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"Mileka -- We're Going To Be All Right"

(Keynote Address: The 2007 "Project 2019 Annual Conference")

Those of you who have heard me speak at previous Project 2019 Banquets may recall that I am sometimes inspired to begin writing my remarks as a result of some news story that happens in the weeks or days leading up to this annual event. And, once again, this is the

For those of you who have attended some or all of the previous Project 2019 Annual Conference Banquets, I need for you to bear with me for just a minute while I explain a couple of things to those who are here for the first time.

First of all, my remarks are usually inspired by some event that occurred during the weeks leading up to this Banquet. And, sadly, it is often a senseless, tragic event that has happened to some innocent black person or black family that did not deserve such a fate. Last year, my remarks were inspired by the senseless shooting deaths of Starkesia Reed and Siretha White in the Englewood neighborhood. I did not bother to check what it was the year before last. But, then, would it really matter when I delivered by remarks? It seems that there is “always” some senseless, tragic event that has happened to some innocent black person or black family that did not deserve such a fate.

The second thing you should know about my remarks is that I do not choose unhappy news to talk about because I want to, I do it because I have to. I do it because I believe that we must find a way to understand how broken black America is and what we must do to fix it.

And, finally, you should know that whatever the subject matter or theme of my presentation, my goal is not to depress, to shame, or to cajole anyone into supporting Project 2019. My goal is simply to inspire -- to inspire you to do something – or to inspire you to do just a little bit more – to repay the debt that we owe to our ancestors – and – to ensure a better future for our descendants.

So, given these criteria, needless to say, I had lot of choices of newsworthy events on which to base my remarks. An obvious choice might have been disc jockey, Don Imus, referring to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hoes.” Now, in the words of the wisest woman that I know, my mother, Lucinda Acker, “what do you expect from some old, white man?” They have been calling us nappy-headed hoes since we have been in America. What is truly offensive is that we call each other bitches, hoes and niggers.

Another possible topic for my remarks was the senseless killing of 32 students and faculty members at Virginia Tech. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected by this despicable act. But, it is worth noting that, even in the face of this tragedy and other school shootings, a young black man being on a college campus is still many times safer than hanging out on corners in many of our black communities.

And then there is Hip-Hop’s commercialization – and – glorification of black folks not co-operating or even talking to the police about crimes committed in our own black communities – real crimes, like robbery, rape, and murder. The catch phrase is “stop snitching” – and they are writing songs and making videos about it. Does any one know what I am talking about…? If you look, you will see the slogan, “stop snitching,” on CD covers, Web sites, and even on t-shirts.

It’s all about, so called, “street credibility” – which, as a Hip-Hop artist, you “must have” if you are going sell CD’s. People know who killed Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. – and Busta Rhymes and 25 other people saw who killed Israel Ramerez. And Lil Kim (quote) went “to prison with her mouth shut and her head held high” rather than tell the truth about a shoot-out that she witnessed. And, now, Cameron Giles, a.k.a. Killa Cam, who refused to identify who shot him, has a hit song based on his accusation that 50 cents is a snitch who is co-operating with the police.

And for as “insane” as this might all sound to us, it would not be nearly as tragic if it were not for the fact that these Hip-Hop artists are attempting to convince our children that they should not snitch on the person that they saw robbing someone’s house, -- or the person they saw kill a child in a drive-by shooting – or even the person they know raped their next door neighbor’s daughter.

In any case, there were many possible themes for my remarks this evening. But, in the end, I knew that the inspiration for my remarks had been decided on August 20th of last year. That was the day that Mileka Aljuwani died of breast cancer. Mileka was the National Executive Director of Project 2019 – and Mileka Aljuwani was my friend.

Mileka believed in Project 2019. In fact, perhaps with me being the sole exception, Mileka believed in Project 2019 more so than anyone else in the world. Now, I know that is a strong statement to make in light of the support of Project 2019 by my family and friends and all of you here this evening. And it is an extraordinary statement to make considering the woman that I am married to. And, for those of you who think you know how much Rose Sanford has sacrificed for Project 2019, you probably need to double your estimate.

Yes, Rose believes in Project 2019 as fervently as I do. But, a part of the reason for her sacrifices is that she also loves and believes in me. For that, I am truly blessed.

In any case, Mileka’s only reason for the sacrifices that she made for Project 2019 was because of her belief in Project 2019. But, let me be clear, it was not just Project 2019. It was her desire for justice for her people. It was her hope for her people. It was her faith that her people could and would overcome.

For these reasons, I made a deathbed promise to Mileka – and I will do everything in my power to keep that promise. I am going to tell you what the promise was that I made to her, but first you should know a little more about Mileka.

Her obituary contains the following information.

“Mileka Aljuwani was born on May 8th, 1957 to Saharah and Wahab Aljuwani in Buffalo, New York.

Mileka received her formal education at Bennett High School in Buffalo, New York and furthered her education at Howard University, obtaining a BA in Pharmacy and in Accounting.

Mileka was the National Executive Director of Project 2019. In her leisure time, she enjoyed writing and painting. She was active in the following organizations, among others: Project 2019, National Black United Front, N’COBRA, Black Chamber of Commerce, Black Business Alliance, New Black Panther Party, LOC, and Angela Davis Cop Watch. She worked with the Million Women March, the Million Youth March and the Million Family March. Mileka was a founder of Blacks for Responsible Government.”

Now, that was the “official list.” Her friends who are here from Milwaukee can attest to the fact that it did not matter who, what, when, or how – if she could help one black person – man, woman, or child – Mileka was there.

A tribute to Mileka that appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel began as follows:

“Thirteen years ago, a human whirlwind blew into Milwaukee, determined to shake things up for the better.

Her name was Mileka Aljuwani.

Passionately, steadfastly, she began working on all kinds of justice issues, especially anything to do with education and economic development.

"Mileka was extraordinarily passionate," said Ellen Bravo, now with the women's studies department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "She took seriously the issues of justice and equality. People were never just tokens or statistics to her. They were always real people."

"Wherever there was an issue, you'd look up and she was there," said Shakoor Aljuwani, her brother.

Mileka died of breast cancer Sunday. She was 49.”

And, by the way, her brother, Shakoor, went to New Orleans right after hurricane Katrina hit – and he has been there ever since.

And finally, here is part of the tribute that I delivered at Mileka’s funeral.

“The French author, Victor Hugo, is credited with having said that, ‘there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.’

Needless to say, when I envisioned Project 2019 in 1998, I was absolutely convinced that it was an idea whose time had come. Three years later – after I had written the book, established the Project 2019 Web site, spent most of my money, and all of my time – and had NOT convinced black America that we could close the education gap by the year 2019 – I could not help but wonder if Project 2019 was, indeed, a powerful idea whose time had come.

It was just about that time that I got an e-mail from some woman in Milwaukee – named Mileka Aljuwani – who had run across the Project 2019 Web site while surfing the net. I don’t remember her exact words, but they were typical of the thousands of positive e-mails and verbal comments that I have received regarding Project 2019. Mileka and I exchanged a couple more e-mails and – as I always do – I invited her to join the movement.

I was not shocked that I did not hear back from her. You might be surprised by the number of times that people have said – Project 2019 is a great idea – or, Project 2019 is just what black America needs – or, Project 2019 will truly make a difference in the future of black America – with these comments being follow by, I wish YOU the best of luck in making it happen.

Of course, this was not how the story of Mileka Akjuwani and Project 2019 ended. It took about a year – but I did hear back from her. This time, I do remember what she said. She said that in spite of anything and everything else that was happening in her very busy life, she could NOT get Project 2019 out of her head.

The rest of the story, as the say, is history. She founded the Milwaukee Chapter of Project 2019. She subsequently became a member of the National Board of Directors. And in March, 2005, she was chosen to serve as the National Executive Director of Project 2019.

During the 4-plus years that Mileka and I “conspired” to save black America in our late night phone conversations, we developed a deep and abiding friendship. A few days ago, I received the highest complement from one of her friends. I will never forget it. She told me that Mileka considered me to be like another big brother to her.

And that complement has become so much more meaningful now that I have met and now that I am getting to know her brother, Shakoor. I can only promise that I will continue to strive to be deserving of being associated with such a great family.

For as strange as it may seem, Mileka and I talked about death more than you might imagine. For one thing, we both had a great sense of history – especially in regards to the previous 18 generations of black Americans and their struggles over the past almost 4 centuries.

We both understood that the millions of black Americans who had come before us – those who had lived, fought, and died – they were responsible for getting us to where we are today.

AND we both understood the INCREDIBLE debt that we owed to them for their sacrifices.

AND we both understood that the only way to pay that debt was to create a better future for the millions of black Americans who would follow us after we were gone.

And, of course, because of the challenge of Project 2019 – that is, to reach educational parity by the year 2019 – there was the reality that we might not be around to see the results of our labor.

The standing joke was that, in the year 2019, Mileka would roll me out onto the stage in a wheel chair, push me over to the side, and SHE would make the speech congratulating black America for having accomplished a task that people had the AUDACITY to say that black America could NOT accomplish.

So, you can’t begin to imagine how I feel standing here today. Because in my heart of hearts, I always knew that it would be Mileka, standing here where I’m standing, praising me as a great hero of Project 2019 – and not the other way around.

Mileka did not make it to the year 2019. I may not make it to the year 2019. And, sadly, some of you here today may not make it to the year 2019. But, the year 2019, by the grace of God, will arrive and there will be millions of black Americans who WILL be here to share this watershed moment in black history.

It was Mileka’s dream, as it is mine, that the year 2019 will NOT be a year of black Americans cursing and bemoaning 400 years of Slavery and oppression – but rather, a year of joyously celebrating – the resilience, the resourcefulness, and the strength of character of black America.

I am humbled that Mileka Aljuwani – for all that she had seen, all that she knew, and all that she had done – chose to dedicate a part of her life to Project 2019.

I am so grateful that Mileka Aljuwani – for all that she had seen, all that she knew, and all that she had done – by virtue of her faith in Project 2019, validated that it truly is a powerful idea whose time has come.

I am so honored that Mileka Aljuwani – for all that she had seen, all that she knew, and all that she had done – I am so very honored that she shared my dream.

Mileka, you will be remembered. Your legacies will include your beautiful mind – your beautiful heart – and your beautiful spirit.

And if I have my way, you will be remembered for the next 400 years in black American history as the visionary who – with your life, showed us the way to the Promised Land – and with your death INSPIRED us to stop talking about it – and to actually REACH the Promised Land.

Thank you, Mileka, for giving us all that you had to give. We will always love you.”

So, now, let me tell you about the promise that I made to Mileka. I last talked to her on a Saturday night and again that Sunday morning. Later in the day, I received a call telling me that she had been taken to the hospital. By Monday morning, she had lapsed into a low-level coma and she passed the following Sunday, never having regained consciousness. The last time that I saw Mileka was that Friday, two days before her death.

I am sure that at least some of you have gone through the sad and painful experience of holding someone hand and comforting them as they approached their last days or their hours of life. So, what do you say in that situation?

Well, in my case, I talked about Project 2019 – about things that we had done – things we had planned to do – things that we needed to do. After a couple of hours, I bent over, kissed Mileka on the cheek and I whispered the following promise. “Don’t worry, we’re going to be all right.” And then, I said it again. “I promise, we’re going to be all right.”

Now, I have to explain to you what I meant by this promise. Note that I did not say that, “I was going to be all right,” I said “we.” And when I said “we,” I was not talking about just Project 2019 – and I was not talking about just her friends and associates – and I was not just talking about her loving family.

When I said “we,” I was talking about every black American here this evening – every black American NOT here this evening – and every black American who will be here long after we are all gone.

“We are going to be all right.”

Now, some of you may be asking yourselves, why would Charles Sanford make such a big promise regarding the 40 million black Americans alive today – and the millions yet to be born. Well, keep in mind Charles “Hubris” Sanford is the same person who truly believes that black folks can reach educational parity with the rest of America by the year 2019.

But, actually, there are two good reasons why I made that promise to Mileka – that “we’re going to be all right.”

The first reason is that I knew that it was the ONE THING that I could say to her that would make her passing easier. The reason that I know this to be true is because – Mileka Aljuwani actually felt guilty about having breast cancer. Mileka felt guilty about dying. She believed that she was letting her people down – that there was so much more work to be done – and so much more that she could contribute to uplifting black America.

So, for as big of a promise as it was, I felt that I had to assure her. “We, black Americans, are going to be all right.”

The second reason why I promised Mileka (that) “we’re going to be all right” is because of what I have said to you each time I have addressed you on this occasion. I believe in black America. And not just because I’m black.

I believe in black America because I “understand” in my head and in my heart – the pain, the suffering, the degradation – that the first 12 generations of black Americans had to endure during 246 years of Slavery.

I believe in black America because I, like many of you here this evening, “understand” and remember what it felt like to be a second-class citizen during the five generations and 103 years of the Jim Crow era.

And, yet, here we are today. Having won the struggle to end Slavery and having won the struggle for civil rights, we are now in a position to fight and win the battle to reclaim the knowledge that was stolen from us the moment we were put in the bowels of those first slave ships. And we are now in a position to overcome the education and knowledge that was forbidden and denied to us from the year 1619 until the 1960’s.

I believe in black America because I understand what we have had to endure – how long we have had to endure it – and how hard white, racist America tried to make sure we could not do any better.

Any, yet, here we are. Maybe my promise to Mileka wasn’t so outlandish after all. But I can’t keep that promise by myself. I need your help. And the first thing I want you to do is to look up at Mileka’s picture – and I want you to make that same promise to her that I made. I want you to say it out loud. Repeat after me – “Mileka” – “we’re going to be all right.” One more time – “Mileka” – “we’re going to be all right.”

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