by Ewuare X. Osayande
It has been an entire month since the passing of Michael Jackson and yet each night the mainstream media continues to raise his remains and set their character assassins loose on his legacy, riddling his image with all manner of prevarications and perversions. Mere gossip and rumor is presented as investigative reporting as speculation mounts over whether he abused prescription drugs, whether his mother should maintain custody of the children, who really fathered them and who will assume control of his estate. Most recently, Rolling Stone magazine featured an article discussing how his body looked in the morgue! Even in death the King of Pop has no rest as reporters and journalists scurry to and fro like rats nibbling away at his corpse. But their reaction to his death is no different in character than when he was alive. To them, Michael Jackson is nothing more than a jackpot. And they continue to milk his memory for every red cent they can squeeze out of it.
Thankfully, the Black community, from which he emerged, has not fallen for the mainstream media’s efforts at disparaging our beloved son. And whether the white world will ever understand is not necessary for us to mourn him the way we wish. In Black communities throughout this country, homemade CDs blare out car speakers a tribute to the man who gave so much love through his music. And why do we celebrate him as we do? For in celebrating him, we celebrate the best in ourselves: our very aspirations and hopes are actualized. In a world that despises Blackness and renders us a caricature for the world’s consumption, we relate to Michael Jackson in a way that is kin. We forever sing with him: “They Don’t Really Care About Us,” even as we try to create some semblance of happiness in our corners of the world. He reminds us that despite the chaos around us and within us, moments of joy and peace are never out of reach.
Yes, there is a lot we can learn from the life and legacy of Michael Jackson. He offers us a glimpse into those aspects of Black life that we still have difficulty facing, let alone, discussing. Further, there are aspects of his life that are not that well-known and need to be raised up as examples.
Although Michael Jackson may, at one time, been considered the wealthiest Black person on the planet, he was born, like most Black folks, in poverty. Gary, IN, a working-class outgrowth of Chicago, is where he called home as a child. His parents were part of the Black proletariat that emerged from the Great Depression embodying the strong work ethic they inherited from their sharecropping forebears. Striving to stake their claim of the American Dream.
Michael Jackson didn’t just pop up in American society an icon. His route to stardom was not unlike the route taken by many Black entertainers before him. He, along with his brothers, formed a singing group and appeared at the legendary Apollo Theater, which is a feat in itself. Long before the crass Simon Cowell brought American Idol to these shores, the Apollo was the site for grooming and crowning American’s next cultural idol. Members of Harlem’s Black underclass, the Apollo audience was well-versed in the aesthetics of Black culture holding up and taking to task those who would have the audacity to grace the stage of the legendary Apollo Theater. In 1967 The Jackson Five would win Apollo’s amateur night competition making them a recognized name in the Black music world. They would soon be signed to Berry Gordy’s Motown Records.
The Jackson 5: America’s first Black boy band. Forerunner and prototype to every boy band that would come after them: both Black and white. Groups like DeBarge, New Edition and Jodeci, all tailored their acts on aesthetics established by The Jackson 5. Coming forth out of the tumultuous and revolutionary era that was the Sixties, these five brown-skinned brothers came sporting their Afro crowns - a nod to the Black Arts and Black Power Movements of the late Sixties. With their well choreographed moves, melodic rhythms, eclectic style and small-town charm, they came to personify the aspiration for peace that was the “Age of Aquarius.”
But it would be as a solo artist that Michael Jackson would make his greatest impact on American culture. The release of Off the Wall in 1979 laid the musical blueprint for the record-breaking success that would become Thriller. (Isn’t “P.Y.T” just the funkiest love song ever recorded?) After establishing his sound, Michael returns to Quincy Jones with Thriller and in one album they put on display the entire spectrum of Black music – from gospel to blues to jazz to rock – and the whole world rejoiced to the tune of 25 million copies sold in two years time, making Thriller the best-selling album of all time. At its peak, the album was selling a million copies per week. To date, it is estimated that more than 120 million copies of Thriller have been sold. No other album in history comes close.
Jackson always remained conversant with the fullness of Black music tradition throughout his career. It could be said that he was the cultural love child of James Brown and Diana Ross, carrying on their craftsmanship, showmanship and their hard-working ethic.
Michael Jackson and Legacy of Racism in the Music Industry
Jackson was ever-cognizant of the reality of racism. In the early Eighties, MTV was just an upstart cable station that played mainly low-budget videos by obscure British punk rock acts. In 1983 Michael Jackson changed all that when his video for “Billie Jean” broke MTV’s whites-only color-barrier. He not only challenged the cultural apartheid that was American pop culture at the time with Black artists relegated to the Billboard ghetto of “Urban Contemporary Music” while white acts that tried to play “Black” music were considered “Pop,” he also opened the flood-gates for other Black artists, entertainers and athletes to garner mainstream attention and status. The Eighties, although a period dominated by Reaganomics and the contradictory conservative ideology of “Just Say No to Drugs” while we strip predominantly Black communities of any semblance of economic stability, was also a period that brought us the likes of The Cosby Show, Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan. Michael Jackson’s musical activism had plenty to do with the socio-cultural progress made by a class of Black people during a time of severe political backlash against the Black poor.
Not only did he change the unwritten racial policy at MTV, he changed the cultural terrain of American society. In other words, he didn’t just change the game, he remade it his own. He remade MTV from a marginal TV channel to the cultural tour de force it would become. In the process, he took the burgeoning music video genre and gave it a new sense of purpose. He didn’t make music videos; he made musical motion pictures. With the success of “Thriller,” Jackson insured that all future music videos would be measured by the rule of his far-sighted cultural vision and conviction.
Michael Jackson was not the naïve Black artist he may have appeared to be. He crossed over with an agenda that he executed with the deftness and calculation of a shrewd businessman. In 1985 Jackson acquired the rights to the Beatles’ music catalogue when he purchased ATV Music for $45.5 million dollars. In addition to gaining the rights to more than 200 Beatles’ tunes, he also acquired the rights to Little Richard’s music catalogue, which he gave back to Richard without fee. In this one financial act Jackson gave Richard an artistic freedom he had not known for years. Before Jackson’s acquisition Little Richard had to pay the Beatles to play his own music, a kind of cultural slavery that many Black artists have experienced since the days of Bessie Smith. He, the King of Pop, retrieved cultural freedom for the true King of Rock. Like free Africans who purchased the freedom of their kin, Jackson’s purchase of the rights to Richard’s music in effect freed Richard from the bonds of cultural servitude to a white establishment that continually insults him anytime they proclaim Elvis the King.
He redeemed Black music and righted a legacy that was rife with corruption and exploitation. Black musicians and singers have had their work stolen from under them since the first Black artists set foot in white-owned recording studios. Jackson, surely cognizant of this history, took executive action, and with one stroke of his pen, sealed a business deal that turned the tables on a music industry that had done wrong to his folks. He recaptured the soul of Black music and retrieved the cultural dignity of Black artists before him - the Bessie Smiths, Robert Johnsons, Chuck Berrys and Little Richards of our history. He did what no other Black artist before him could have done.
Michael Jackson and Masculinity
Jackson in his person and in his music makes a conscious effort to challenge the fundamental tenets of masculinity in our society. In three videos specifically, “Beat It,” “Bad” and “The Way You Make Me Feel,” we witness Jackson confront the violence that underlies male domination.
In the video “Beat It” Michael Jackson intervenes and stops an ensuing gang fight. The lyrics are a challenge to the fundamental notion of manhood that says that a man never backs down from a fight. Jackson counsels the implied male listener that retreat from senseless violence is more valiant than risking one’s life.
“You better run, you better do what you can Don't wanna see no blood, don't be a macho man You wanna be tough, better do what you can So beat it, but you wanna be bad …
They're out to get you, better leave while you can Don't wanna be a boy, you wanna be a man You wanna stay alive, better do what you can So beat it, just beat it …You have to show them that you're really not scared You're playin' with your life, this ain't no truth or dare …”
“Beat It” seeks to redeem manhood from the death-wish of barbarism.
In the video “The Way You Make Me Feel” we see the barrio and the hood through the eyes of the men that line the streets. Young and old are jockeying for position amidst a montage of oppression and self-inflicted pain. Jackson plays a kid trying to gain the respect of the gangstas as he witnesses the young men harassing the women as they make their way down the street. Noticing Jackson’s conflicted state, an elder man sits Jackson down and counsels him. He says to Jackson: “I’ve been watching you. You been trying to act like those boys; they ain’t about nothing. Why don’t you just be yourself? You know, just reach down inside and pull the real you out. … You can’t be them. You don’t wanna be them.” Jackson encourages a thoughtful and introspective Black manhood that is rarely seen in music video.
The video “Bad” features Jackson breaking out in a free-style refrain not heard in the song itself. Charging the hustlers in a spontaneous chorus of “you’re doing wrong,” Jackson brings the issue home with the fervency of a Baptist preacher when he sings:
“That’s your mother/That’s your brother/ That’s your sister/That’s me.” Placing himself in the family of those most victimized by urban violence, Jackson’s sincerity comes off as authentic and compelling.
Jackson is seen in these videos donning the masquerade of machismo to expose its ultimate shallowness. The cool-posing, crotch-grabbing, muscle-flexing becomes parody on Jackson’s wiry frame. More than anything, Jackson seems to be mocking these aspects of manhood rather than celebrating them. The mission in this video trilogy is a call for a manhood imbued with a morality steeped in a commitment to non-violence. Jackson shows that behind the posturing and bravado of contemporary manhood is a generation of men seeking community and acceptance. Jackson challenges us to see ourselves without the mask of machismo and calls on us to embrace ourselves and each other in the spirit of peace.
Jackson was crying out. He was crying out for a new manhood even as he was struggling with his own. It has often been stated that Jackson sought to retrieve a childhood lost due to his early stardom. But maybe there is more to it than that. Maybe Jackson was resisting manhood altogether. Maybe Jackson was saying to the world that “if manhood means being cold, heartless and abusive, then I don’t want to grow up.” Clearly, Jackson’s Peter Pan complex was just that: complex. Our media and social institutions lack the motivation or conviction to address the complex nature of Jackson’s development as well as the development of those men that also struggle to live outside the confines of hegemonic masculinity. Rather than address his challenges both personal and those he expressed through his music, the media chose to make a spectacle of his struggle and mock the coming of age battle that raged within him.
The mainstream media took great pleasure in attacking Michael Jackson’s sexuality under the purview of investigative news journalism. This worked to create an extreme bias against Jackson which he would fight against for the rest of his life.
Sure Jackson had issues. But his issues are the kind of issues that aren’t addressed with the proper measure of dignity and respect in this nation. And as an African American, he was not about to receive the courtesy of respect. If Jackson were not Black or as famous as he was and the children involved were not white, then this would not have made the front page of the local paper let alone national and international headlines. America’s sordid fascination with Black popular figures and their biased concern for white children fueled this story into the media maelstrom it became and remains.
Jackson, a Black man, playing host to white children in his home is a white American nightmare realized! The white racist imagination was unleashed by the news of his interactions with white children, and there would be nothing Jackson could’ve said or done to quash the racial fears that have fomented in the collective mind of white America for generations. For Jackson, it was a public relations nightmare, no doubt. But that doesn’t imply guilt. In fact Jackson was never found guilty by a jury for any of the charges of child molestation brought against him. Yet, the American media was successful in portraying him as a bona fide pedophile. Keeping with America’s historic treatment of Black sexuality, Jackson, as a sexual being, would be rendered deviant and criminalized.
Michael Jackson and White Supremacy
Of all of Jackson’s idiosyncrasies, the one that was most perplexing to so many is his change in complexion and his many face-lifts. Take a look at him on the cover of Off the Wall and then look at him on the cover of Invincible; there is a clear distinction that cannot be covered by the claim that he had Vertigo. Anyone that would try to argue that Michael did not try to change his appearance so as to appear less-Black and more-white is in as much denial as he was. Yes, Michael made a conscious effort to pass as white. If Jackson suffered from anything, he suffered from an ailment that all Black people struggle with: internalized oppression. Internalized oppression in part is the social circumstance that occurs when an oppressed people take on the mores, values and ideas of their oppressors in their effort to be recognized by and identified with their oppressor. It is an inferiority complex that we as Black people are socialized to accept and embrace.
Most Black people have at one time or another wished they could change the complexion of their skin, the shape of their noses, eyes or lips. This kind of racial masochism just comes with the territory when you are born not-white in a world that praises, honors and adores whiteness. Michael would come to personify this psycho-social condition for the entire Black world. He manifested in his very person the effects of racism on the Black mind and body. Michael became a vaudeville freak show in the circus of white supremacy. “Step right up and see a Black man turn white before your very eyes!” In the deformed face of Jackson we witnessed the utter absurdity of white supremacy taken to its illogical ends. It is an absurdity that we as people of color live with and must endure on the daily. Such absurdities as a Latina candidate for the Supreme Court being charged with being a racist and interrogated by a white Southern politician who was once an acknowledged Klan sympathizer!
American pop culture has always reserved its highest praise for its white performers that have parodied Black music, style and movement. Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger, Madonna, Eminem, Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears have all experienced the white privilege of being able to perform Black music without incurring the commercial slight and cultural contempt reserved for Black artists. Jackson sought to enter this exclusive, segregated cultural space by changing his visage so as to appear as a white artist performing Black music.
Jackson betrays the wide-eyed white liberal idealism of his song “Black or White.” It does matter as Jackson’s million dollar racial make-over clearly established. Yet despite his extraordinary efforts, the white world never accepted or embraced him. He would be banished to the Neverland of Anti-Blackness. The white world made it very clear when they began to deride him with names like “Wacko Jacko” that no matter how white you become in skin, you will never be accepted as our kin! Even his being a father to three white children didn’t help matters. Nothing he did was ever enough to win the welcome of the white world.
The legacy of slavery and the reality of racist oppression have warped the self-image of Black people. Each day we struggle to maintain a semblance of ourselves as we strive toward a more liberated and conscious awareness. Just five years before Michael Jackson was born, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted a “doll test” to study the psychological effects of segregation on Black children. An overwhelming majority of Black children tested preferred the white doll over the black doll. Further, they attributed positive characteristics to the white doll and negative characteristics to the black doll. This test helped make the argument for desegregation in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case. . In 2004 the doll test was redone by 17 year old Kiri Davis. In this test 16 of 21 Black children chose the white doll over the black doll. Given these findings and the legacy they point to, there is still a lot of corrective cultural work that we need to do to redeem the image and vision of Blackness.
Michael Jackson and the Black Underclass
Michael Jackson’s deformed face stares back at us eternally beckoning us to rescue him and ourselves from this strife. Until we do, the souls of our children, deformed before the age of puberty, will continue to drown in the delirium of racism. Jackson went to extreme lengths to show us that “They Don’t Really Care About Us.” The question is: Do we? Sometimes it is hard to tell given the willingness of many of us to lambast and malign those of us who are Black and poor. It seems that such derision and uttered distortion of reality of Black poverty is a requirement for aspiring Black comedians, actors and entertainers. It is true that many Black entertainers have gained their fame and fortune by portraying Blacks in a negative and racist manner. The same is true for many Black comedians that mock and joke about the Black poor as though they never were poor once upon a time. Then there is this new generation of Black politicians who have risen to power on the vote of the Black community only to turn around and enact policies that deplete inner-city communities of the services they desperately need even as they blame the poor for the problems that result. Each Sunday Black ministers equate material success with religious piety, riches with righteousness. Their “prosperity gospel” condemns the poor for being poor. This pseudo-theology adds insult to the injury that is already felt by many of the Black underclass who are as committed to their faith as their middle class “brothers and sisters in Christ.” These uncaring and unjust criticisms amount to an all-out assault on the Black underclass by a Black petit bourgeoisie that continues to put their class interests above the best interests of Black people.
In Jackson’s music, condemnation of the poor is replaced with compassion, alienation is replaced with alliance. Michael Jackson never forgot his impoverished roots. And more than that, he remained ever vigilant in his efforts to alleviate the suffering of the world’s disadvantaged. Jackson’s most compelling video in this regard is for the song “They Don’t Really Care About Us.” It is not by chance that Jackson chose to shoot the video in Brazil, home to the largest population of Black people outside the continent of Africa. Here he is at his most militant and uncompromising in his critique of racism and class oppression.
Tell me what has become of my rightsAm I invisible because you ignore me?Your proclamation promised me free liberty, nowI'm tired of bein' the victim of shameThey're throwing me in a class with a bad nameI can't believe this is the land from which I cameYou know I do really hate to say it… Some things in life they just don't wanna seeBut if Martin Luther was livin'He wouldn't let this be …
Among Jackson’s rash of record-breaking accomplishments, his most meaningful will probably be the 2000 Guiness title of “Most Charities Supported by a Pop Star.” Yet despite the millions of dollars Jackson shared with the world, despite the billions of dollars that get poured into the fight to end hunger and disease, poverty persists. The philosophy of capitalism would have us believe that philanthropy can solve the problem of poverty or at least manage it effectively. Yet, the capitalists are having a hard enough time dealing with their own financial woes. The recurrent cry of the world’s hungry and malnourished beckons us to reconsider our commitments and revision a world that does not thrive on the production of private property, private markets, that is not based on the exploitation of labor and the reproduction of poverty as a means to profit. Jackson’s Guiness title achieved amidst a world awash in suffering shows us the failure of capitalist philanthropy as a means to solve the world’s problems. His call to “Heal the World,” is ultimately a call to rethink how we approach the world’s problems.
Michael Jackson is gone. And even now it is still hard to believe. The world that loved him is now left to ponder the meaning of his majesty and misery. Whether the issue is gender, race or class, Michael Jackson’s life leaves us much to consider and address. He lived a life that in many ways is mythical for most of us. Traditionally, societies have created myths to teach their people valuable lessons about life and the struggles they are sure to experience. Also, myth-making has been a means to store heritage and history for the benefit of successive generations.
The message of Michael’s cosmic life must ultimately be determined not by a mainstream media that rendered him a caricature and a commodity. But let us, the people that gave him life and loved him for who he was, make meaning of his mythical life in a way that honors him and offers us lessons to heed. He was a star. May he now exist as a constellation in the collective consciousness of Black America.
I choose to remember him as he was in the video for “Can You Feel It.” There he will forever stand alongside his brothers looking like Obatalah, the Yoruba deity, with his arms raised opening up the sky, sprinkling the gold goober dust of hope onto the faces of those that dwell in the inner-cities of the world with a wide smile on his still African face and sincerity beaming from his eyes. Michael Jackson, the myth, the anomaly, the man, who was, is and forever will be The King of Pop.
by Ewuare X. Osayande
Recently, in response to the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, you were quoted in London’s Daily Express as stating, "It was as if some part of me was validated. It was something that I've known for a long time that I couldn't really say: 'You know guys, I really don't think America is a racist nation.' I know that I feel like that sometimes but I just don't believe that. There are racist people who live there but I don't think America as a whole is a racist nation. Before Obama won the presidency I wasn't allowed to say that out loud because people would say: 'Oh yeah, of course for you, Mr Hollywood!'"
As someone who is often referred to as the most famous actor in the world, you must be aware of the power of your opinion and the influence it can wield on the world stage. We live in a time when facts hold less weight in the court of public opinion than unqualified, off-the-cuff remarks made by celebrities.
Yes, we were all overcome with joy and utter jubilation as we witnessed the election and inauguration of the first Black president of the United States of America. It was truly the most historic event in our generation. But for us to now profess that this one act was so compelling as to turn a country that owned and sold Africans as slaves for almost one hundred years since it declared itself a nation, that fought a Civil War to determine if it would keep them enslaved, that then rendered them second-class citizens and sanctioned segregation and the terrorism that came with it for another hundred years, and that spent the last forty years fighting against their advancement through every sphere of American life, into a nation that is not racist is a thing of fantasy – like your films. These historic and current events were not the actions of isolated white supremacists. They were the government-sanctioned policy of the United States of America. Why would you make such an irresponsible statement that only adds confusion to an already frustrating issue that most people of color must contend with on a daily basis?
The fact is that you could only make such remarks because you have removed yourself both physically and psychologically from the everyday reality faced by Black people and other people of color in this nation. World-famous Black actors before you, such as Paul Robeson, Sidney Poitier, and Harry Belafonte, couldn’t separate themselves as easily due to the legislative and social constraints of Jim Crow. But now, because of their struggle and the blood sacrifice of Black people, you can and have separated yourself from the very Black community that nurtured you and supported you, only to turn around and make a statement that only works to soothe the guilt-ridden conscience of a nation that continues to downplay its legacy of oppression and the toll that legacy has taken on those of us who are Black, Brown and poor. To use the platform bequeathed to you by the Civil Rights Movement to deny the legacy of racism and its continued persistence amounts to a slap in the face to each and every Black person that died and continues to die due to the reality of racism. Your comments add insult to the injury of racism that most of us experience each and every day.
When was the last time you visited your hometown of Philly? We have a Black mayor here, our third in fact. Yet, racism is no less real now than when white Gov. Rendell was sitting in city hall. Our cities are no less segregated today than when George Wallace declared “segregation forever” from the steps of the Alabama state house in 1963. The remedies for this social ill will take more than the single act of electing a Black man to the nation’s highest political office. It will take a generation of acts to repair the more than a century’s worth of social damage and degradation that the Black community has reaped in these United States.
What about the cop-killing of Oscar Grant in Oakland this past New Year’s Day? What about the kidnapping and torture of Megan Williams? What about the acquittal of the officers that shot and killed Sean Bell? Jena 6? Katrina? These are just some of the racist events that made national headlines. The list could easily go on. And while we’re at it, Will, last I checked, most Native Americans still reside on reservations. Mexican immigrants are still being targeted for deportation while the red carpet is laid out for European immigrants. Arabs and Muslims are still being profiled at airports and stereotyped in the media.
Do you not realize that there are those of us still fighting the racism of a country that continues to treat most of us as second-class citizens, and that discriminates against us on the job, in the neighborhood, at the banks, in the hospital, in the courts, in the schools? Do you not realize that this is a country that continues to deny so many of us equal protection under the law when we are lynched, terrorized, tortured, murdered and otherwise mistreated or misrepresented? The election of Barack Obama hasn’t fundamentally changed any of this. And as great a man as he now is, invested with the power of his office, he, alone, can’t change it either. In fact, he is no less threatened by that same reality himself! Why do you think he has the tightest security detail of any president in U.S. history?
Your comments make a mockery of the self-determination of our community against a nation that has throughout its history denied our very citizenship and humanity. By denying the reality of racism, you also deny the strength of character, the persistence of will, and the power of Black people who have fought against it. Coincidentally, your comments also deny the very audacity of hope that lit the match of Obama’s own determination to be the president in a United States that didn’t believe that a Black man could win.
Furthermore, your comments only work to falsely confirm the conservative attitude that continues to hold sway in this nation. Your denial of this country’s racism doesn’t challenge the status quo desires of certain whites and wealthy people of color who are quite comfortable with things as they are. Taken at face value, your remarks defend the racist proposition that any problem Black people experience in this nation must be of our own making and doing. America remains in denial as to the actual state of racial progress. Your comments only work to rock this nation into a deeper slumber. If America is to be freed from its racism, it must wake up to the work that is yet to be done. Otherwise, we all might be in for a rude awakening.
No, Will, unlike the characters you portray in your films, people of color in this country do not have the privilege or luxury to exist without a walking awareness of race and what that means in a country that at any given moment and without any warning can remind us of racism’s truth in all its cruelty and brutality. No, we cannot afford to pretend or play make-believe. In our world the bullets are real as is the racism.
Just as racism still existed after slavery ended, and racism still existed after Black people won the right to vote, so too racism still exists, even after the election of the first Black president. You don’t measure progress by the exceptions. Rather, progress is measured by the rule. And the rule for most Black people and other people of color in this nation and around the world is that racism is all too real. The sooner this nation breaks out of its denial and comes to terms with this truth, the sooner we will be able to address it and do what it takes to eradicate it for good.
Ewuare X. Osayande (http://www.osayande.org/) is a political activist and author of several books including Commemorating King: Speeches Honoring the Civil Rights Movement and Misogyny & the Emcee: Sex, Race & Hip Hop. He is co-founder and director of POWER (People Organized Working to Eradicate Racism). He can be reached at OsayandeSpeaks@hotmail.com.
by Ewuare X. Osayande
Speech delivered at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Trenton, NJ, January 19, 2009.
We are living in history. We are bearing witness to an experience that so many of our forebears only dreamed of, hoped for, wished for, worked for, struggled for, died for. The election of Barack Obama as the United States of America’s first Black president is a watershed moment in American history. This moment will be remembered in history as significant as the eradication of slavery, as the Civil Rights Movement itself. So it is most fitting that on this day of days, this day when we come to honor and remember the life and legacy of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, that we should consider this historic moment and understand its meaning for our times.
It was just 200 years ago that African people in this nation were enslaved. Indeed the very White House that the Obama’s will call home as this nation’s first family was built with the labor of enslaved Africans. Laws were instituted throughout this nation’s history to insure our perpetual servitude and inequality. And now, tomorrow, a man bearing a name that is rooted in the red soil of Africa will take the oath of office as this nation’s 44th president.
Were it not for the brave agitation and activism of African Americans such as Harriet Tubman, David Walker, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Dr. WEB Dubois, Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Elijah Muhammad, Queen Mother Moore, Booker T. Washington, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Septima Clark, Bayard Rustin, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, Huey Newton, and the millions of others who sacrificed their very lives to bring a greater measure of justice and freedom to the African American community, this day would not have come. They now exist as the great cloud of witnesses that look down upon us this day with smiles as wide and bright as the sun itself.
It has been forty years since King was assassinated and the demise of the Civil Rights Movement. It is remarkable that within one generation African Americans have gone from achieving the right to vote to voting an African American into the highest office in the land.
Throughout this nation, there are many that now believe that racism is no longer an issue for Black people given the election. They believe that we have overcome. Certainly, the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States is a major step forward in American social progress. But we would miss the meaning of this moment and dishonor the legacy of all those who sacrificed to now proclaim that we have somehow reached a racial nirvana. For one, we should never define progress by the exception. Rather, it should be defined by the rule. And the rule for many Black people and other people of color is dictated by the ever-present reality of racism and the threat of violation to our rights and very personhood that even Obama himself cannot escape.
Dr. King responded to a similar reaction after the passage of the Voting Rights bill when he said, “I am appalled that some people feel the civil rights struggle is over because we have a 1964 civil rights bill with ten titles and a voting rights bill. Over and over again people ask, ‘What else do you want?’ They feel that everything is all right. Well, let them look around at our big cities.”
Today, some forty years after King spoke those words, in one of our big cities, the barbarity of racism has reared its ugly head once again.
Oscar Grant, a 22 year-old African American father, in Oakland, CA this past New Year’s Day was killed by Johannes Mehserle, a white cop for the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. It is a story that we have heard too many times. A young Black man is shot in the course of being accosted by the police. In this case, Grant was already being detained by two officers: one officer with his knees on his shoulders, another straddling his legs as he lay face down on the subway platform. It was at that point that Mehserle stood up, pulled his gun and shot a bullet directly into Grant’s back. The officers then finished hand-cuffing Grant as he lay there bleeding to death.
The video-taped footage of eye-witnesses of the killing clearly shows that there was no gun on the young man, that there was no apparent threat to any of the officers at the scene. In fact, it is one of the most heinous acts of police murder ever caught on tape. Oakland would rise in insurrectionary flames the following day. Currently, Mehserle has been arrested and charged with second-degree murder.
Interestingly enough, soon after King made those aforementioned remarks, Watts would also go up in flames after a 22 year old Black man would be assaulted by the LAPD. With the smoke still rising from the city, King would proclaim that “a riot is the language of the unheard.”
How is it that, on the eve of a new era in American politics, racism in its most barbaric form can still exist? This is the kind of bitter duality that has characterized the African American experience in this country. Despite our hope for change and longing for “justice for all,” America’s reality has delivered less than its promise.
It is appalling that 40 years after the Civil Rights Movement, an African American man can still be shot in cold-blood by those sworn to “protect and serve.” It is appalling that Megan Williams, a young African American woman, can be kidnapped and tortured for over a week in a country that can elect a Black man president.
It is this kind of bitter duplicity that will cause otherwise well-meaning people to now turn to Black children locked in the impossibility of poverty and say to them, “See, even you can now grow up to be President of the United States,” and yet will do nothing to provide the necessary support and resources to insure that possibility can be truly realized. Empty hope has the same effect as an empty stomach. In order to be satisfied, this hope must be filled with the substance of true possibility.
This bitter duality is born of a brutal denial. Only a nation in such denial can give 700 billion dollars to the wealthiest of its people while the rest of the nation staggers under the weight of an economic recession. Only an America in denial can watch its families scammed out of their homes, then turn around and bail out the very corporations that did the scamming.
King’s words work to break this nation out of its denial. In his last presidential speech given to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference on August 16, 1967, King moved his concern from helping the poor to challenging the economic structure itself. “There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that the edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised ... Who owns the oil? ... Who owns the iron ore? ...Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water? These are the questions that must be asked.”
Are we courageous enough to ask the same questions of our nation today? Certainly these are the central questions of our time given the bailout and the state of the economy. Who is benefiting from the government’s hand-outs? Who is suffering from the corporate corruption? What does all of this have to do with our government’s investment in war?
My heart cries for the Palestinian people caught between the Mediterranean Sea and a hostile regime. Yet despite the atrocious acts being committed against them, despite the bombs, missiles and bulldozers that destroy their homes, national and international condemnation and blame is laid at their feet for actions that have been deemed terrorist. Yet, there is nothing that the Palestinian people will ever be able to do that would cause the nation of Israel to cease to exist. The same cannot be said about the actions of the state of Israel against a people that exist without the right to exist, without the right to choose their own leaders (we call that a democracy), without the human right of self-determination and the right to raise a flag and call yourself a nation. The actions of the Palestinians are the actions of an impoverished people against the massive artillery of the 5th largest military state in the world. The actions of the Palestinians seek nothing more than to send a message to their adversary and to the world. Just like the people of Oakland. No, we may not agree with their methodology - riots and suicide bombings - but we must understand that their methods are born of survival and a caustic sense of desperation.
King would speak to America today as he did yesterday. He would condemn this nation’s actions of “pre-emptive strikes” in its decision to invade Iraq. Such actions on this nation’s part have now set in motion the pre-emptive military actions of other nations like Russia and Israel.
In his speech, “Time to Break Silence,” King reminds us that our overriding loyalties ought to be with the oppressed. “This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voice-less, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.”
King’s analysis strikes deep into the heart of American imperialism. “The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy- and laymen-concerned committees for the next generation.” Where are we today? “We will be marching ... and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. Such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons [and daughters] of the living God.”
The thirst for justice can never be obliterated by bombs. The desire for freedom can never be shot down. In fact, such actions only work to strengthen a people’s resolve for self-determination.
So as we look to the presidency of Barack Obama and this new era of American politics, it is easy to believe that King would be pleased and satisfied. But a closer reading of King’s conviction would give us pause to that impulse. An America that does not insure the dignity of work for its entire people is not a just America. An America that continues to defend the mistreatment and brutality of its citizens of color is not a just America. An America that initiates international conflict and justifies war is an unjust America. Is an America that must be challenged to change. We must work to insure that this new era of American politics is also a new era of American policy!
And to those of us who are African American caught up in the magnitude of this historic moment, who seek a sense of final satisfaction and acceptance as Americans, King cautions us when he says, “However deeply American Negroes are caught in the struggle to be at last at home in our homeland of the United States, we cannot ignore the larger world house in which we are also dwellers. Equality with whites will not solve the problem of either whites or Negroes if it means equality in a world society stricken by poverty and in a universe doomed to extinction by war.”
What King presents for us is a principled personhood. In his very person, we can bear witness to the lived expression of moral conviction in all its full humanity. This is why he is important and valuable to us now and forever more. Not as an icon, or symbol, or an apparition frozen in time, but as a living, breathing expression of love in pursuit of justice and the promise of peace.
What Barack Obama achieved, he achieved because of the actions of millions of Americans from all walks of life who were ready for change. What that change will look like is yet to be defined. But let us be clear, the hope placed in Obama and his incoming administration echoes back to the work that was started in the Civil Rights Movement. What they accomplished has made the miracle of this moment possible. But just as the Sixties taught us, it took a King and a movement to move the hand of the president to sign those bills into law. It took a King and a movement to move the conscious of this country closer to social equality. So, we too, must remain vigilant. As we hold up Barack Obama and support him in what we know will be a most challenging first term, we must always be on the ready when the times call for us to move our president and our nation even more toward justice.
Yes, we have every right to believe that change can come to America. Indeed, we have helped to bring change through our vote. Now let our hope for change be rooted in a resolve to work for fundamental and lasting change. In that final speech to the SCLC, “Where Do We Go From Here?” King spoke of having a “divine dissatisfaction.”
And so today I say, let us be dissatisfied until the threat of police brutality and racial terrorism no longer haunts the daily lives of people of color in this nation. Let us be dissatisfied until every child is receiving a first class education without regard to their zip code. Let us be dissatisfied. Let us be dissatisfied until the families of those very children can live in homes they own full of comfort and peace, without fear of eviction. Let us be dissatisfied until every American has the right to universal health care. Let us be dissatisfied. Let us be dissatisfied until our gay brothers and lesbian sisters can experience the full equality of love sanctioned by the state. Let us be dissatisfied until all war has been vanquished by the global desire for peace. Let us be dissatisfied! Let us be dissatisfied until the bitter duality of racism and social progress has collapsed into the ever-present reality of justice for all. Let us be dissatisfied like King was dissatisfied. Let us be dissatisfied like Fannie Lou Hamer was dissatisfied. Let us be dissatisfied like the prophet Amos was dissatisfied. Let us be dissatisfied until justice rolls down like running waters and righteousness as a mighty flowing stream.
Ewuare X. Osayande (www.osayande.org) is a political activist and author of several books including Black Anti-Ballistic Missives: Resisting War/Resisting Racism. He is co-founder and director of POWER (People Organized Working to Eradicate Racism) an initiative that educates and empowers persons and organizations interested and involved in movements for social justice. He can be reached at OsayandeSpeaks@hotmail.com.