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Celebrating A Legacy We Don’t Understand

According to my mother, I was always race conscious. She says I started talking about race when I was in pre-school and never stopped. I know that I have been interested in racial issues since my earliest memories. However, often times my interest was largely rooted in being the racial minority in many circumstances.

I don”t care what anyone says.

When you are the minority, you notice.

Every time I do a workshop on racism, and a white participant says that they don’t see color, I ask them if they have ever been the only white person in a room full of people of color. Once they put themselves back in that place, that one day, they always realize that they were aware of their minority status in a way they have never been previously or since.

With the exception of a few urban pockets, white America is still the largest population in any given region of the US. At last check, white America was still around 63% of the US population. That means for many white Americans, they may never have to be the racial minority in their life time. If everywhere I went, almost everyone was black, I may not see color as much either – especially if it would be morally convenient for me not to.

Unfortunately for all of us, social justice and moral convenience are often diametrically opposed to one another. Doubly unfortunate for people in positions of socially systemic inequality, we as a nation have made an unconscious, collective decision to aire on the side of moral convenience more times than not. We have been doing it for so long, that we have even begun to alter the legacy of those who refused to do the same in order to make them both more palatable and unasailable to us. Rather than living up to their expectations of us, we first kill them, and then retell their life story, elevating it to such magnanomous hights that none of us could ever hope to achieve a monocrum of their effectiveness. So…we don’t try, we simply put them on a pedestal to be revisted systemically – either weekly or yearly (ask Jesus).

In the midst of all this mess, there is the revisionist history that continuously asks us to be aware of our social progress while ignoring the various isms that continue to plague our global communities. I observe people utilizing King’s words completely out of context in order to pursue some bass ackwards social agenda (ask Ward Connerly). People like Connerly use the phrase, “content of character”, to purse the notion that equality has been achieved and that programs like affirmative action are no longer needed. Apparently, we have erased the imbalance created by 4 centuries of unpaid labor, systemic terrorism, and socio-political apartheid with just under 4 decades of affirmative action, (a program that statistically benefits white women far more than any other single group of people).

This revisionist history is dangerous. It is dangerous primarily for two reasons:

1. American pundits and decision makers have attached themselves to King’s words because we have collectively decided, as a nation, that King was going to be our moral compass in all things racial. If you want to convince a group of folks that a thing is “right” with regard to race, find a King quote to substantiate it. Doesn’t matter if the context is correct,because your counting on most people not knowing the context anyway. We don’t read his sermons and speeches. We don’t read his letters. We simply let other people tell us what King meant when he said…

2. The risk we run as a result of not knowing King, is that we allow other people to tell us who he was. In doing so, King’s name gets dragged through all kinds of mud. Public policies get passed that have nothing to do with King’s values, but are passed “in his name” none the less. Public policies can lead to all kinds of social mischievousness – which in turn, can lead to disenfranchisement and/or death among other social ills.

I used to be mad at the perps. Now…I’m just frustrated with myself. I have been led down the same false roads like so many other people. It is in my preparation for tw that I realize just how little I understood about King – and I went to school for African-American Studies! Both Malcolm and Martin we staunch proponents of teaching and learning for oneself. Too bad I wasn’t listening more carefully. Now I am. I’m on to you America…as an old friend of mine would say, “I know your game. I’ve seen it unfold.”

This year, I promise to finish Dyson’s book on King, I May Not Get There With You. I’m going to learn King for myself, and in the midst of learning more about King, I’m going to learn more about the games people play in order to use a legacy against the very ideals it articulated. I would strongly encourage you to do the same.

“Niggas loved to hear Malcolm rap, but they didn’t love Malcolm.”

– Umar Bin Hassan, The Last Poets,
Niggas Are Scared of Revolution


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