After MLK 2015: “Shake off the numb” and choose something

Let’s all do whatever we need to do to counter the continued numbing effects of the over-emphasized “I Have a Dream” mantra associated with King’s legacy. Let’s do this – even a week after MLK Day is over!

It distressed me to see the poster for the newly released movie, “Selma.” The poster reads, “ONE DREAM CAN CHANGE THE WORLD.” I get it – it’s Hollywood. I’m more than fine with the movie. As Representative John Lewis (who was there in Selma in 1965) states, “The movie (Selma) is a work of art. It conveys the inner significance of the ongoing struggle for human dignity in America, a cornerstone of our identity as a nation.” But as Lewis also states, “…This movie is being weighed down with a responsibility it cannot possibly bear.”

I embrace the sentiment that “hope and possibility is real,” as expressed by Oprah Winfrey on Jan 18th the day that she, director Ava DuVernay and other cast members marched in Selma in remembrance of the actual event. But King’s true legacy and the ongoing complexities associated with attaining racial justice push us to reach for more.

People have challenged the “I Have a Dream” mantra and its narrow definition of King’s legacy for years. I have used Michael Eric Dyson’s hard assessment of MLK’s sanitized, romanticized legacy in diversity trainings to encourage people to rethink the limitations of this framing. Reading the full text of King’s August, 1963 speech reveals how much it has been stripped of its powerful dissonance and dissent, undercutting Dr. King’s efforts “to dramatize a shameful condition.”

How often, for example, have you heard this passage quoted:

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check; a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check – a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”

 Yes, the continued sanitizing and romanticizing of Dr. King’s legacy is a problem. But the larger issue regarding this and other “blanching” of our history are the consequences of the numbing effects on our clear thinking and social engagement.

There are many people, good people, smart people, who honestly believe we now live in “post-racial America.”

A client called me suddenly earlier this month unable to wait until our scheduled coaching session. Her frustration had boiled over with some of her friends and colleagues’ ignorance regarding racial injustice in America and their response to the surge of related protests in the streets. Both my client and I are white. We used the time in our conversation to define effective strategies for keeping people, especially white people, engaged in respectful yet critical dialogue about race and racial identity “mattering.”

Let me be clear. I don’t protest in the street. As Fire in the Heart: How White Activists Embrace Racial Justice points out, there are significant numbers of folks across the full spectrum of racial identity who have and do. I have an enormous amount of respect for them. I don’t build social movements like Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, who devised the slogan, “Black Lives Matter.” I have an enormous amount of respect and appreciation for them as well. I didn’t think up or participate in #ReclaimingMLK. I respect and appreciate those who did.

I’m not in the streets, or behind the scenes building social movements or hashtag campaigns on social media. But I do think it is important to scrutinze social health, both mine and everyone elses. Sure, large complicated social issues like racial justice can be overwhelming. But I believe it’s unhealthy to live in denial for all sorts of reasons. I don’t want to turn a blind eye and do “business as usual.” I want to live a life based on the truth. It’s healthier. I also want to see the things change that are just not right. Racial injustice is certainly one of them.

So let’s all “shake off the numb” and choose something; pick a social issue to address. Not just in conjunction with the yearly MLK Day commemoration, or during Black History Month, but on an ongoing basis.

You might have a passion and concern for other social issues. Great, go for it.

Here’s an example. Doing a year in review and committing to engaging the social challenges still ahead, we find continued problems, for example, with domestic violence and sexual assault across the globe. In the U.S., the Department of Education is investigating 85 colleges and universities for mishandling sexual assault. And according to another recently published report, “women who aren’t in college are subjected to sexual violence at a 30-percent higher rate than women who are attending a four-year university.”

You might have seen the National Football League’s (NFL) recent PSAs addressing domestic violence and sexual assault. The “No More” Campaign is focused on building a coalition of men and women to bring attention to this important social issue. As Virginia Witt, the director of No More, states, “We see the sports community as absolutely crucial to this strategy …Football is central to American life and families. It’s a great way to engage men in this conversation.” This is a really smart strategy, and I respect and appreciate Virginia Witt and her colleagues for thinking of it.

I obviously could have chosen any number of examples. But I put forth the work of Virginia Witt and her colleagues at No More as an example because in not “going numb,” they instead chose to raise the issues of domestic violence and sexual assault smack dab in the middle of a rationalizing “boys will be boys” culture that can easily be dismissive. This kind of engagement in the face of denial engenders more clear thinking and further action.

Engagement that leads to clear thinking. Personalizing social issues. It’s all good. It’s a great response to feeling overwhelmed by social complexity, or being confused by romanticized social history. It can go a long to help “shake off the numb.”

Here’s to your health, my health, our health in the New Year. And if you are one of the millions of Americans who are soon to sit down and enjoy the Super Bowl, keep in mind as you do the changes that the NFL’s Rooney Rule has brought to the game regarding access for coaches of color, and what this mindfulness does for the development of your perspective on racial justice and our collective ability to think clearly as social beings.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *