Monday, January 19, 2015

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: Remembering and Forgetting on January 19

January 19, 2015 will be an ordinary day. It will not be, as a person from Maine might say, a “wicked good” day. It will be twenty-four hours occupying a square on a calendar, another SNAFU day in the United States of America. Nothing that is mind-shattering, body-alarming or soul-fracking will occur that did not already happen.

There will be no mail delivery, of course, because January 19 is a federal holiday. Babies will be born. People young and old will die. Fire will burn. The Earth will revolve as it orbits the sun. Air will move clouds. Water will flow or freeze. Prayers will be prayed; curses will be cursed; terrorism will terrorize; songs will be sung. Somewhere it will rain. Perhaps a few Americans will notice that peace and love are items that can’t be sold or bought. Otherwise, everything will be business as usual.


January 19, 2015 will be a day for remembering and forgetting. 

A few of us will struggle to remember what the life and death of Martin Luther King, Jr. has to do with the contemporary issues of human rights which are dramatically negated by Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad (Boko Haram) in northeast Nigeria. International mass media would have us chant “Je suis Charlie Hebdo” to signify our support for universal entitlement to freedom of speech. The Internet bids us to dream that hope springs eternally, that hope and prayers to strange gods will ultimately deliver us from the burdens of inequality, systemic racism, “authorized” abuses of law and order by the brave women and men who day by day put their lives in danger to uphold law and order, and the potency of Evil. 

Social networks want us to celebrate the heroism of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and to let such celebration overshadow the before and after of Ferguson, as well as the magnificent sacrifices of thousands of undocumented people who died that we might taste Freedom. Holidays, heroes and hero-worship are not innately bad, but they do encourage us to forget the essence of what is worth celebrating. 

In the case of Dr. King, the film Selma provides an opportunity to remember what a federal holiday might seduce us to forget. Like David Walker, Sojourner Truth, Malcolm X and Fannie Lou Hamer, Dr. King was not an avatar of Moses who led the American people to the milk and honey of the Promised Land. Please remember not to forget the land was stolen from its indigenous inhabitants. Scratch history as myth and look at realities.

Selma deserves every prize it will not get. The cinematography is excellent. The acting is quite commendable. The directing is beautifully understated. As I watched the film, I thought of Home of the Brave (1949) and the joy I felt as the age of six of seeing a dignified Negro (the actor James Edwards) on the silver screen. Selma sent electric shocks of recognition through my mind. 

Perhaps such electricity is one of the reasons there is a rush to whitewash the memory of Lyndon B. Johnson by criticizing Selma for historical inaccuracies. Selma is a template for history as a process, a well-structured “text” for “reading” the past and the present. It is not a documentary. 

Selma sends me back to Bridge Across Jordan (1991), by Amelia Platts Boynton Robinson, the woman in whose home Dr. King set up SCLC’s headquarters on January 2, 1965, and to Selma,Lord, Selma: Girlhood Memories of the Civil-Rights Days (1980), by Sheyann Webb and Rachel West Nelson, who received a victory hug from Dr. King on March 21, 1965. This descent into the past in the library of American civil rights history is necessary to understand the present cultural, social, and economic nightmares that trouble our sleep.

January 19, 2015 will be an ordinary day, a federal holiday, a day for conversations predicated on two questions: Where did we go from there, from April 4, 1968? And what, to any "legal" or “illegal” American, is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day?

Perhaps motivated forgetting, encoding failures, and interference proactive and retroactive will not preclude our talking to one another. 


The piece was originally written for BKNation on January 14, 2015. It is re-posted here with permission by the author.

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