “Our Fathers’ Parlors,” GREATER GOOD

Writing for The Grio, professor Alvin Tillery notes that “Dr. King stated that African-Americans and their allies had come to Washington to cash a ‘promissory note,’ written by the framers of the Constitution to all Americans, at the ‘bank of justice.’ In using this language, King was drawing on a long tradition in black political thought that highlighted the reality that African-Americans had been largely excluded from the American Dream despite the fact that they had been model citizens of the republic since the founding. In this same verse, King demands that America replace the bounced checks — ‘marked with insufficient funds’— that it had issued to its black citizens for more than 300 years with ‘a check that will give [blacks] upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.’”

And here is a relevant excerpt from “I Have a Dream” (1963):

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

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