It’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, people. The day when brands all over Twitter rush to equate the Black struggle for freedom to the American right to choose chikin over beef. Let the “I Have a Dream” speech ring in every hollow conversation about whether colorblindness was the “dream” MLK conceived for the mountaintop. I am convinced we stuff more words in his cold mouth than he ever uttered. But today, I am invoking the spirit of Martin’s boldness to say something I’ve been avoiding for a long time.
Dear White People: Martin Luther King, Jr. is not my daddy.
Rather, Dr. King is not Black America’s daddy. But I can see why you might have made the mistake of thinking so. If you are fortunate enough to enter the home of an elder in the Black community, chances are you will find the painting of Martin Luther the King on the wall next to President Obama’s official photo. Black America has our superheroes, men who have ascended to greatness costumed in Black Excellence. We are the wind holding their capes aloft. Black love for our activists, the agape kind, can defy the gravity of racism.
Still, we understand they are but men. We know all too well how double-breasted suits and church hats are no bulletproof vests for our Black superheroes. We flocked to their sides at the Audubon Ballroom, at 2332 Margaret Walker Alexander Drive in Jackson, at the Lorraine Motel, willing them to repel shrapnel like Magneto. Instead, we have built monuments in their shadows and prayed to see the dawns they ushered in.
You must know, however, Black people have had moral fortitude far before Martin Luther King, Jr. ever graced a podium. How do you think he came to be in the first place? God anointed the spittle on the tip of his tongue, the steel in his drawl, the jut of his chin where your grandmothers slapped at him. But Blackness fathered Martin. He was heir to a tradition of resistance no cat o’nine tails could ever flay from African spirits.
There is a thing mainstream America does when they decide they like something Black. Some may call it appropriation. I call it cruelty. Mainstream America will call the Black thing a Negro “problem,” and “outsider” until it is expedient. Then, once enlightenment has worked its magic, White people pat themselves on the back when they allow that Black thing to be “American.” Not because it was always deserved, but because America decided that bit of Blackness was finally worthy.
Martin was a Black superhero who loved America when America was still calling him her bastard son. Kal-El ain’t got nothing on this.
Dear White People: Hear me carefully when I tell you the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. turns to ashes in your mouth whenever you utter it to chastise the very people he died to liberate.
Allow me to insert the obligatory #NotAllWhitePeople. Yes. American individuality and whatnot. If I’m not talking to you, then this essay is naught but an alphabet soup on the Internet.
But for those of you who find joy in exhuming the name of Dr. King in conversations about race, I want you to know Black America is not a nation of lost children. We are not, despite oft-sermonized parallels in Black churches, the Israelites wandering in the wilderness without Moses. MLK is not our daddy for you to wag your fingers at us and tut-tut, “MLK would have wanted… You don’t believe in MLK’s dream? But MLK was a Republican!” Martin was not a ruler for you to measure the progress of a demographic you have hung on poplars and spat at and stolen from and shat upon since your miserable ancestors dragged us here in chains.
You. don’t. have. the. right.
The unmitigated gall of you, the progeny of those who celebrated his last exhalation, to use Martin to chide Black folk. We are not so far from that hotel balcony that I cannot still see you aiming for the hearts of Black men, women and children. Your “truths” amount to little more than sniping. Considering the great opposition conservative legislators presented at the idea of giving this Black man his own holiday? Let me hear one cross word comparing President Barack Obama to a man who helped pave the way for a Black President…
…as if Black people are a monolith. As if the words “I have a dream” intimated Black America can only ever have one dream, as if there is no progress to be dreamt of by Black minds in this present. As if Martin himself didn’t write a speech saying, “America, Too, is Going to Hell,” because there was still work to be done. Ah, but you killed him before he could speak that one.
Dr. King himself was not the mountaintop he called us to achieve. He was a much loved marker on the road to Black liberation. Today, we say #BlackLivesMatter because he–and all our Black superheroes before and after him–taught us Black folk need many lovers more than just one leader. Unlike you, I do not have the temerity to presume I knew him. But I dare say he was humble enough to realize the collective souls of Black folk outweighed even his mighty spirit. Ubuntu: I am because we are. You snidely remind of us his words but Martin was not our daddy. And neither are you. You cannot tattle to the ghost of a man who lives on in us. And you can never obfuscate his mission; Black America can read, likely better than you do.
Dear White People: I want you to know not all Black people love what Dr. King stood for.
Neither in his time nor mine. Some of us are more Brother Malcolm than Brother Martin. But just as Malcolm loved Martin loved Rev. Albert B. Cleage loved Huey Newton loved Stokely Carmichael loved Patrice Lumumba loved Medgar Evers: Black people loved King-the-man far more than White America could ever comprehend.
And I know you are cognizant of this by the way you do not scold your fellow White people with the name of Dr. King. Only Black people. Because the secret truth is you despise MLK. You view his exceptional Blackness as tangential to his “American” genius. He is but a rhetorical tool, like “Black on Black crime,” like “welfare queen,” like “bootstraps” and “slavery was a long time ago.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. is not the goad with which to prod Black oxen into trudging along compliantly. Not today, on his day, and not ever in this American life. Finally, my dear White People: if you ever really loved Martin, like we loved him, you would use his name, his words to goad your own fool selves.
Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.