It should be obvious that the way we honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. runs the risk of allowing his life and his life’s work to be subsumed by hegemony. We can mythologize anyone and then find space for them within an all-consuming cultural narrative, one that we have to keep feeding in order for it to live. America’s story is no different in its capacity to degrade and reduce human beings into simple parts that fit the established whole (the status quo, social order, dominant culture…whatever you want to call it), privileging especially those parts that act as foundations from which we can continue to safely build our empire, ignoring the majority who are buried beneath it in the process. Tragically, MLK (which in such a shortened form already dehumanizes him) is one such part. He ends up serving not as an enduring call to action but a static testament to America’s greatness, requiring only our passive reverence instead of our passionate resistance to everything he fought.
America operates – necessarily, in order for its Dream to persist – on ideals, not realities. It operates on what could be, not what is, and so also not on what needs to be addressed. Hence our urgent dismissal of racism as a present problem, as though bandying about post-racial society as a thing is somehow going to transform the daily realities of every marginalized group in our country. In fact, what such ignorance promotes is the persistence of, for one thing, internalized oppression. Not only did an oppressed individual have to cope with the psychological and physical imposition of inferiority amidst the ubiquitous influence of the American Dream, which insisted that it is the individual alone who can and should make something of his or her life (ignoring the social realities of every -ism out there and the way in which it does and does not confer privilege and power), but with talk of a post-racial nation, that individual feels the burden even more. Because presumably, in this new paradigm, all the doors previously closed are now wide open. There are some so naive who even claim that they don’t see race, which effectively is the same as saying that they don’t see your life, given how integral race really is to it. Where race may have interfered with one’s fulfillment of the American Dream, in our post-racial world, that is no longer something we need to discuss. Convenient for those who already have power and privilege, right? It is a brilliant job of eliminating threats, that much is certain. Excuse me…eliminating human beings. Segregating them from their own humanity. Alienating them from themselves. From everyone. And then blaming them for it.
We’re all complicit in this gross dehumanization, this psychological holocaust. And so while we’re quick to celebrate ourselves more than MLK himself on this day, quick to commend our “generous” pause in remembering his legacy, it seems to me that we verge on corrupting it, on twisting it in favor of the very forms of power and ways of living that he sought to end, in favor of the very injustice and inequality that he devoted his life to exposing and destroying.
Eager to be rid of our worst sins, eager to forget what we’re capable of doing to one another in the absence of recognized, shared, mutual humanity, we concede a day to his name and grant ourselves the most undeserved, cheap catharsis.