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.