MLK: from Dreaming to Reality

Among the most painful bits of Dr. King’s legacy is how so much of it’s reduced to “I Have a Dream.” It’s true that it’s a landmark speech, powerful and moving…

…and always heard out of context of the other, more direct speeches that graced the March on Washington (a March organized by an openly Gay Man, no less – go look up the badass Bayard Rustin, please and thank you!). As if  the marchers just wanted to spend all day on their feet, listening to platitudes and winsome ideas!

I’m not going to dive into that context, I assume your Google button ain’t broke. :) What I will do, is talk about a couple of other works by Dr. King, works that ground him in the realities he fought to overcome, and that echo into these times.

The text for the afternoon will be taken from two works from near Dr. King’s passing:

  • “The Drum Major Instinct,” (hereafter DRUM), which you can listen to here, and read here, and
  • “A New Sense of Direction,” (hereafter SENSE), which you can read here.

I post all this to encourage you to read/listen to the above in full. To underline that Dr. King was far richer a thinker and even rabble-rouser than gets noticed — that the Hoover FBI feared him for damned good reasons. If you chose to read the above docs, and skip the rest of this? HELL YA!

But for those who want more? Follow…

See, Dr. King did not buy into a color-blind society. That wasn’t the context he gave his “Dream” speech under. The context, the fuller context of his work and life’s mission, is made plain by this remarkable passage in DRUM:

 

[…]when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, “Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. [laughter] You’re just as poor as Negroes.”

And I said, “You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. (Yes) And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big because you are white.

And you’re so poor you can’t send your children to school. You ought to be out here marching with every one of us every time we have a march.”

Now that’s a fact. That the poor white has been put into this position, where through blindness and prejudice, (Make it plain) he is forced to support his oppressors. And the only thing he has going for him is the false feeling that he’s superior because his skin is white—and can’t hardly eat and make his ends meet week in and week out.

And there’s so much more.

One of the positive parts of Dr. King’s approach was in seeing a bigger picture, was in tying together all manner of injustice into a massive framework, what we today would call an attempt at intersectionality. It’s far from perfect; we know he was far too casual about martial relations to see the fullness of sexism. And although he was surprisingly cool with Rustin, he also failed to be vocal at all about what we’d today call LBGTQIA+ issues.

Yet there was a seed of power in his approach to directing white people to look inside themselves, in his challenge to their (and society’s) assumption of inherent goodness. And as critical as he was towards poor whites, that sympathy evaporates completely when you consider his words towards what we, today, might see as Privileged White people. From SENSE:

[…]policy-makers of the white society have caused the darkness. It was they who created the frustrating slums. They perpetuate unemployment and poverty and oppression. Perhaps it is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes, but these are essentially derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of the white society.

King is far more aggressive – even angry — about calling out white society than he’s usually portrayed as. Reading his dissections of that systemic failure, and ideas on overcoming it, are bracing to this day…sadly.

See, King’s quick to lay the political blame on what I contend are still surpassing the Black and Brown voice in politics:

Negroes became outraged by blatant inequality. Their ultimate goal was total, unqualified freedom. The majority of the white progressives were outraged by the brutality displayed. Their goal was improvement or limited progression.

Obtaining the right to use public facilities, register and vote, token educational advancement, brought to the Negro a sense of achievement; he felt the momentum. But it brought to the whites a sense of completion. When Negroes assertively moved on to ascend the second rung of the ladder, a firm resistance from the white community became manifest.[….] Everyone underestimated the amount of rage Negroes were suppressing and the amount of bigotry the white majority was disguising.

(Not everyone. Ask Malcolm X, or Rev. Shuttlesworth, and you’d get a different answer on this, to name two people right off.)

But Dr. King is hella on the right track. And he knows it. And we’re still talking about the impact white progressives have on the Black and Brown vote, to this very day.

And because he’s on the right track, I can say this: Dr. King is clear that some changes can’t be made by speaking too kindly. That some painful truths have to come to the fore.

That’s what Black Lives Matter did. That’s what the 1619 Project did. That’s (part of) why Critical Race Theory – an academic theory mostly for lawyers – had to be scapegoated.

Dr. King saw that the closer we get to reality, the harsher the blow back. The more we talk about the systemic issues in this country, the more the arc of justice pushes the many folx who’ve suffered under those issues into the light and air we all deserve…and the more the old guard will press and preen and pervert and backstab to maintain power.

And SENSE touches on what kind of people have, and can, overcome those barriers:

[…]there are millions who have risen morally above prevailing prejudices. They are willing to share power and to accept structural alterations of society, even at the cost of traditional privilege.[…]Their support serves not only to enhance our power, but their break from the attitudes of the larger society splits and weakens our opposition.

It’s…not an easy calling, that Higher Calling, y’all. If you say it is, if you think I overstate things, then I ask you to show your work.

To conclude: I submit there are some things we can all learn from studying even a bit of Dr. King. And I hope the above serves as a starter, to that on your part, today.

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Gravely Disappointed

Regarding Senator Sinema’s words, yesterday: I would muse on the…universality, if you will, of the toxic approach people like Senator Sinema take in all this. For it reminds me, again, of Dr. King’s words on this kind of person:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is:

  • more devoted to “order” than to justice,
  • who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice,
  • who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”,
  • who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom,
  • who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.

—-King, Martin Luther. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.].” Upenn.edu, 16 Apr. 1963, www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.

[Edits mine – MisterDancer]

Why does the above matter? Because: There’s a saying in some social justice circles, that what’s needed aren’t Allies. They need Accomplices.

What does that mean? It means people who are willing to not just let go of prejudice, not just willing to address other’s prejudices when it’s convenient for them, but actively engaged in using their privilege to raise people up, and in – at the end of the day – engaged in the life—long work to dismantling their privilege.

They require people who will avoid taking up all the space so that all voices can be heard far more equally, than happens today. They underline that you cannot support a movement, while sucking at the teat of the forces that seek to break that movement.

And so, yesterday, Senator Sinema chose to take up all the space, to take up all the air. She chose to offer a negative peace, over justice.

She, and the other Senators, outspoken and silent, she stands with will say to their last breath, they are Allies. They will insist their stance is about doing the right thing, the right way. That they just can’t agree with the methods for direct action, to protect the stealing of votes. They insist there is time to find another convenient season, to address these issues.

In this, they are not far in words traded in our media from the deeper threat – the GOP who applaud these moves. The ones who see on the horizon a time when their cult of power cannot be broken, and their desire for power will go unchallenged. These are people who have not forgotten the truth of the Dixiecrats: for all their spoken hate of Black and Brown folx (among many others), they needed my ancestors. Jim Crow’s broken-assed economy meant they couldn’t just throw their bodies, or even minds, away. They couldn’t escape the reality, save by lying to everyone about it by claiming Jim Crow as the “moderate” stance, the stance of “good” people.

Indeed, “scientific racism” was invented so that Victorian-era people could feel good about treating groups of people like machines. And to do so while claiming they were Allies to the people they abused, just as slave owners came to say that Black folx were children who required a firm hand…indefinitely.

And that “good feelings first” mentality allowed 1700 of those slave owners to stand in Congress over the centuries. The very same American Congress, the seat of freedom, where Senator Sinema chose to defend their horrors in standing against voting rights.

After all, they were all good moderate people, to be certain. /s

People have always sought a way to be a moderate, a centrist, even in light of much of the worst humanity has done. To retain every bit of their privilege, a thing they “deserve” and have “worked hard for, unlike others”. To hold their space and never yield it, ensuring they and the people they “care” about are always seen as important, now and forever trapped in an amber poured of blood and pain.

There are trials and tribulations to come. And they come, in no small part, from what I’ve written above.

So, to you, the reader who made it through all this ramble: I’m going to try to use my energy here to be a better Accomplice. And I’m working through what that means, considering the current situation. What I can bring to light here to accomplish that mission, and to build connections and community — even if I have to be mean about it, sometimes. :)

Y’all hold me to task, on that, OK?

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A Reason to Sing.

[EDIT: Yes, this is Woodrow/Asim, in my new nick!] Nothing pisses off The Right, like actually enjoying your life, even when that life holds pain and sorrow.

So let’s talk late 90s’ pop tunes!

Specifically: how one of them came to be played at the Inauguration…and how it reminds me, of the emotional richness from singing Gospel, many years ago. A richness that can help, to push back a bit of the darkness.

Let’s start with the song — “You Get What You Give” by the New Radicals, aka Beau Biden’s “theme song” as he fought cancer…:

…and a One-Hit Wonder. Yet, despite it’s seemingly ephemeral nature, so many of us who heard it at that time, kept it close to our hearts. As a struggling dancer myself, it was a massive uplift for me.

And for a Beau Biden who, years later, would struggle with something much more serious in his life? It became a balm, one he passed onto his “old man” — a man who is now our President, and who had the band come back from the dead to play the song at his Inauguration.

But why this song? And what the heck does any of this pop pablum, have to do with the long and treasured history of Gospel Music?

So let’s dive into Joy…and Pain. How “life is more, than mere survival.”

I suspect Beau and Joe came to this song for the same reason a lot of us did — because it made us feel, deep in our gut, emotions we don’t always acknowledge in our words and deeds — that we feel we cannot. And said feeling was of a song that, despite its catchy tune, despite lyrics reaching out for joy, it’s also drenched in — and it’s infamous ending reeks of — pain. Of a loss, of control over our lives, and screaming out for that to change.

And if it can’t change, much like the Serenity Prayer, you learn to accept.

In that, yeah, it reminds me of the Gospel I sang, as a kid.

Gospel Music (and in this, I’m laser-focused on the songs from the African-American tradition) has a lot of emotional power, power that comes from shared burdens and pain. By its very nature, both coming from the long history of Christianity, and the specific “out of bondage” narrative of the African-American traditions, they are oftentimes songs about finding joy in the worst of pain. The old saying of “Making a way out of no way” is richly echoed by “You Get…” without aping or appropriating, and that gives it a ton of power that helps explain it’s near-cultish survival.

When the Florida Mass Choir sings that Jesus “makes my bridge over troubled waters/makes my hope — hope! — for tomorrow,” yeah, it’s a Christian version of “You Only Get…”‘s chorus around “One dance left, this world is gonna pull through/Don’t give up, you’ve got a reason to live”. Both are reminders that there’s power in sharing our burdens, a topic I expect to return to, in my tenure here.

But more critically, Gospel does this not in the style of a hopeless, painful singing style, not in ways that drag down the actual listening experience. You learn to sing Gospel as an act of defiance, of joyous surrender to the moment, and to God/Jesus (yes, that’s a whole-assed topic itself…). Gospel taught me, and “You Get” reinforces, that you can sing about horribly painful subjects, about the ugliness of the world around you, and do so in ways that empower you to step into tomorrow.

That’s…not for everyone, to say the least. Toxic Positivity is a real thing, and so is real no-joke Depression that turns everything dark, with no light from anything. These words, my writing here today, should never be used to mask or force people into some “damned light”.

But, in the aggregate, they do matter. Pushing back fear, always matters. Building connections, especially across the boundaries of artifice and culture, always matters.

And if me building a connection between a lamented son’s favorite song, and a musical style that lifted up millions for decades, helps you, today? I’m glad.

And if it just confused you? Well, welcome to the fun house that is my mind.

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