Today I am focusing on how the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. modeled for us the hard work in the short run that can lead to dramatic differences in consciousness for subsequent generations. While obviously remembering the struggles our forebears endured is vitally important, my dream today is that by continuing the work, my great grandchildren can be as oblivious to outdated social and philosophical scourges as I am to what life was like without ever experiencing electricity or indoor plumbing.
Maybe this is an erroneous point of view (and, this being the internet, I’m sure I’ll be promptly informed as such soon enough) but for a while I’ve been fascinated by the difference between remembered and learned perceptions of the antiquated past. It is a fact that my students who grew up with the availability of digital music online will never understand what the process of accessing recordings was like for me. It is a fact that I will never understand what it was like for my father to come of age amidst the overwhelming likelihood of being drafted into the military during wartime. He never understood what it was like for there not to be books to read. These are not qualitative statements (e.g. this is not a claim that I am more valorous than my students), and we all have/had an intellectual awareness that things weren’t always this way. However, that intellectual awareness is often closer to the awareness that dinosaurs once walked the earth than it is to an experiential capacity to relate to this alternate reality.
It is through that lens that I long for a future in which prejudice and oppression like that which Dr. King and his cohorts so bravely fought is so far in the rearview that subsequent generations view it as a puzzling historical relic. I have no idea what color my great grandchildren’s skin will be, but I hope they get to live in a world in which they are incredulous to think that this statistic once would have impacted their quality of life. have no idea what gender my great grandchildren will be, but I hope they get to live in a world in which they are incredulous to think that this once mattered for their career path, much less personal safety. I have no idea what sexual orientation my great grandchildren will have, but I hope they get to live in a world in which they are incredulous to think this would impact the legal protections or social perceptions attached to their relationships.
Do I think this is an objectively realistic outcome, but a) the progress of the past 50 years didn’t look objectively realistic either and b) even if it WERE unrealistic, that doesn’t make its pursuit any less important. My concession to pragmatism here is that I’m not talking about my grandchildren who have yet to be born or adopted but rather allowing for another generation of work to shift consciousness and to let the generations who cling to the antiquated perceptions get old enough to die off.
That probably sounds a bit harsh, but from this viewpoint there are essentially three levels of “infection” with culturally-accepted prejudice. There are those who buy into it, that’s pretty straightforward – as long as they’re in a position to call the shots, the uphill climb is a steep one. Then there are those like me (more on this below) who were exposed and infected to a degree and have had to work to flush the toxins from our systems and live as well as possible with that which remains in our bloodstreams – we can do a lot to work towards flipping the script, but the real holy grail, several generations hence, is a world inhabited by the third level, those who have been spared the infection altogether. Maybe this is insane, but heck, we did it with various other infectious diseases, right?
I’m old enough to remember when Dr. King’s birthday was NOT commemorated as a national holiday. Indeed, when I released my Soul Force album 14 years ago in tribute to Dr. King, my choice to conclude the album with my arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” was a deliberate nod to that transition and the tireless work that brought it about While on the one hand it is an extremely celebratory song, make no mistake, it was an important statement of advocacy for a battle that had not yet been won.
side note to music nerds with 15 minutes to spare: I invite you to listen to Stevie’s original version and then mine – I remain proud of how faithful I was to his phrasing even while adding a whole bunch of other stuff.
When I was about seven my sister picked up a copy of the Hotter Than July album and I coopted it and listened incessantly. And yet the actual meaning of this song totally escaped me. I had only the vaguest awareness of who Dr. King was, only slightly more awareness of the very notion of racial inequality or that some people were struggling to combat it. And, to be clear, this was NOT because I lived in a “post-racial” world and was so indoctrinated with universal love and acceptance that I couldn’t conceive of anyone feeling otherwise. Rather, I absorbed whatever bias was implicit in my mostly-white school and in mainstream media. I watched pro wrestling and absorbed the mostly-grotesque depictions of people of color. I discovered MTV soon after and saw, without wondering why, that (at least pre-Michael Jackson) virtually all the artists were white. I went about my education never even seeing a black teacher until 7th grade (and not actually having one until a year or two later). All the while, I also witnessed and to at least some degree internalized misogynistic attitudes, homophobia, and stereotypes about just about every race or ethnicity that had enough visibility to warrant discussion (sorry, Uzbeks).
Occasionally, when I have a nostalgic moment that coincides with some free time, I’ll revisit entertainment. On one occasion in the last couple years I watched something by one of my childhood favorite comic entertainers, someone who catered to a primarily young audience and who was (and is) considered far from risqué. And the amount of misogyny and homophobia that was casually dropped was intensely unnerving. Racism was less frequent, thankfully, but realistically even that was partly a by-product of satirizing aspects of culture in which people of color weren’t particularly visible in the early 1980s.
This was a perversely validating experience. Obviously I was horrified by the offensive content in something that seemed so benign at the time. But it reinforced the sense that things are in fact changing. I’m not naïve enough to claim that these prejudices have gone away or that there aren’t plenty of “closeted” bigots in our midst. And yet, at least you can’t SAY these things anymore without consequences. There are children in my life who have never known a world in which you could. And I know and I see that this is horrifying to those who are lamenting the “p***ification of America” and the takeover of “PC culture.” I don’t delight in their horror, and I am obviously concerned about the backlash it has produced, but it helps me measure the degree to which these changes are happening. Will we look back at this backlash as a full-scale regression or as the death throes of something my great grandchildren will view with the same detached puzzlement with which they’ll view life without the internet? The work we do now will steer us one way or the other, so let us once again be reminded of Dr. King’s sacred and inspiring example as we roll up our sleeves and get to it.
Noah, this is a very thoughtful piece. Some comments:
Martin was a minister, the sacred was a core part of his life. Today, most of us are living in the absence of the sacred, whether we are agnostic, atheist , non-observant (Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, take your pick) or just interested in sports and other diversions. Having accompanied my Mom to church, hospitals, and nursing homes for the final years of her life, I have come to feel the quest for sacredness will become a deepening thread for my remaining years. I think Dr. King would want that for all of us; his life was never a God-less, or agnostic mission.
So how does that play out in my dreams for my great-grandchildren?
These dreams should also be called prayer.
The institution of a sabbath — a 7th day of rest, contemplation, and change of gears — is crucial to every successful human society. This institution requires a finite group face-to-face sharing a space and eloquently listening to each other. Weekend sporting events don’t do it. With all due respect, musical performances usually don’t either, because each audience member is in their own space. The social fabric of our culture is ripping apart in part because the local communities are not tied together with “sabbaths” that bring diverse people into the same space.
Is this “religion?” I don’t know, but whatever it is, a separation from governance is important.
Spiritual exercises are not a bad thing, but often solipsistic.
King’s stance against the Vietnam was was crucial to me — as I was then preparing to become a conscientious objector. It was hard at the time, and felt a bit selfish, but I am now proud of those two years of alternative service. (I thing we need universal national service for EVERYONE, requiring 18-24 months of work for our common weal.)
Finally, I agree with Michelle Alexander in the January 19 New York Times that King would now speak out strongly against the Israeli occupation of Palestine. I took a “Footsteps of Jesus” trip in 2015, using the lens of my water-supply experience to try to cut through the unconnected narratives of the Holocaust and the Nakba. I have since been making presentations on that trip in community centers, churches, law schools, and a college and would be happy to design a presentation for any other group interested in learning about “propaganda land,” and the huge role that the US plays in prolonging that conflict. My blog on that trip is on the website link below.
Sorry if this is a bit of a rant. Hope you are dry and warm. Best, to Kate, p
I had a similar experience. I watched an old Johnny Carson show recently. I used to watch it every night back in the day. I noticed for the first time the sleaze factor. I hadn’t noticed it before, so something changed in me. Instructive!