Monday, January 17, 2005

Martin, Martin, Martin

[Originally posted on Martin Luther King Day, 2005]

“Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.”
—Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Strength to Love”

On April 25, 1967, King announced he would not run for president.

I've been reading Debra Dickerson's The End of Blackness (Pantheon, 2004). It is a book not without its controversies, but what I like about it most so far is that it is a bluntly provocative diatribe, both angry and learned. Late in the introduction she opines that “blacks must accept that they are a numerical and political minority and must master the dominant bodies of knowledge even as they fight for the inclusion of worthy black knowledge. Blacks must master the master’s world. They needn’t embrace it or even believe in it . . . [but can] subvert it from within if they are so inclined, something they can do precisely because they are within.” (p. 23) I know what she means, but that doesn’t keep it all from feeling like a gamble. At least that's how I felt, pen in hand about a year ago:

Moibus (S)trip Poker


Black on the outside
hollow on the inside
asked why I'm not filled with rage
who says I'm not
here—I’ll show you


Rage maybe
inherent to me not my blackness
trapped inside a self-made, paper-lined cage
of respectability
degrees, certificates, letters of recommendation
that I wish I could burn
to disappear

Ace in the Hole

Black privilege
Black rage

I wrote what I did because I felt that painting my room, doing my laundry, and getting other neglected chores done wasn't an entirely appropriate homage to the day that's supposed to celebrate the birth of a man who convinced us to march for a dream, and who, by and large, turned the other cheek. I wrote because I was disappointed that the “optional” federal holiday that is MLK Day isn't shoved down everyone's throat the way Christmas Day is. I wrote it as I remembered being in a non-black friend's car when she asked me, in all seriousness, why I'm not like other black people. When I asked what that meant she replied, “Well, you're not angry.” She had just been flipped off by an “insolent” black woman crossing the street whom my friend had almost hit because she was trying to answer her cell phone while driving. I wrote it because being “educated” can feel like a noose around one's neck. I wrote it as a way of playing the race card. Because I can.

However, today is about a man of peace. I started out by forcing myself to gauge who of the three following Martin’s has had the greatest historical impact: Martin Luther, Martin Luther King Jr., or Martin Lawrence. After all, in some strange way, one could almost get away with suggesting that one begat the other, in exactly that order, i.e the reformer begat the civil rights leader begat one of a generation of comedic types who have the freedom to say pretty much anything, especially the black ones. America loves it when black folk say outrageous stuff—which is pretty much most of the time. Except maybe the types of things that likely to be obnoxious hotheads like Dickerson espouse. I have 226 pages of her book to go before I decide, 1) which is the worst to endure: a self-absorbed, obnoxious comic actor; a self-absorbed, obnoxious academic; or a self-absorbed, obnoxious blogger; and 2) whether this is one case where bad is a euphemism for good.

Crassness aside, if you haven’t read the Reverend King’s essays and speeches beyond a few lines of “I Have a Dream,” you owe it to yourself to check ‘em out. He is, of course, best known as a civil rights leader and a man of the cloth. But at the most basic level, he was also a philosopher, as all true visionaries are. My favorites of his many works include Strength to Love, Why We Can’t Wait, The Trumpet of Conscience, and Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? For the true fanatics, there's the massive A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. Meanwhile, on this day in which his legacy will be reduced to the same old sound byte, I’d like to share some of his less familiar quotes but ones that are particularly relevant (even) today.

From “Strength to Love” (sermon, 1963):

“The ultimate measure of man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. . . . The chain reaction of evil—hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars—must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.”

“Success, recognition, and conformity are the bywords of the modern world, where everyone seems to crave the anesthetizing security of being identified with the majority.”

“The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”

From Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1963):

“Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

“Many of the ugly pages of American history have been obscured and forgotten. . . . America owes a debt of justice which it has only begun to pay. If it loses the will to finish or slackens in its determination, history will recall its crimes and the country that would be great will lack the most indispensable element of greatness—justice.”

“The bombs in Vietnam explode at home; they destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America.”

From "Why We Can't Wait" (Letter from the Birmingham Jail, 1963):

“Man was born into barbarism when killing his fellow man was a normal condition of existence. He became endowed with a conscience. And he has now reached the day when violence toward another human being must become as abhorrent as eating another's flesh.”

From his Nobel Prize acceptance speech (1964):

“Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation.”

From The Trumpet of Conscience (1967):

“The limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win and their participants know it. Hence, rioting is not revolutionary but reactionary because it invites defeat. It involves an emotional catharsis, but it must be followed by a sense of futility. Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor in America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.”

Somehow this madness must cease. If that's not an appropriate mediation for the day, I don't know what is.



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