Exploring Human Potential

Emancipating Pragmatism: Emerson, Ellison, Hillary, Donald, The New Museum, The ADAP Association and African American Health.

Posted on | September 24, 2016 | 4 Comments


Mike Magee

In the shadow of Monday’s Presidential debate, expected to attract close to 100 million viewers, this has been a week of remarkable highs and lows for African Americans.

Today President Obama will preside over the official opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, DC. This morning, our President said, “This museum doesn’t gauze up some bygone era or avoid uncomfortable truths. Rather, it embraces the patriotic recognition that America is a constant work in progress; that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is within our collective power to align this nation with the high ideals of our founding.”

This week also, in a JAMA article by Victor Fuchs titled “Black Gains in Life Expectancy”, we received positive news on the narrowing disparities in health outcomes. In the past decade, life expectancy in black Americans is now rapidly approaching that of whites in this country. The former has gained 6.0 years (69.6 to 75.6), while the latter has gained 2.5 years (76.5 to 79.0). Where did those extra years come from? .37 years from less cardiovascular deaths; .31 years from decreases in HIV mortality; .28 years from declines in traumatic injuries; and .14 years from fewer perinatal deaths. These 5 success areas alone delivered 60% of the progress.

And yet, as this week’s events in Tulsa and Charlotte so tragically indicate, there is so much work left to be done. The Museum is part of that healing. It’s narrative power will help challenge well-entrenched perceptions, and counteract bias and prejudice, drawing them into the open where they can be managed. More concretely, we will also continue to rely on groups like the ADAP Association, who for nearly a decade have labored to assure education, testing and treatment are accessible to vulnerable populations with HIV/AIDS.

The ADAP Association is fresh on my mind since I delivered the opening keynote address at their 9th Annual Convention at the Georgetown Westin Hotel yesterday. I was honored and pleased to receive the invitation from Executive Director, Brandon Macsata, who had been responsible for my original invite nine years ago at their 1st convention. That invite, in turn, was the result of Brandon hearing me address John Kemp’s Disability group a year earlier.

Brandon suggested I might reflect on the role of “advanced professionalism” and “enlightened leadership” at this critical moment in our history, with the first Presidential debate literally upon us. To prepare, I relied heavily on a book my son, Michael, had published with the University of Alabama Press in 2004, titled, “Emancipating Pragmatism: emerson, jazz, and experimental writing”. The book derived from his PhD dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania, and extensively delved into the writings of both Ralph Waldo Ellison, author of “The Invisible Man”, and his namesake, Ralph Waldo Emerson. More on that in a moment.

In my ADAP Association speech, I began with the concept of Positive Leadership that I had developed in the early 1980’s grounded in two diametrically opposed approaches to change.

One type of leader resists change, using fear as currency to achieve short-term goals. This type of leader retrenches and divides, segregating populations as he builds walls and silos.

The other type of leader embraces change, using visioning as currency to achieve long term goals. This type of leader reaches out across the divide, congregating and integrating diverse populations as she builds islands of common stewardship.

Each style, I said yesterday, has strengths and weaknesses. The negative leader can appear, in the heat of the moment, to be strong and decisive. His weakness is that, while he may be able, with fear, to freeze a population in place for a short period of time, the world continues to evolve around him. And eventually he is revealed for what he is – a fraud.

The positive leader also has strengths and weaknesses. Her message is open and hopeful, her vision inclusive and real. The critical weakness is that, while she may be able with some accuracy to predict what will occur, it is unlikely that she will be able to predict exactly when it will occur. Her followers, therefore, must constantly be encouraged and revitalized to avoid discouragement and abandonment of the vision.

To their credit, the positive leaders of the ADAP Association, over the past 9 years have done an amazing job of revitalization and keeping hope alive. (Consider that one of the afternoon sessions was titled “Building a Focus on Healthy Aging for Older Adults Living With HIV/AIDS”.) And to the credit of African American leaders – in government and churches, schools and communities, in business and at home – they have been doing the same, over many decades. Their efforts and history are what is so vividly displayed in this new Museum.

So what did my son Michael say in his book that was so compelling that I turned to it yesterday, and return to it today to share with you?

Page 3: Quoting Emerson, “To interpret Christ, it needs a Christ…to make good the cause of freedom against slavery you must be…Declaration of Independence walking.”

Page 7: Why Words Matter, “Ultimately, Emerson came to believe that ‘America’ itself was a kind of text being read, its meaning a matter of collective decision. It followed that one’s linguistic theory, one’s view of how words generate meanings, had potentially large-scale social ramifications. In suggesting that words were ‘million-faced’, Emerson came to realize, he was suggesting that social possibility was remakeable.”

Page 18: On Change and Diversity, “Emerson writes…’the philosophy we want is one of fluxions and mobility’”.

Page 19: The American Culture, “‘Out of the democratic principles set down on paper in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights’, Ellison says, Americans ‘were improvising themselves into a nation, scraping together a conscious culture out of various dialects, idioms, lingos, and methodologies of America’s diverse peoples and regions’”.

Page 24: American Evolution, from Ralph Waldo Ellison, “We forget, conveniently sometimes, that the language we speak is not English, although it is based on English. We forget that our language is such a flexible instrument because it has had so many dissonances thrown into it ….from Africa, from Mexico, from Spain, from God knows, everywhere.”

Page 25 and 28: Creating Our History, “The jazz musician—who, Ellison says, always plays both ‘within and against the group’ — constantly reflects and redefines the ensemble in which he plays. Likewise the ensemble reflects and redefines the larger community to which it belongs….that ‘anticipatory arena where actuality and possibility, past and present, are allowed to collaborate on a history of the future.’”

This has been a momentous week. We have made progress. But there is much left to be done. This should neither surprise nor discourage. On the final page of Michael’s book, he writes, “An emancipated pragmatism happens whenever and wherever a creative mind or community of creative minds engages in democratic symbolic action.”

Our future is being written now. VOTE.


4 Responses to “Emancipating Pragmatism: Emerson, Ellison, Hillary, Donald, The New Museum, The ADAP Association and African American Health.”

  1. Susan Pellerin
    September 26th, 2016 @ 6:35 am

    Dr. Magee: Your book ‘Positive Leadership’ will be the highlight of my discussion with my business student this semester as it has been for so many years.

    This comparison of ‘productive v. counter-productive’ leadership behavior is right on target. Yes, VOTE!

  2. Mike Magee
    September 26th, 2016 @ 8:49 am

    Many thanks, Susan! What you are doing makes all the difference in our world. Blessings!

  3. janice mancuso
    October 5th, 2016 @ 4:09 pm

    Dr. Magee…Your essay has been open on my computer since I received it 10 days ago. Is it a coincidence that I read it today, at the exact moment I needed a lift? All I know is that I’m happy I didn’t archive it before I read it!

    This presidential campaign has worn me down to the bone. I am left with raw fear that it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that DJT can be elected. The nonstop internal chatter between that thought and, “It’s NOT possible,” has exhausted me.

    During a phone meeting only hours before reading your piece, I told a colleague that I will need to idle for a while…because I’m unable to envision how the world will look after Tue, Nov 8—and how I will feel. I said I can’t imagine having the stamina (a popular word these days) to continue our mutual work if the unthinkable happens. And I meant it.

    I’m almost 67, and I don’t know if I’ll have the “reserve capacity” necessary (a term I learned from Dr Bill Thomas, internationally renowned geriatrician and American treasure, who is changing the story of aging) to continue the work of promoting physician wellbeing during what will undoubtedly be a period of darkness and uncertainty the world over if Trump becomes president.

    Then I read what you wrote about “keeping hope alive.” “Her followers, therefore, must constantly be encouraged and revitalized to avoid discouragement and abandonment of the vision.”

    I will keep working between now and then, but I won’t be signing any contracts until at least Nov 9th!

    Thank you for your words…they indeed mattered to a woman in California today.

    PS I ordered Michael’s book on Amazon.

  4. Mike Magee
    October 7th, 2016 @ 9:10 am

    Thanks so much for your kind words. I share your feelings. In this type of environment, it is pretty easy to run out of gas. But comments like yours fill the tank again. Everything you are doing each day make a difference – one greater than you believe. The reverberations of your good work are most often invisible to you – but real nonetheless. Hopefully, America will choose a positive course for our future.
    Best, Mike

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