In my previous post I discussed my current social media hiatus and how it is impacting my life. Though I am not currently about that life most of my friends and acquaintances still are. On last Friday I caught up with a buddy of mine based in the UK. As I perused the link that he emailed me on the latest shenanigans of Dusty Smith I shook my head. I initially planned to devote a blog to the controversy. But seven hundred words into the post I asked myself: is it really worth it? In the end I could not bring myself to dedicate an entire blog to the likes of Dusty Smith. In other videos and Facebook posts Smith has let his mask slip,revealing the white hood that lurks beneath his ‘progressive’ veneer. The fact that he did so once again is not surprising at this point. However the remarks serve as another bizarre episode from the post-racial twilight zone that we have inhabited since Barack Obama’s ascent to the Oval Office. In the 21st century one can publicly make jokes based on the vile stereotypes illustrated at the Jim Crow Museum and posit that chattel slavery may have been in the best interests of Black Americans…yet insist that they are not racist for doing so(check out this funny and insightful sermon on the subject from Pastor Roger Ray). The response given by these types is very predictable:
- Accuse those who call them of being ‘oversensitive
- State that those who call them out are engaging in ‘reverse racism’
- Protest that their right to free speech is being trampled upon
- Assert that they are ‘colorblind’
Another twist of our post-racial era(and one which I personally find to be the most bizarre of all) is observing such people brazenly invoke the memory of the Rev, Martin Luther King Jr and quote a few lines from his I Have A Dream speech. The words of Dr. King are treated some sort of juju, both a magical incantation and cleansing holy water. Just reciting the words ‘content of our character’ is supposed to establish you as being free of all anti-Black racism and shield one from accountability, at the same damn time.
The fact that the life and words of Dr. King are used in such a way, by those who embrace ideas and actions that do not line up with his unwavering commitment to both Black Americans and the poor in our society and the ideas that he died for , is beyond perverse to me. But I should not be surprised by this. Indeed, as we have moved further away from the tumultuous sixties our collective picture of Dr. King looks less like the man and more like a myth(for a refresher in how King was reviled and harassed in life please read this thought-provoking post from Chauncey DeVega).
Like many American children of the post-Civil Rights era I learned the legend of King at home and at school. The guest room that I slept in when visiting my beloved great-Aunt Lula had velvet portraits of the three leaders she adored the most: President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert and Martin Luther King Jr. In the pews of my church we cooled ourselves with fans emblazoned with King’s image, donated by Black-owned funeral homes. And at school we remembered him annually in speeches and plays, our elders applauding us for our ability to follow the scripts given and take in what they dictated to us. However when introduced to the life and beliefs of Malcolm X in my early adolescence I felt more drawn to him. Peace and non-violent resistance sounded good(they were what our interpretation of Christianity called for), but they did not reflect what I felt when exposed to the reign of terror that my people weathered during the time of King and X. Unable to fully relate to that era, full of the zeal and hubris of youth I was admired King’s sacrifice but felt a more firm, strident path was preferable. But as I aged and read more of King’s life, his speeches and his activism it all began to fall into place. The Hallmark-card, milquetoast version of King taught to me as a child was not the same man shot down on April 4th, 1968. No, the man killed that day was a Twentieth-century prophet, echoing the same demands for justice and condemnations of inequality found in the books of Isaiah and Amos in the Old Testament. The man killed that day was more radical, increasing his strident criticism of both the Vietnam War and the marginalization of the poor. It is my belief that King’s work on the behalf of the poor is what led to his assassination. Though his devotion to the cause of racial equality is beyond question it was his potential to unite the economically downtrodden of all ‘races’ that made him even more of a threat.
That version of King isn’t remembered or praised as much. What Americans have done with him mirrors what we’ve done with our recollection of the decades-long Civil Rights Movement. The horror of it is obscured. This is one of the chief reasons I avoid watching movies about the era. Seeing the brutality of the time doesn’t bother me; it is seeing history rewritten and sanitized that leaves me unable to deal. However I will break my self-imposed boycott of such films in order to support Ava DuVernay’s critically acclaimed Selma. On Tuesday January 27th I watched Amy Goodman interview DuVernay for Democracy Now(those interested can catch the clip here). DuVernay seemed to take the Oscar snub of Selma quite well, expressing no concern for the fact that she was not nominated for Best Director and instead showing sympathy for David Oyelowo’s role as King receiving no acknowledgment. DuVernay also dispatched those who criticised the portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson in the film in a manner I found to be quite smooth and firm. Overall DuVernay gave off the vibe of a confident and unruffled visionary, which I found to be admirable. Perhaps Selma will help us all face up to that era and abandon the assortment of myths about the Civil Rights Movement in favour of the complicated reality.