"My godfather Martin Luther King would have been 'greatly disappointed' by racism today"

Chidozie Obasi
·8-min read
Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

From Harper's BAZAAR

Donzaleigh Abernathy speaks with great poise - no mean feat in a world of stilted Zoom conversation. Author of Partners To History: Martin Luther King, Ralph David Abernathy and the Civil Rights Movement, she is an adroit woman. Raised in Montgomery, Alabama, Abernathy is not only a Hollywood actress, but a fully-fledged activist born to an influential leader during the Civil Rights Movement. Goddaughter of the seminal Martin Luther King Jr., she is an outspoken and gentle talker whose ambitions were hindered (although never halted) by US systemic racism. “Just by virtual effect that we are women, we are discriminated against,” she says. “But, although we are marginalised, we still rise up.”

Abernathy’s knack for handling universally felt challenges in the Black community shines bright in The Listening - a vital project inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 speech, 'Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence' – which uses the power of choral music to reflect on the bigger picture of discrimination and silent racism. The affecting piece has now been released as a single and music video.

In celebration of her latest project, we sat down with the actress and activist to pick her brains on race relations, womanhood, and hope.

Donzaleigh, what was life like growing up as a daughter of an influential leader in the Civil Rights Movement?

“It was incredibly humbling. There was so much going on around us: my dad, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, and Uncle Martin [Luther King Jr.] – that’s what I called him – were brilliant to me and my sister. I enjoyed the marches, and many other moments. There was so much to relish, but there was also a great amount of fear, angst, and tragedy. Although we were united as a family, there were times that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. But then, attending the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom as a young girl, I felt enlightened in seeing people of all kinds, Black and white, sleeping on palettes on the floor. My home was a sacred place too, and the thing that I loved is that no one yelled at us kids, even in the darkest times. Once you went outside that door, it was hard enough for Black people, so my parents wanted to make home a loving space.”

Photo credit: Mary Anne Halpin
Photo credit: Mary Anne Halpin

Do you, as a Black woman, ever struggle with the idea of having to prove yourself more than other people?

“When we were little, that’s what we were told - that you had to do twice as much to get half as far, and that you’re expected to set an example. I wanted to do – or at least, I thought I did – things that other children did. I didn’t always want to dress up. You just want to be a child and do all these wild and crazy things that other children are doing, but you’re taught that you can’t because you’re Black. I adjusted. I later learned not to hold grudges towards those who didn’t understand me – like my second-grade schoolteacher – and I rose above the ignorance bordering me.”

How did your parents’ upbringing prepare you as a woman?

“My mother used to say something that I love: ‘Anyone can be a woman, but not anyone can be a lady; stay woke, stand strong, be brave.’ She stressed the importance of how we had to conduct ourselves; she made sure we spoke the best English, that we dressed properly, and that we were gracious. I guess I’m still that same old school person I was growing up. Things were expected of us and the media was always around, especially when we’d arrive at the airport with my dad and Uncle Martin. I was given an incredibly thoughtful upbringing, but it was hard in equal measure.”

Photo credit: Nicole Craine
Photo credit: Nicole Craine

Let’s talk about your seminal godfather, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Until his murder in 1968, he fought for equal rights which had a seismic impact on American – likewise international – race relations. As an African American descendant and as someone who knew him well, did you feel a responsibility to continue such fight?

“I very much do. There is a maxim, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” Because we are people that are constantly victims of injustice and racial discrimination, I feel I have a moral obligation to give back and to help. When I see people impoverished or suffering, I can’t turn a blind eye. I was taught that you are your brother’s keeper and that you have to extend your hand and lift them up, because all of us stand on the shoulders of someone who paved a way for use, whether it’s a mother or a teacher. For people of colour, we don’t have a system that is designed to help us. That being said, I feel an obligation, and I think all of us should.”

What were your impressions of Martin Luther King as a man, and as your godfather?

“Of Uncle Martin? He was funny, amazingly funny. He used to bite his fingers and I used to bite mine, too. I just wanted to be like him. He used to read great books of the western world, poetry, Shakespeare, and do all these things that only he could fully comprehend. He could mimic someone so perfectly - he could replicate their voice, gestures - and he would get very comical in the process. He was the giver of love and joy.”

Photo credit: Bettmann
Photo credit: Bettmann

What is your favourite memory of him?

“Jumping up and down on his bed. You know, because he was often in a low mood when he came back from work, he wanted to make him feel okay by making noise and cheering him up. That was gratifying to us.”

What do you think he would feel of the state of the world now? Would he be pleased by the progress made by the Black Lives Matter movement, or would he be saddened that there is still so much racism in society?

“He would be greatly disappointed that people are fighting, again, for our votes and rights to count. After we were given the right to vote, my mother had a dream that I remember her talking to my father and Uncle Martin about. She dreamt that she was an old woman in a wheelchair, and her children were marching again for their rights to be validated. Uncle Martin didn’t believe her but look at us now. My mother died in 2019, and even then, we were fighting for our rights to vote. Before she died and the political situation was in turmoil, she reminded us all again of her dream.

Photo credit: Agence France Presse - Getty Images
Photo credit: Agence France Presse - Getty Images

"Black people have fought so hard for freedom and liberties that people take for granted today. Each generation must fight. As people of colour, we want to be able to think that just because something was fought for the past it still applies to us today, but we are people of colour in a world that judges and discriminates against us simply for the colour of our skin. We cannot assume that freedom and liberty is always granted to us. When there is a wrong, we have to speak out and see it. We must support the victim of that assault. And be strong. I believe that Uncle Martin would tell us to put on our boots, walk out that door and march.”

To what extent do you believe 2020 gave white folk the incentive to start dismantling their privilege?

“They had a chance to see the discrimination and the injustice from a raw standpoint. It was not the ‘60s, but it was very much like it. That they had to stand and look. Even after Floyd’s case, there’s still a staggering number of issues that need to be dealt with. There are still issues that have to be addressed, and there are still people who don’t care that they have privilege or that they’re indoctrinated. Rather, the first thing that they’ll say is, ‘Oh wow, I’m the least racist person,’ or, ‘I’m not racist at all.’


In your career, you have tackled film and music. As a lead soloist in The Listening, various themes recur - madness, silence, and the impact this silence has on Black lives. To what extent is this project reflective of your experience?

“The Listening is, you know, is thrilling. Cheryl B. Engelhardt composed it and it’s personal to me because it resonates so much with Uncle Martin. It was very important to be a part of it. I was blown away by Chery’s music, the presentation, and the young voices. It was so powerful, a beautiful blend of choral music and church, which had purpose. It’s another way to impact a community and younger generation through art. It’s prolific and a great rock opera.”

The project blends musical nuance, riffs, and semantics. Was there anything in particular that really resonated with you?

“The words: silence, silence, silence. That was my visceral response to it. I don’t know how to explain it. It was soothing and somewhat anthemic, almost like a ‘get ready, we’re coming!’ I loved the youth in it, who represent the future; they’re going to write an even better chapter that we did. We sang for the voiceless, for those who cannot speak for themselves.”

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

What are your hopes for the future?

“I’m hoping and praying for unity in our country and in our world. I’m hoping for racial equality and justice, and that we can move that pendulum that has swung towards white supremacy for centuries. I hope for freedom.”

In need of some at-home inspiration? Sign up to our free weekly newsletter for skincare and self-care, the latest cultural hits to read and download, and the little luxuries that make staying in so much more satisfying.

SIGN UP

Plus, sign up here to get Harper’s Bazaar magazine delivered straight to your door.

SIGN UP

You Might Also Like