Okay so, I have a confession to make… and don’t go crazy when you hear it. What’s my confession? It’s the fact that I hate Martin Luther King Jr. I can already hear the response, “Who the hell does this big-lip nigga think he is?” Now, just breathe easy, of course I don’t hate him, but I have to admit (quiet as kept) I’ve never been much of a fan.
Still not feeling me? Well, just then let me explain…
Whenever January 18 comes around, and someone would inevitably praise MLK with a smile and the expectation that I’d join in, my general response has always been, “Yeah, well I’m more in the camp of Malcolm than Martin.” I always thought it was a cute line, and of course I came off like an asshole, and maybe even a little threatening (given the contrast of how most of the country view each men). However, cute line or not, where did the sentiment come from? Was it personal? A difference in some tactic or stance they took while fighting for some of the rights so many like myself have benefited from to the point of taking it for granted? Given the polar opposites the history books have told us these two men were in regards to achieving their goals, that would seem the most logical assumption.
The answer, however, is no.
Neither my affinity for Malcolm nor my lack of reverence for Martin have to do with personal feelings towards these men or their ideology, but instead grew from what they have come to represent to the country, and how that representation affected me.
I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, a time when Black leaders (a term I never liked) were still making noise about inequality, so the powers that be continued to turn to MLK when they needed a shining example of cooperation. As far as America saw him he was a good Negro. Accepted by the masses because he once spoke of love and acceptance while people were being hosed down, attacked by dogs, having their heads beat in, being convicted of capital murder for defending themselves against police out to kill them. As a freshman in high school, I noticed how King was accepted while I, and others that looked like me did not feel that way, not even by our teachers that seem to praise him. In fact, he was used to show how we didn’t act, carry ourselves and (yes) even dress (though I couldn’t imagine they expected children to wear a suit to school no matter what color you were, but the message was loud and clear).
He was not seen as a symbol of something we could be but instead as something we were not. The image of royalty held over the heads of serfs. To them, at least how we saw it, MLK was the antithesis of what we would become, because by the time you reached high school, it was all over for you. Unfortunately, no one informed us ahead of time. Just as we were beginning to see ourselves in relation to society around us, we learned we were not to be a part of it. As young Black boys (soon-to-be young Black men) we were less than desirable. Feared by adults even while we were still children.
Everything changed in 1995, when at the age of 15 I went to see a movie called “Panther.” A film that traced the founding and decline of the “Black Panther Party for Self-Defense” (eventually just known simply as The Black Panthers). To say I was enamored would be an understatement. Not only did it show the brutality and carnage of the Civil Rights Movement (a movement that was White-washed into something else when spoon-fed to us in school) it also revealed that I was not alone. I felt like I was a boy out of time. Born after the dust settled and now as living proof that their struggle had not ended in triumph (no matter what my history books told me). Here were a group of people who shared my frustration, my fear, my anger and (especially) my hatred for the society that didn’t want me. Didn’t want us.
I left the theater on a mission to learn as much as I could about what had been kept from me. I devoured any and every book I found on not only the Civil Rights Movement but also the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Movement, from “Soul on Ice” to “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” And what came from that was inevitable: I became an ideological militant. The long-lost Panther, the last angry man (child really). Teachers went on notice to call me by my full name: Ishmael Omar Nkrumah Brown. Yes, I was that type of asshole, and it’s sorta laughable now, but at the time it was everything. For what else did I have? With all the shame, confusion and anger festering in me, who knows where it could have ended. Maybe with me sticking a gun in someone’s face and telling to give up what they had (before I shared my pain).
When someone (especially a child) is continually told that they have no value within society, eventually they believe you.
Now knowing all that about my me, you could imagine how I felt when just the other day I read a story entitled: “Echoes of Selma: Is MLK’s greatest victory being undone?” MLK’s victory? Is that what the Civil Rights Movement was? One man who spoke about a dream? No Malcolm? No Huey P? No Hampton? None of the other activists arrested in the South only to be found hanged in their cells (which was often written off as suicide)? None of the hundreds of others?
And of course our natural proclivity to boil down important historic moments into something that could fit in an hour and a half movie or on bumper sticker is not lost on me, but there’s more to the rewriting of the Civil Rights Movement (not to mention many other shameful moments in American history) that serves more of a purpose than merely simplifying a complex subject.
The irony of it all is people see MLK, not as a representation of resilience and hope of a downtrodden race fighting against a powerful and flawed country, he is now just another representation of American Exceptionalism, which in my mind is at times simply the inability for self-reflection. The avoidance to be held accountable for this countries past and present atrocities, which then fosters the lack of (much needed) guilt. Whatever horrific actions that have transpired will not only have no real repercussions, they will go unspoken, similar to the emancipation of those in bondage…
Forty Acres and a mule? Nah, you niggers are fine now that we benevolently freed you. Just don’t go around like assholes and start clinging to the past. Be happy we’re gonna pretend your ass is equal from this point on. Oh, and ignore the years of further atrocities that’re to come.
This way of thinking is why when it comes to how the country remembers the Civil Rights Movement there is an absence of those that spoke of the pain and anger; it’s why we avoid showing the riots, the hoses, the dogs and the shootings; why we hear nothing of King in the later years, when he began to acknowledge how little his belief in nonviolence yielded; there’s nothing of him being labeled a terrorist (by the very country that now praises him), nothing of the wiretaps, of the hatred for him so palpable that the FBI felt the need to send him a letter (in the guise of a suicide note) in which they call King, among other things, an “evil, abnormal beast.”sharing just how much he was hated. None of it. A movement rife (with blood, death and tears) simply boiled down to the image of a peaceful march and a man at the podium (graciously) not placing blame.
Is it no wonder that fifty years later the police are still terrorizing Black neighborhoods and assassinating their (unarmed) citizens? Of course not, but when you really want to talk about the lack of progress one only needs to mention the astonishing fact (as stated by Ohio State University law professor and civil rights activist Michelle Alexander ) that there are more African-American men in prison, jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850. And when we bring up Obama as a way to defend progress, please know ever since his election we have been treated to just how racist this country truly still is. No longer are racists regulated to toothless, slack-jawed yokels (as my White, well-meaning, liberal friends used to tell me back in college). But guess what, in a few decades Obama’s presidency will be the new symbolism to our “Exceptionalism,” no matter where we may be in terms of race relations. In fact, he is already being used as a reason Black people should stop complaining! In some eyes, it’s impossible for Blacks to still be held back and discriminated against if there’s a Black President. This type of reasoning has to be justified since King, to Oprah, to Obama, and I’m sure in the 1800’s Frederick Douglass was used the same way.
So when I say my flippant line regarding Martin Luther King Jr. just know it comes from a place, not of disrespect but of frustration. Frustration in the way so many, including King himself, have not only been robbed of their true place in history, but of how much change their words and sacrifices (if looked at honestly) could have achieved.