I am 39. It struck me this MLK Day that I am the age that Martin Luther King Jr. was when he was assassinated.
Do you ever do that? Measure your life against another?
Like when I was 33 and all I could think about was, ‘that’s the age Jesus was when he was crucified.’
And then you think, goodness…what have I been doing?
This MLK Day, my social media current looked like this:
Wave 1: People sharing MLK memes.
Wave 2: People sharing various MLK articles from the day. (In 2017, many of these focused on documentation collected by the FBI and peoples commentary on whether or not that documentation was real or part of the FBI’s smear campaign on MLK. This year the articles on my feed focused more on not whitewashing MLKs legacy and remembering him as an unpopular radical.)
Wave 3: People sharing their own judgments on the people in Wave 1.
Dear White People, if you do nothing to organize against racial injustice, extreme inequality due to capitalism or America’s Imperialism, don’t post a MLK quote. Just…don’t.
Quoting MLK is the bare minimum. Posting an except from MLK does not absolve the racial sins of the past year. This day isn’t about making you feel better. Fight white supremacy.
Wave 4/Part 4: I write this.
Reflection and critique are important and uncomfortable.
Can they happen without a composite villain? Is it possible to critique and change a system without labeling and judging an entire segment of the country? Am I only asking this question because I am uncomfortable being lumped in with, “Dear White People”?
If a (conservative), (white), (male) person posts an MLK meme; should my immediate response be one of ridicule or admonition? Is it the outward performance of hypocrisy or of basic goodness--the desire to want what is good for his fellow man? Is the desire alone commendable even if it is not (yet) accompanied by right action?
A straight, white, Trump supporting, man posts an MLK meme. (Hypothetically, this person has not completed the great social media purge of 2016 and so he will, on occasion, see a post from someone who does not share all his ideological beliefs.
Hypothetically, he still has one or two liberal offshoots that he hasn’t pruned yet from his social media accounts.) The next post he sees from, let’s say, his liberal niece is:
“Dear White People, if you do nothing to organize against racial injustice, extreme inequality due to capitalism or America’s Imperialism, don’t post a MLK quote. Just…don’t.”
I have a good feeling I know what his response will be. Perhaps just anger at the liberal, hippy, bullshit. A lil inner monologue of: ‘They will take any opportunity to attack America. Even using a great American as a shield.’ Perhaps, if I’m generous in my imagination, he’ll have a tinge of shame underneath the eye roll—the anger covering some deeper vulnerability?
But that isn’t what I want from him. I don’t want to evoke a response that makes him double down on his beliefs. I want to invite an opening within him that wants to learn from someone else’s experience. It’s certainly what I want people to inspire in me—an invitation to question and learn...and the safety in which to do so.
So what are the other tacks this hypothetical niece could take?
But I know the response that is not helpful to invite a conversation or spark a new idea. So, for now, I can stop doing that?
Putting these thoughts to rest (but not for 364 days)
I admire Martin Luther King Jr.’s ability to be uncomfortable.
I want to cultivate that skill in myself and model if for my children.
I admire his advocacy for the poor of world. He did not limit his love or compassion to live within the imaginary lines and rules humans are so good at creating.
As a person who is 39 years-old: HE WAS NOT DONE.
He wasn’t done. He wasn’t done teaching or advocating or suffering for his causes. He wasn’t done having victories. He wasn’t done learning.
When I read from his first published works and then his last, there is a clear evolution of experience and growth. There is no way that at 39-years-old he was ready to be made into a static image: Not of a “whitewashed” moral icon—Not as a state-hating Black radical.
So the lesson for today is: I am not done yet. I will learn and grow and change. I will continue to ask questions—to invite opportunities to see from a different perspective—and with any luck, inspire others to do the same.