On August 28, 1963, a man by the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took to the podium at the March on Washington. Overseeing a crowd full of different demographics, ideologies, and biases, Dr. King began to recite the same words taken from his former speeches that had already passed through the ears of many people.
However, because he was the last speaker on the event’s lineup, those words soon began to ring dry as the wet, sweltering heat radiating from the 250,000 bodies crowding together overpowered the chill of his words. At the climax of racial division, Dr. King’s speech of unity seemed to fall flat. Suddenly, a voice from behind the stage urgently exclaimed, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”
Turning over his shoulder, he found the owner of the voice that broke the silence—legendary gospel singer and friend Mahilia Jackson. Ignoring the voice and proceeding with the speech he had planned, Dr. King turned back to the crowd. Yet, Mahilia Jackson shouted once more, “Tell them about the dream!”
Faced with the pressure of capturing such a momentous moment, Dr. King knew that whatever he said would need to hold weight and hold the attention of his audience. Instead of looking back down at the podium, he began to look at the faces of the audience, uttering the words “I have a dream…”
On January 20, 2021, a 22-year old Harvard graduate, Amanda Gorman, was ushered onto the stage at the inauguration of America’s newly elected president. Merely 14 days after division threatened to overtake the Capitol and the country, yet again, words were being hungrily sought after in order for people to digest the reality of this historic moment. A sea full of monochrome pantsuits and multicolored people eagerly awaited her, as she started to let her words flow like water from behind her lips.
She began. “When day comes we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?”
Despite being Black in a country where white privilege runs rampant, she represented. Despite being the youngest poet to ever read at a presidential inauguration, she was monumented. Despite battling a speech impediment her entire life, she spoke. Most importantly, instead of stumbling, she found a way to succeed.
What do these two eerily similar instances in history tell us about what true success looks like?
They tell us to strive through our setbacks instead of succumb to them. They tell us that in the midst of all the obstacles in life, we should look for the opportunity to overcome.
As a woman, I have found that framework of thought to be crucial to sustaining success in a lifetime filled with adversity. Womanhood, in many ways, has been viewed as an obstacle both professionally and personally.
According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2018, a large majority of men and women report that it is easier for men to obtain top leadership positions over women in business and politics. Furthermore, two-thirds of Americans say that it is generally easier for men to get elected to high political offices. Essentially, simply being a woman is professionally seen as an obstacle to success not only in the hiring process but also in receiving promotions.
In addition to the professional setbacks of being a woman, new research is now examining the personal impacts of a culture that is founded on misogynistic standards and expectations. Ellie Mae O’Hagan from The Guardian claims that “women are taught to harm themselves,” either by being told they aren’t physically attractive enough, by having low expectations of relationships, by subjugating their own needs, or by viewing male approval as a form of validation.
However, instead of viewing womanhood as being a setback or a disadvantage, women should realize that we possess an inner power to meet every obstacle that is presented to us as a new opportunity.
When our companies choose not to diversify, women elevate in order to reach back and pull up other women who were once overlooked. When the 100th anniversary of the amendment that gave women the right to vote in the US was being celebrated, women were helping register voters in communities facing voter suppression during one of the most critical elections in US history. When a man was asked to speak in 1963 to unite a country subject to division, a woman proved that she was just as capable in 2021.
On April 15, 2015, one Black girl walked up to a podium at her National Junior Honor Society induction ceremony to give the very first speech she would ever give. As she looked out at the crowd of people she could hardly believe that a mere joke to make the quiet girl speak in front of the club turned into her being elected the president of the organization.
Despite the fact that she was often left to her own thoughts while her single mother worked multiple late shifts, she found the right words to say. Despite the fact that she felt as though she didn’t hold the license to speak in classrooms full of her white peers, she opened up her mouth that day and boldly used the voice she had been hiding for so long.
In that moment, the one quiet girl that sat at the back of the class transformed into the girl who spoke on a grand stage. She realized that the great obstacles she faced made her opportunity to inspire even greater.
When her blackness was seen as an obstacle, she used it as an opportunity to speak on industry diversity at the Coca-Cola Headquarters. When her quietness was seen as an obstacle, she used her silence to listen to the needs of others–prompting her to start her own instructional course on communication skills called Soul to Speak. When she saw herself as the obstacle, she overcame her doubts in order to seize the opportunities of being an intern at Essence Magazine Headquarters, speaking at the Atlanta World Congress Center, being interviewed by USA Today, and giving her graduation speech on a nationally televised event.
And as that young girl currently sits in her college dorm and attempts to type the unexplainable truths of her life story, I realize that in order to experience the fullness of success we must experience the face of our setbacks.
Instead of simply celebrating the moments at that new job or at that new apartment, we should look to celebrate where we are currently at because our current location will reveal how far we have come and how far we can still go.
Instead of celebrating the moment we get on stage, we should acknowledge the steps we had to climb in order to get there. Instead of looking for the opportunity that comes over the hurdle, we should look for the opportunity that is presented within our obstacles.