How Hope Works in the Black Community, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Obama

Hope has played a significant role in the lives of African Americans throughout history, from early abolitionists to Martin Luther King and President Obama.


Hope is an important tool in life. It motivates us to look past everyday challenges toward specific goals, however difficult they may be to achieve.

In the African-American community, hope has always had a more particular connotation. As Andre C. Willis, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Brown University, has said, hope among African-Americans is born of “centuries of despair and dehumanization” as well as the “tragic sense of life” given us by the Protestant tradition.

Universal to the feeling of hope—that belief in the possibility of positive outcomes—is how it works in the brain. As a cognitive process, hope makes it possible for us to be proactive about the specific plans we hope to achieve, and pursue them with "agency" and "pathways, according to psychologist Rick Snyder. Hope is what allows us to act with intention in the face of obstacles.

While hope may start in the brain, it reaches beyond the self and bonds individuals who share common goals against common obstacles. Progressive societies have relied on hope in the face of conservative opposition, from the Civil Rights Movement to the presidential slogans of Barack Obama. Researchers recognize different kinds of hope, however, and not all hope is equally effective.

In his research, Dr. Willis draws a distinction between the hope envisioned by Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Obama. While Dr. King's oratory is often boiled down to his "I Have a Dream" speech, he also gave an "Unfulfilled Dreams" speech which viewed hope as treacherous. 

Willis sees King’s version of hope as having Protestant roots, based on the knowledge that its work will never be completed. King's vision, according to Willis, was like a “way of relating to suffering” that allows you to keep going forward and do meaningful work. 

So how did Obama fare by comparison? In Willis’s view, outlined in his 2017 paper, “Obama’s Racial Legacy,” President Obama’s impact has been to deepen racism that masquerades as color-blindness. As a result, grassroots groups like “Black Lives Matter” have struggled to gain enough traction to challenge the status quo.

Instead of advocating for a post-racial society as Dr. King did, Obama’s vision of hope moved the African-American community from disappointment toward social goals perceived as “realizable". In Obama's America, rationally achievable goals took the place of dreams. 


"Hope" poster by Shepard Fairey. 2008.

In a series of interviews with African-Americans regarding Obama’s legacy, the LA Times drew an important distinction: attitudes toward Obama-the-individual were generally positive, while doubt lingered on whether his Presidency produced the change needed. Black lives had improved with respect to education, healthcare and criminal justice reform, but still suffered from a lackluster economic recovery. Unemployment among African-Americans remains nearly twice that of whites.

According to David Golland, an associate professor at Governor's State University, there has been little statistical improvement in African-American life in areas of child mortality, educational attainment, or teenage crime and drug use. 

On the other hand, Golland thinks that a value of the Obama Presidency may lie in its symbolic nature:

"Getting away from the word metrics, there's just something about a generation of children growing up and seeing someone who looks like them in the White House that cannot be underestimated,” said Golland.

Offering a more probing historical perspective, a 2016 article by Chernoh Sesay Jr., Associate Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University, looked at hope as an integral part of the black slave experience. In the immediate wake of the Revolutionary War, for example, black petitioners filed a number lawsuits in Massachusetts that argued for equality. Today their logic looks undeniable.

Just as the colonists desired freedom from the English Crown, black slaves merited the right to self-determine. According to Sesay, these petitions “surely must have arisen from some sense of hope or optimism that action would bring change.”

Despite the nation's emancipation from England, slavery's end in America would be delayed by nearly 100 years. This is the stinging nature of hope. Any social transformation fueled by it will take time. Early abolitionists of the slave trade exercised “a discerning and pragmatic understanding of politics” as they shifted from individual lawsuits to a consistent attack on the institutions of slavery. 

A 2017 Gallup poll reflects the African-American community's unique relationship with hope. While whites, Asians and Hispanics expressed a life-satisfaction score of 7 out of 10, and an anticipated satisfaction scores of 7.6 to 8, African-Americans expressed a life-satisfaction score of 6.8, but had the highest anticipated satisfaction of 8.4. The index of anticipation reflected expectations for the next five years.

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

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Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.