From the Jan. 15 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday to the end of Black History Month in February, Black folks are in vogue on campus. There are events to commemorate King’s birthday and forums, symposia and exhibits to highlight Black historical, cultural and social events. As one of the people who is frequently blessed by being asked to visit campuses to talk about economics, politics and current affairs, I am often both amazed and amused at what happens on some campuses in the name of King and African-American history.
I’ve been on campuses where my lecture was part of a well-thought out series of events. I’ve also been to places where someone figured they’d better do “something” and the lack of planning was evident. I’ve sat next to people who squirmed at my talk but had the manners or discretion to simply call it an “interesting” presentation afterwards, and I’ve faced down hostile white students (and faculty) who didn’t mind saying they don’t like African-American History Month or King, either, for that matter.
Widen the Lens
If I wanted to, I could write a guide to the six-week Black focus that will take place on some campuses, but my thought is to spread it around. African-American speakers and events are interesting in months other than January and February. Black art and culture shouldn’t be featured just one month a year — there is enough music and dance (not to mention politics and economics) to fill a whole year. And there are hundreds of African-American sheroes and heroes. While King’s birthday commemoration is usually centered on him, the lens often needs to be widened to include those who marched with King, who worked with him, who supported him and who were killed for the same cause. Dr. King was the one who said that, “Anybody can be great because everybody can serve.” Celebrity African-American history goes for the big names and forgets that the 1963 March on Washington had 250,000 foot soldiers. What were some of their names?
During the six-week Black focus, I’d appreciate it if people would stop misquoting King. To be sure, he said that he “had a dream,” but the way the “dream” is benignly reported on, one would think that King’s greatness was a rich fantasy life. King didn’t die dreaming, as in sleeping. He died as a committed activist trying to raise the wages of Memphis garbage workers. The newspaper and magazine ads that appear beginning mid-January through February all pay tribute to the dream. “We, too, have a dream,” they say. But these dreamers often don’t have a single African American on their board of directors.
We remember King for his dream, but we don’t remember him as someone who made the connection between capitalism, oppression, war, race and poverty. He said that he had a dream, but he also spoke of economic redistribution, noting, “If the world is two-thirds water, why do we pay water bills?” The new governor of Louisiana. Mike Foster, says that he feels that King was anti-affirmative action. and that is a common perception among those conservatives who would take King’s words and cut and paste them to make no point. Indeed, in his book, “Why We Can’t Wait.” King specifically spoke about affirmative action, saying, “Whenever the issue of compensatory or preferential treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree: but he should ask nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic.”
King’s dream isn’t the only distortion during the six-week Black focus. Often, the African-American experience is also distorted. If I had a dollar for every person who asked me an oddly biased question about public assistance. I’d be sunning in the Caribbean right now. To be sure, no one comes out and calls people on welfare “lazy.” Instead, the question is often put gingerly. “We can’t keep paying for all this welfare,” someone will say, walking on eggs. “Which welfare?” I always want to respond. Corporate welfare? And while the nation holds its breath for more news of AT&T-type layoffs, few make the connection between public assistance and joblessness.
The notion of Black History Month is also often challenged. “There is no more racism,” a young woman asserted. “but this Black History Month is racist to me.” You don’t know whether to laugh or cry at statements like “no racism.” but you also don’t know how the commemoration of a people’s history can be perceived as “racist.” The same young woman went on to tell me there was no “white history month.” but was absolutely mute when I asked her to define “white history.” After a few seconds she sputtered, “American history,” which was not the answer I sought, but an answer sufficient to make my point.
I’m not complaining, just observing, that for six weeks campuses that avoid race matters sometimes bring them out in the open beginning with King’s birthday and moving through African-American History Month. Through a series of lectures and events there are opportunities for exchanges that are informative and educational, but sometimes painful, poignant and distorted. Why do we restrict these encounters to six weeks at the beginning of the year? Shouldn’t we think about Dr. King’s struggle and dream each day until they become a reality?
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