Monday, January 18, 2010

MLK Day and black history--not just for African Americans

I remember being in high school when a national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., was still being debated. I also remember clearly my (white) World Civ teacher expressing what was not an uncommon sentiment in the 1980s; he said, "Well, if we give black people their own special holiday, then all the other groups will want one, too." Implied in that statement is the belief that a) King is a hero for African Americans only and b) only events and people of importance to European Americans matter and people of color will be granted "special days" as the majority sees fit.

I was thinking about those still not-uncommon-enough ideas this morning as I read an article on Diversity Inc., where black leaders were asked about Dr. King's legacy. It's not that there is anything wrong with the article, I just find it curious that we are always encouraged to view King's work and civil rights gains as a whole as only benefiting black people. In the same way, in just a few weeks, folks will be talking about icons like Harriet Tubman and Crispus Attucks and (if we're lucky) Cathy Williams, but their good works will be marginalized as "black history," rather than "history" or "American history." It will be as if Williams did not pave the way for ALL women in the military, as if Attucks was not a part of this country's struggle for freedom from English royalty, as if Tubman's work as an abolitionist and humanitarian did not help America move towards its higest ideals. Tubman and Attucks and Williams are African American icons, yes. But they are not just that. They are AMERICAN icons.

In a comment to my recent post about glorification of the Antebellum South, 9jah remarked on Racialicious:

Tami, I think your perspective is entirely necessary to consider. I wonder, though, to what extent we should grant white folks the benefits of their memories and histories as relates to matters not directly related to the oppression of black folks (clothing etc) in that period. Read more...

But there is no black history or white history or Asian history, etc. There is only history--and that history should not be about the biased memories of the most privileged. There is not American history and then, as a sidebar, some things that black folks did. Our stories (and those of all marginalized groups) are a part of the larger story that is the history of the U.S. of A. Cathy Williams posing as a man to enlist in the United States Army and serve as a Buffalo Soldier is black history, but it is also women's history and military history and, importantly, AMERICAN HISTORY. She deserves more than 28 days of notice.

In the same way, Martin Luther King, Jr. should not just be a hero to 10 percent of the population--not in a country where allegedly "all men are created equal." A man who spoke so eloquently about peace during the war in Vietnam, has much to teach people around the world in this war-ravaged time.

And recall Dr. King's Poor People's Campaign? That too certainly has resonance today to more than just the African American community.

It is possible that I have chosen the wrong icon to make my point, because unlike, say, Medgar Evers or Malcolm X, King has generally transcended the "black hero" label to become a hero to all. But there is still a tendency to make celebrations of King's birthday about "blackness" rather than "social justice" or "equality" or "activism" or "peace" or any of the most important themes of his work. And so, we have clumsy attempts at commemorating this great man, like the one a reader shared on Love Isn't Enough: Her child's teacher was recognizing MLK Day with a soul food pitch in. But King was about breaking barriers not blackeyed peas.

When we make MLK Day just "a black thang," we not only ghettoize King's work, but we also let the majority off the hook for continuing his legacy, specifically anti-racism. Race and racism is not just for people of color to think about. Equality is not something that people of color work for and white people grant. We should ALL be invested in justice and equality of race and of gender and of religion and of class and of sexuality. So, I want to know what black leaders think about Martin Luther King's legacy, but I also want to know what, say, white, suburban Midwestern moms think about it; and wealthy, Hispanic businessmen think about it; and Evangelical preachers think about it; and Puerto Rican lesbians in the Pacific Northwest think about it. These people are America and Dr. King's contributions bettered not just the lives of black folk, but the lives of ALL AMERICANS. And we all should pay homage to his legacy.


Sabrina Messenger said...

Excellent post...what you say is 100% true. All history should be learned, not just the "his story" of the dominant majority. Amazing to me how many people even to this day still misunderstand what MLK Day is about. If that teacher and others had actually listened to MLK's "I Have A Dream" speech in its entirety they would've have realized that MLK was not about self-promotion or being treated "special." He was ALL American being treated equally, fairly and having the same opportunities and rights. I watched the 16 minute speech this morning on youtube and it is amazing how powerful it STILL is even nearly 50 years later.

Satsuma said...

MLK is a person for everyone who truly desires freedom. All those 80s arguments that every group would have to have it's day kind of speaks to this.

There is a reason I cry every time I hear Dr. King end his speech with "Free at last, free at last..." because it's true, it's true for every single person on earth who was ever oppressed and who wanted freedom. It's just that simple!

LilySea said...

Preach it.
I am always trying to tell people that African American history is AMERICAN history. Period.
It's MY history (I'm white, as far as anyone knows.)

Dolls of Color said...

Not only is MLK important for all Americans but as an International figure as well!

Laura(southernxyl) said...

Excellent post.

I looked at my daughter's American History textbook when she was in high school. (She graduated in 2005, having attended school in Memphis.) As I paged through the book, every chapter, representing the next chunk of history, had a special section about how the minorities were getting screwed at that point in time.

It's true stuff and we have to talk about it. As you say, it's everybody's history, not just black folks', Asians', or Indians'. At the same time, I saw a little bit of defensiveness in my daughter and had to remind her a few times that they weren't talking about her or about white people in general. I worry about backlash in white kids who don't have the maturity or perspective yet to view these things objectively and not take them personally. Nobody likes to feel that they are being held accountable for things they didn't do and wouldn't do. I really worry about the minority kids who read this and start to feel that they don't have a home here, don't belong, shouldn't let their guard down, and can never feel really secure. But you can't pretend these things didn't happen. I don't know what the answer is.

Tami said...


See, I would find that textbook problematic--if indeed the focus was on how POC were victimized through history. That is a part of our history, but that is not our entire history. True history would also, for instance, point our that POC soldiers fought in the Revolutionary War or that Dr. Daniel Hale Williams performed the first open-heart surgery in 1893.

History books tend to present the triumphs of the majority and position minorities as merely put-upon victims with no agency and no real role in history.

Symphony said...

We also have to look at how it feels for the minority child in an American school that only sees him or herself as a victim or the other. They matter too.

Some white people believe blacks aren't as patriotic or don't love America. While I disagree with that I would answer that charge by stating there is a correlation to the history taught in our schools and their sense of belonging to this nation and this nation belonging to them.

In most schools they will not see their contributions to making this country great from science, military and agriculture to entertainment and literature. We've been trailblazers in almost every industry yet slavery, Martin Luther King Jr and Rosa Parks are the only time black people are talked about for more than a second in our schools.

Great and insightful post as usual Tami. Thanks.


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