Yesterday, I had the fortune – the privilege – of attending MLK Now 2017, sponsored by Blackout for Human Rights / United Blackout and the Campaign for Black Male Achievement (CBMA). Needless to say, the star power in the building was enough to fill the pews with people of all generations. The target audience felt like a cross-section of the social-media connected young activists and their well-storied and still-energized elders. Lala Anthony’s rendition of a Muhammad Ali screed and Uzo Aduba’s flips between serious and ebullient Nigerian accents as she read from Nelson Mandela speech were everything.
— Jose Vilson (@TheJLV) January 16, 2017
At some point in the program, a video of congressman and legend John Lewis was projected on the screen to plenty of applause and adulation. A young lady, no older than 20, who only ran into my section to get a picture of Michelle Williams tapped me on the shoulder and asked “Who is he?”
I think I scrunched my face and clutched my chest. For 48 hours prior, I had the right-wing troll brigade explain to me and other folks of color how the Orange Is The New President would be better for “the blacks” than any civil rights leader. The furor over the fuhrer over the last few days put me on high alert for bald eagles and social media handles with improper uses of America. But after analyzing my own actions, I took a step back and said, “Well, if she’s gonna hear it from someone right now, I’m glad I’m up to the task.” I quickly told her who he was and she thanked me.
I too apologized. The reaction I gave her was the reaction I got when I was her age, still curious about the workings of the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, and any number of uprisings of an era I was not born into. Mea culpa.
As a teacher, I don’t just bear the responsibility of my own work, but also all the teachers who did not teach her who he was. No one course can map the trajectory of resistance from 1776 to now and name every essential figure, though some have made grand efforts. But here’s what gets lost in teaching, especially teaching these “alternate” stories. John Lewis’ story is powerful enough as an African-American story. But, for many Americans, his story is as integral to the country’s evolution as any American founding father save Washington and Hamilton. He is a walking symbol of the sacrifices our people made in a non-violent uprising that opened the Constitution to almost every citizen. In the midst of ahistorical rewrites by government officials and pundits who would have sought Lewis’ head, it’s important for educators to give students the skills to detect the trivialities and inaccuracies.
It’s hard enough getting Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy right. Lin Manuel-Miranda can’t be the only one to save our stories for us.
After I told the young lady about Lewis, I reflect on the words of Shawn Dove, CEO of the aforementioned CBMA. In his introduction to the program, he called on us to think deeper about the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. at the present moment. Dove had this phrase that still true: “The challenge is: what is the dialogue after the monologue?” That’s the struggle, too. For many of us who yelled back at the president-elect, we saw the need to get beyond the commonplace King quotes and move into the man who once heralded racism, capitalism, and militarism as three of America’s evils.
Lewis is that bridge between then and now. He’s a walking monument and it’s worth revering him regardless of our respective ideologies.
To that end, none of us are perfect messengers, either. The good side of having actors, comedians, and other celebrities read the words of our elders is that, for what it’s worth, our youth need a hook as well. We need charismatic figures that can make the words come to life and make our youth intrigued. I don’t believe in paternalism, but watching Denzel Washington play Malcolm X in my youth, and seeing Public Enemy rock the X hats made me want to watch the seminal work Eyes on the Prize as a youth. Who am I to judge?
With that, we need to make sure that we don’t look sight of the actual work. For many in the audience, we see MLK Day as a means to an end, a reminder of the work that still lies ahead. For those that haven’t gotten to that stage of learning, they got a sense of how important and daunting the work is. Every generation must choose its path.
The question is: what dialogue are we having after the monologues? We can’t stand alone in this. Neither could they.