Our cultural continuity has made it possible to look deep into our past. This is quite a gift—the ability to analyze history—as opposed to dealing with regime changes or violent revolutions that leave people gathering the broken shards of their culture: deciding which pieces can be put back together…or which are better simply retooled as weapons.
Prosperity has allowed us an intensified scrutiny directed at our chosen heroes. The 80s to 00’s America sheltered a variety of revered figures from forefathers to gurus. But America is using a new lens to shed light on the men and women we claim to have made us. The past few years we’ve seen accusations launched to topple, or at least sully, the memory we’ve collected and maintain.
Martin Luther King Jr. is no exception.
There’s a call to make sure that we, as a country, don’t “whitewash” MLK’s legacy. This is a calling out of the narrative that I was taught (in the 80s and 90s).
I was taught that colorblindness is the ideal. That the aim, the ultimate goal, was that I should not look at a person and see their color first. Our cultural aspiration, the correct way to honor MLKs legacy, was to look at a human and ‘judge them on the content of their character.’ There were “I Have a Dream” coloring sheets. Sometimes, we were treated to a quote from that famous speech. And we called it a day.
As adults, the narrative has shifted. Folks my age are unlearning what we once held as gospel truth. The new narrative is that there is no such thing as being color blind. That concept of colorblindness renders people, their experiences, and the shared ancestry that includes slavery and Jim Crow, invisible. It robs people of their pain and their power. There is also a revived interest in MLKs passion for peace and economic rights for people within and outside of the borders of the U.S.
This ability to turn over the past again and again is a gift. I don’t believe it’s a bad thing. Even if we have to re-order our beliefs; even if the re-ordering is uncomfortable. In fact, as a culture, it’s how we continue to grow and allows us to, hopefully, flourish.
To me, this is MLKs legacy: his commitment to discomfort. He acknowledged the pain of change. He encouraged creative suffering. Perhaps, the first step for parents and educators is to read the canon of work MLK left behind. It is more time consuming than ‘I Have a Dream’ coloring sheets to be sure, but it provides an opportunity to bring MLK’s work and vision into how we move forward as a country instead fo trying, comfortable as it may be, to have a static image of the past.
In MLK’s Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, he wrote:
“Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn. The reality of substantial investment to assist Negroes into the twentieth century, adjusting to Negro neighbors and genuine school integration, is still a nightmare for all too many white Americans.”
“These are the deepest causes for contemporary abrasions between the races. Loose and easy language about equality, resonant resolutions about brotherhood fall pleasantly on the ear, but for the Negro there is a credibility gap he cannot overlook. He remembers that with each modest advance the white population promptly raises the argument that the Negro has come far enough. Each step forward accents an ever-present tendency to backlash.”
I have a knee-jerk reaction to hearing the current use of “whitewashing” probably because I’m, well, white. It makes me uncomfortable.
It’s worth sitting with that for a moment.