Building Monuments out of Memories: Why I said I was ‘over’ MLK Day

During the wandering of the Israelites in the wilderness, the people grumbled against the Lord (as usual).  To punish them, God sent a plague of fiery serpents among the people.  The people cried out to God in repentance and at God’s command as a remedy for the plague, Moses made a bronze serpent.  The serpent was to be lifted up on a pole, and those who would look on it would live (and that’s where we get the song Look and Live from).  It is quite the story; full of theological significance.

Much later, 2 Kings 18.4 records an obscure event related to this same bronze serpent.  It is of the destruction by King Hezekiah of the bronze serpent that Moses had made.  You see the people had been burning incense to the serpent – worshipping it, and it had become a distraction and a distortion of the whole event in their history.  Instead of the bronze serpent being a reminder to them of how far they had come, of their sins and need for repentance, of their dependency on God, it had become nothing more than another object of false worship: a monument to a memory.

It was in this vein that I made comments that I was ‘over’ MLK Day.

Please, don’t get me wrong (and I know some of you will anyway).  I have a deep appreciation for the price paid by many during and after the Civil Rights movement, exemplified by Rev. King.  I remember the stories my parents told of going to school in under resourced, segregated schools.  My family was the first Black family to move into an all-white, working class (to put it nicely) neighbourhood in the late 1960’s in the south.  Let that sink in.

They bought a house.

In an all-white, lower working class neighbourhood.

In the south.

In 1969.

My mother walked my elder brother through angry crowds of not-too-pleased white neighbours to kindergarten that was only just beginning to be integrated.

Our neighbours children broke into our house, stole our video camera and shot movies of themselves insulting the ‘n*ggers’ that lived next door to them. …. Next door.

They never reported it to the police because…why bother?  They would still be living next door to them and why ask for more trouble.

When we moved from there, we moved again to be the first Black family in an all-White (slightly better-off) neighbourhood.  We lived there for 30 years.  The neighbours, being mostly of the ‘decent church-going Southern White folk’ were a far sight better than the ‘po white trash’ we left behind.  They were the kind of folks who loaned eggs and sugar to each other over the back fence.  Miss Woodard, (who said she never married because her fiancé found out she couldn’t cook) would say to her friends on the phone while she was keeping an eye on us after school before Mom got home from work, “the little coloured boys from next door are here.” She is the first person I remember taking me to McDonalds.  Mr Bradshaw confided to my father about the mental decline of his wife who would ask him again and again, “Les, you want some coffee?” while never bringing him any. And Miss McCarty, who loved her dogs, baked excellent cakes, gave me overripe bananas anytime she saw me because I once told her I liked them (I was just being polite), and who asked my sister every year to come over and help her turn her mattress (or some such chores).  Mrs Louellen brought us a batch of brownies when my Momma passed away. We were probably the first Black family any of them had ever had close contact with and likely the first White people my parents learned to have a measure of trust with.  They’ve all died now; maybe I’ll meet them in heaven.

Meanwhile my mother was finding “A N*gger Application for Employment” placed on her desk where she worked at a school in an ‘upper class’ neighbourhood across the street from Vanderbilt University.

My father was dealing with the small and large slights of racism day in and day out on the job.

And we (the kids) were learning to navigate a post-civil rights world where dirty snot nosed stringy haired White kids somehow though they were better than us because of skin color.  Where police found a reason to roll up and surround 3 young teenaged boys with 5 squad cars playing basketball at night in the park… 100 yards from my home.  And where in first grade at my upper middle class school in the middle of White suburbia, the teacher managed to find a way to isolate the only two Black children in class – one of whom (me) was always being sent to the office because he already worked through all the workbooks for the class, and read all the assigned materials.  Yeah… I was punished for being too smart.

Flash forward to university and you find me chairing the MLK committee, planning the march, speaking at the MLK Day program (because the vaunted ‘Civil Rights veteran showed up late’).  You’ll find me defending soul food being served in the cafeteria, reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X in one weekend because I want to read the book before I see the movie, and coordinating the university’s Kwanzaa programme.

And now?  20 years onward, I look at the celebration of MLK Day and I see what King Hezekiah saw.  I see a memory, in this case the person of Rev. King, being made into a monument.  I see people making speeches, planning marches, posting inspirational quotes.

And in a few weeks, there will be another young Black man shot dead.  Someone else a victim of police brutality.  Another stereotyped movie with a shallow script and shallower acting.  Another 1000 Black children born out of wedlock or aborted in the womb. Another twerking video.

It’s as if the whole point has been forgotten.  And I wonder… did my dad skip school to go to a Civil Right march so that getting educated and speaking proper English can be considered “ack-in’ White”?  Did Rosa Parks sit down on a bus so that we can watch videos of Black people fighting on the bus?  How many more speeches will it take before we stop talking about White racism and deal with the huge crime problem in many of our communities?

That’s why I’m ‘over it’.  Not because I don’t love and appreciate the history but because I do appreciate it so much.  I have 2 young boys – who will soon be men.  They need to know this history, so that they grow up to stand up as men on the shoulders of the giants that have preceded them. So that they don’t waste the lesson by using it as an excuse for failing to excel.  So that they don’t show up telling me some stories about how they couldn’t keep from getting in a fight because they needed to keep it real.

I’m done with talking about the dream and I refuse to make a monument out of a memory.

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