Last night I watched two documentaries: one on Ulysses S. Grant, and another on Tiger Woods. One man attempted to stop the lynching of recently freed people, while the other was fetishized as an African American and then virtually lynched when he did not keep up with the expectations of his White fetishizers. On this Dr. King Day I continue to be sickened by the way some White people make Black folks (and their allies) into “heroes” until, that is, they cease to comfort or entertain us. Then we attempt to destroy them. All out of fear.
President Grant actually thought it was a good idea for freed people to have rights — to vote, and all sorts of other citizen stuff. He was, himself, considered a hero for a while; he had “saved” the Union while still extending benevolence to the South. He let those Confederates keep their guns and horses (against Lincoln’s suggestion) so the men could go back and reconstruct their society. But once Grant started looking a little too much like he was on the side of those African Americans who were being violently assaulted all over the country, people turned on him right fast. Cartoons appeared, replete with horrendous caricatures of Black folk, portraying Grant as a “negro-lover” who was ignoring the needs of his people. That would be the White people. Historians proceeded to redraw a profile of Grant as a weak and drunken man. Many of us continue to consume this story today. He became destitute. BUT, because he was White and thus privilege is always around the corner, Mark Twain published his memoirs and his family was financially supported after his death.
Now to Tiger Woods. A Black athlete in one of the Whitest sports there is. He was a magnificent athlete. Crowds of White people cheered him on. He made lots of money for himself, and for Nike. But he was going through some personal stuff that became public stuff, thanks to probably the same people who were praising his golf swing just moments before. (There is nothing like a Black man falling, failing our expectations). White people shook their heads at yet one more example of how African Americans can never really measure up in the end. And the tide turned against him hard. In the media. On the golf course. The PGA commissioner scolded him in public. Who was he to do that? Why was that his business? Racism and paternalism is why. Tiger became yet another sacrificial African American, a man we lifted so high in order bring him down when he inevitably crumbled. He has turned out to be an extremely brave man, countering the popular narrative of poor, hapless victim. It takes bravery to be Black in America.
Dr. King was brave. Way more than many of us are aware. He was made a hero, too. What does that mean? In this country it often means that White people decided he was an acceptable Black man. Interesting, but safe. That is how early historians drew him, for the most part: great orator and man of God. He wasn’t mad at White people, after all, he wanted us to all be nice to each other. Later, thanks to new historiography, the general public had the opportunity to learn that Dr. King had the nerve to demand responsible action from his government when it came to things like poverty and war. Suddenly he was persona non grata. Remember the part where he gets murdered? Fear kills.
When will we stop killing Black people in this country? Stop hating them? Judging them? Fearing them? Fetishizing them? Black Lives Matter isn’t only stating that Black people shouldn’t be gunned down in their backyards or choked to death by police, but that they should have all the same opportunities as White people do. Black Lives, like our lives, are complicated, confusing, and even messy sometimes. They deserve the same chance to be human as anyone else. Why must they behave like model citizens (which means following White law) and/or fear becoming pariahs and targets of violence? Why has this been a practice for so long? Answer: fear.
Fear stormed the capitol on January 6th, fear that looked like White people believing ugly and deceitful messages that they were not getting what was rightfully theirs. They were told there was an enemy that must be vanquished or their lives as they knew them would be gone. We saw this during Reconstruction, post Civil Rights Era, post President Obama, and everywhere in between. People who did not think like these paranoid, fearful, angry White people — or look like them — were taking over. Something had to be done. In this case, it was to “take back” the election and kill those who got in the way. Their lives mattered too! they screamed, as they rioted through the streets of Washington, DC.
Dr. King believed that all lives mattered, to be sure. But he was aware that too many Americans believed that some lives mattered more than others. So he, and the many others who formed the coalition, fought for those other lives. Black lives. Poor lives. Immigrant lives. Queer lives. Then he was murdered. Because his life no longer mattered to those in power, in fact his life was starting to become quite inconvenient. So, I ask, when will we stop murdering people because they are telling the truth? We are so far from a democracy. (Or maybe that is exactly where we are and thus need to transform into something else altogether).
Remember what Dr. King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:
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.”
It’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day today. Not just a “three-day-weekend.” Not even just a “day of service.” That’s nice and everything, but King was an activist. The Civil Rights Movement was made up of activists, not just people giving out blankets to the homeless once a year. Let’s go be activists together to honor King’s Black life. Let’s find that thing that bothers us most within the systems that we live — there are so many to choose from after all. Let’s go make a difference regularly, not just annually. And while we’re at it, let’s all figure out how to treat Black lives with respect, and love, and humanity. Maybe “one day [we could] live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” and, what’s more, maybe one day they could even enjoy the relative peace and confidence so many of us have in knowing that our children are not targets for violence each and every day that they wake up in this country. Let’s do all that today. Let’s do this because “since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system.”* Let’s change some systems today!
*qtd from Belafonte memoir, My Song