What, To the Black American, Is Martin Luther King Jr. Day?
By Chris Lebron
I am very honored to be addressing you here today, though it is not without some trepidation.
You see, the distance between where I grew up, where I come from in the world, and where many of you sit is significant. That I am where I am in the world sometimes surprises me. So I consider it an especially pressing duty to be mindful of my journey; and, when possible, to remind others that such a journey is just that for some of us — a setting out without a clear sense that we will get where we intend to go.
If you are celebrating this holiday as a victory over racial injustice, I cannot join you.
Representing the point of view that I do — as a brown American from a lower-class background, with the good fortune today to walk the halls of one of America’s most elite institutions as a teacher of philosophy — Martin Luther King Jr. Day is taken to represent a triumph. But here is an uncomfortable truth: It is a triumph of acceptable minimums rather than full respect for those who continue to wait for Dr. King’s dream to become reality.
My purpose is to challenge the common belief that honoring of Martin Luther King Jr. means the same thing to all Americans. Recalling the sense of disconnect expressed by Frederick Douglass in his speech “What, to the Slave, Is the Fourth of July?” — between himself as a former slave and his white audience — I want to say there is also some distance between black and white Americans today, between “you” and “I,” as it were, and that this day has increasingly become “yours,” not mine.
That may seem narrow or bitter. You may argue that the holiday has taken greater hold in the nation over time. Who today questions the validity of this holiday? Many of us have been given a day off work to reflect on it. A blockbuster Hollywood movie about Dr. King’s role in one of the civil rights movement’s greatest victories is playing in theaters nationwide. Clothes, furniture, bedding and cars are on sale to honor the man. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it seems, now belongs to more of the nation than ever before.
But I maintain that it does not fully belong in the most profound ways to many Americans, and to some of them, it does not belong at all.
I think it goes without question that not only has the idea of a post-racial America proven to be a myth, but that racial inequality remains a tragic mark on the character of this otherwise great nation — a nation founded on respect not only for what persons hope to accomplish in life but for what they are: humans owed rights, liberty and respect because of their humanity. The equal recognition of humanity has only intermittently taken hold with respect to black lives. The closeness of Emmett Till and Eric Garner attest to that.
This was Dr. King’s great struggle in his life. While he indeed fought for the security of a full schedule of rights for black Americans, he was in fact fighting for something greater and more difficult to articulate — the hope that white Americans could extend a hand of brotherly and sisterly love to blacks. The mark of true love, for Dr. King, was to embrace strangers as familiars, and conversely, to deny that blacks’ humanity was a new and strange thing. There is hope in the thought that Dr. King is fervently embraced by so many Americans today, and there is consolation that his struggle gave us the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.
My purpose today, however, is to reflect on the nature of this embrace. When you celebrate Dr. King, what are you cheering? Do you cheer the greatness of a man who fully knew his journey’s destination was insecure? The greatness of a man who paid the ultimate price so that my son could vote and sit in class alongside your children? If so, I am happy to join you. Do you celebrate his struggle as a resounding success that ushered in a new age of race relations? Do you intend to show appreciation for the notion that he helped us move past a difficult moment in American history? If so, then I cannot join you. And I fear that I observe the tendency to celebrate not so much the man but the hope that claiming him for all Americans exculpates us from the sins of inhumanity that is racial marginalization…to read the entire article click here.