On Monday there was a lot of chatter about King and his legacy. Presidential candidates invoked his name to further their own ends. (Or apologize for them.) Newspapers and network anchors used his holiday as a news peg. Unapologetic racists reminded us that it’s not quite time for MLK Day to become an historical footnote just yet. And oh yeah, even as foreign markets dumped their stock in the US, banks were closed and the mail didn’t come.
It felt like everywhere I turned there was someone babbling sincerely about King’s legacy — what it all means and what he’d think about the America of 2008, such as it is. But aside from some strained ways to cram in the famous “dream” line, Monday ended with me feeling more frustrated than ever that people are missing the message and the measure of one of my heroes. However, I did find at least one or two pieces of good journalism out there.
Of course, to ease up off the media and the rest of us for a second, let me wonder aloud about how many of us know more than one key line or speech from many of our historical greats? Abraham Lincoln: Four score and … Nixon: I am not a crook. JFK: Ask not what your country can do for you … Marylin Monroe: Happy Birthday, Mr. President. It is the national past-time to be reductionist and mostly ignorant of our own history — looking for the easily digested sound-bite over substance.
But really. What might Dr. King think of America in 2008? Of course, we can only guess. But considering that at the end of his life he dedicated himself to anti-poverty and anti-war messages (both of which were pretty unpopular), I suspect he would be saddened and angered over the response to Hurricane Katrina, which was really just a giant bullseye pointing right to our country’s worst kept secret: We don’t take care of poor, non-white people. (Just compare and contrast to the wildfires in California.) Furthermore, look at this mess of a war we’re in. Dr. King was against Vietnam. How do you think he’d feel about Vietnam: The Sequel? Somehow, I get the sense that Dr. King would be worried about how much, as a society, we are hell-bent on destroying ourselves and are going to view it all as entertainment. (Trust me America, even I know the revolution will not be televised.) I think Dr. King would be a little dismayed that there is a kernel of truth to that Chris Rock joke about running away from ‘Martin Luther King Boulevard.’
But what the hell do I know? I’m just a silly white woman who spent a sizable chunk of childhood in Alaska. I am so afraid someone will think I’m a racist, I won’t even whisper the n-word in public (even when it’s a lyric to a song I like and am singing to). I am unnerved by the fact that I didn’t sniff out the racism lurking inside one of my friends until many years into the relationship. (Apparently, not only is there no gay-dar in the world, but no closet-racist-dar either.) And I’m sickened by a chain e-mail I got that told me to make sure people know that Barack Obama is a Muslim terrorist who is trying to take down America from the inside. (I can’t decide what’s more disturbing to me — that this person thought I would agree with the e-mail or that there are people out there so afraid of a black president that they spend time making this shit up.)
But when I (serendipitously) watched Talk to Me on Sunday night, I cried when Petey Greene’s (Don Cheadle) voice cracked while delivering the news that King had been killed. And I do love James Brown’s “Say It Loud” and Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues. Hell, that is part of the amazing power of movies, books and music, to help us understand each other even when we come from completely different worlds.
So here is my MLK Day gift to you, belated as it is: