Wednesday, January 18, 2006

apologies in advance...

...but that was the worst MLK Day ever, for me.

The celebration at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco was freezing and only intermittently inspiring. Celebrity guest speakers (like local TV personalities or the city mayor) do not make for revelation or introspection, especially when they're not prepared. We sang a completely overhauled version of "Gimme that Old Time Religion," honoring various local and national civil rights figures. That sucked. To give you a sense, it referred to Sojourner Truth as "an awesome lady" for the sake of rhyme, and implored us to honor "Medgar Evans" of Mississippi not once but twice.

A couple of speakers also continued perpetuating the myth of a "tired" Rosa Parks deciding she couldn't take it any more. I know it makes me sound like a history/CRM snob to be complaining about this, but it prevented me from applauding for Parks' achievements since they were so erroneously summarized. I'm glad that this complaint has become more mainstream since she died, what with folks re-evaluating her role in history. But for any of you who've taken the Parks myth at face value, check out the Times obituary, or one of the many CRM histories that effectively debunk it.

By the way, I understand the intent behind the myth. Mythical Rosa Parks has such quiet nobility, and behaves in such a quintessentially American fashion -- in the mold of the Founding Fathers, who were tired of being subjugated and "spontaneously" fought back. Everyone, including the CRM leaders and Parks herself, realized that carefully planning to overthrow the status quo, then going about it in a systematic and calculated way seems much less palatable under close scrutiny. I guess I was just hoping that 50 years later, after her death, we might start to get closer to the truth about her remarkable accomplishments and historical significance.

That's usually the way it works, right? Someone dies, they get impartially evaluated, and people immediately stop perpetuating myths about them?

Anyway, folks who have read this far can all probably guess the real source of my dissatisfaction on King day:


It depressing and frustrating that the platitudes don't work on me anymore. The exercise of gathering lots of people together to talk about beloved community doesn't feel like it holds much worth or power. I don't want to speculate on the number or proportion of attendees for whom MLK day celebrations mean a great deal. I'm sure it's a lot, and I'm sure it's still a lot less than we think. For me, the inspiration to others aside, it seemed like an empty waste of energy and resources at best, and a nearly-dangerous deception at worst. I am honestly glad that it couldn't possibly have felt like that to everyone.


Okay, now I've been thinking about it for a few minutes. I believe Monday's celebration felt empty to me because of the reasons for which we seemed to be gathered there:

1) To honor King and Parks for their contribution, by re-asserting how important it was, and for their ideals, by stressing how far we still have to go. Anyone who genuinely cares about -- and understands -- their contribution already knows how far we have to go to realize their ideals. So the "many rivers to cross" theme just became a platitude.

2) To celebrate blackness and the black community through music and culture. Terrific. Unfortunately, the freezing, cavernous, unintelligible Bill Graham Civic Auditorium was not the right place to do this.

3) To remind everyone that MLK Day is about practicing what you preach. It's not about saying, it's about doing. Unfortunately, the only thing I did was give $10 to the MLK Day celebration committee, so they could put the same celebration on next year (or, I hope, a better one). Campaigns for freedom, equality, and justice were mentioned as afterthoughts or asides, if they were mentioned at all. The relentless generality transformed the motto of "practicing what you preach" into "preaching about what you practice." Again, this may have sounded different to my ears, but the sad fact remains that the celebration didn't give the attendees much of an opportunity to learn anything. Unless you didn't know how awesome a lady Sojourner Truth was.

4) It's the third Monday of January -- better do something.

I don't remember what I did last MLK Day, but I remember it involved catching up with people in the movement, talking about organizing and change in non-superficial terms, and trying to confront some personal difficulties, hesitations, and insecurities that made me question my commitment. The previous MLK Day, I did a bunch of stuff but what I remember best is leading a panel on Civil Rights Music with Sumanth Gopinath, who is basically the man. Check out his essay: "Ringtones, or the Auditory Logic of Globalization." He is basically the man. And even though our presentation was a little sloppy, some folks were into it. Before that, all I remember is putting together screenings of "At the River I Stand." And of course the fight to get rid of MLK Day classes at Yale, which certainly gave a purpose to the MLK celebrations.

Here's hoping I brighten up before next year, or the celebration gets better, or both. People in SF have been complaining that this year's MLK Day should have included a march, as is traditionally done here -- but I thank sweet fancy Moses that didn't happen. There's nothing worse, and nothing that would, I expect, bother King more, than marching for basically no reason.

"What do we want?"
"To say we marched today!"
"When do we want it?"
"It's happening now!"

Alright, back to work.

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