Monday, January 23, 2006

"Martin Luther King Jr. Day" and me

i don't know how i feel about celebrating martin luther king, jr's birthday anymore.

at first, there was some victory in having a black holiday because they didn't want to give it to us. when it was finally official, there were so many states that ignored it, it was laughable. (and no, it wasn't just arizona.) actually, i thought it was a massive step forward that they were all so honest about how they really felt. but everyone from the media to public enemy pummeled those states into politically correct submissiveness, and after awhile that was that. well. not exactly. i can remember being on a bus and overhearing a couple of white girls talking about how "black people's day" was this huge inconvenience because the post office would be closed -- and what good was it anyway. my black nationalist buddies think that public soundbite is a microcosm of how a lot of white people feel but i'd go a step further and say that it's how a lot of people feel in general -- black, white and otherwise.

in a way, a part of me agrees with those white girls.

i'm from atlanta. i grew up surrounded by images of dr. king and became well versed in his accomplishments and what he did for the civil rights movement from a very early age. i watched his center for non-violent social change grow from an idea to a federal institution -- and steps were taken to preserve "sweet auburn" avenue for the black cultural mecca that it always had been. i remember when his mother was assassinated. she was alone in ebenezer baptist church, playing the organ and singing to herself when someone walked up out of nowhere and shot her. i remember when his father passed away and what a big deal that was in our community. like i said. these things were a part of my childhood.

because i had a mother that taught me how to read as a three year old, i fell into the habit of "doing research" when i was a very small child -- going to a library and reading up about whatever i was interested in. one day, i happened upon some speeches and letters by dr. king that i hadn't heard before. he was a different man: indignant, fearless -- and interestingly enough -- angry. the dr. king everyone spoke of was eulogized as a man of peace that was on par with ghandi, the epitome of change through non-violence. this other king wanted something else that was equally important: justice.

have you ever read dr. king's letter from a birmingham jail? here's an exerpt:

"We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you know forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait."

riveting stuff. the question that flashed through my little kid head was: why hadn't i ever met this man before? why didn't everyone know who he was? who was the real mlk?

now this is where the rubber hits the road.

i think they (the federal government, the powers-that-be, "the man" -- come on people, you know what i mean) picked martin luther king, jr. to be everyone's all-american civil rights hero because his non-violent stance made him less of a threat than shirley chisolm or malcolm x or angela davis. they sanitized him for public consumption. they neutered him. think about it: it's much safer for black people to pay attention to this peaceful negro than robert f. williams, a highly intelligent, politically active, gun-toting southern black man who played an active role in the civil rights movement and who fought long and hard in north carolina and beyond. what about bayard rustin? he's the one who organized the march on washington. he's also the one who brought gandhi's protest techiques to the civil rights movement. everyone shut him out because he was openly gay. can you imagine that? a vital member of the movement that's as gay as an all-white liberace picnic. he died quite recently, in 1987. it's a shame that he isn't celebrated.

i'm sick of them telling me who my black heroes are. i'm sick of them telling my stories. actually, i'm sick of them, period. but i digress.

i'm glad that we have a day to come together collectively, as a community and as a people. it's a lovely start. but if we accept the sanitized, media driven version of martin luther king, jr. instead of the man i came to know through those impassioned speeches and letters, his holiday won't mean anything more than what those white girls said: yet another day that the post office is closed. we have to educate ourselves as black people about our history and our culture -- because the schools definitely aren't going to do it. and neither is the government. it's simply not in their best interest.


Mark Daniels said...

An interesting piece. On MLK, Jr. Day, I linked to the letter from a Birmingham jail.

Mark Daniels

Nicodemus said...

Queen Esther :

By th' time I get to Arizona... aiyyo hang on, I'm already here. As a fan of yours in th' place where people smile wild in th' heat, I am compelled to say that I was wholly taken by your writing abilities (which I did not expect, knowing you only as th' sapphire voice on "Hoosegow" and other fine snootcore records). Your words about th' indignant, riled Dr. King struck me powerfully, calling to mind Jesus' irritated attitude according to St. Matthew -- "How is it that you failed to understand that I did not speak about bread?" I'm white, but I can understand that what King sought to rectify was that unconscionable failure of American society to see th' big picture -- that basic human justice ought to have been a foregone conclusion in the thinking modern age of a nation-state founded by Christian philosophers. I guess, though, that it was th' flaws in th' Founders' philosophy that permitted those evils to persist after th' establishment of a united govenment. Yow. Heck, I'm just rambling here -- I'm that guy who celebrated it standing on a corner. What in Sam Scratch do I really know about any of it? One thing is for sure, though -- I dig your music. Your voice lives up to th' brashness of your namesake. I'll catch you on that B-side.



piu piu said...

great post

hey Ms QE I'm so sorry we didnt get to hang out in NY. I literally spent 4days sorting out my cards, money, and reports for my insurance payout...and the last2 days seeing old university friends i hadnt hung out with in yrs....

anyway it was lame,and i would love to hang out with u next time i come...and of course if/when u come to the uk....

Antoine said...

Your post just captured my thoughts for the last 4 years.

Well, most of it. :)

Nonetheless, thank you.

alcoholic poet said...


thanx for educating me a little more.