mlk Archives - The Jose Vilson


Yes, We Still Have To Do Things Twice As Well

by Jose Vilson on January 17, 2011

in Jose

Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon B. Johnson

“Why don’t the adults ever have to get into dress code? It’s bullshit.”

The student didn’t say it loud enough for the dean to hear it, but, with me standing right next to him, he could have whispered it and the message would have resonated clearly with me. The problem with his logic stems from the fact that, on that particular day, as on 178 of the 180 days of school, I was wearing a fully iron-pressed set of clothing. From the blue Polo sweater on top of my collared shirt to my black pants draping my black shoes.

With my arms folded, I almost had the chutzpah to say, “We don’t have a uniform because we have to dress better than you are right now, kid.” This especially concerns people of color.

It’s obvious that in whatever field we work in, we have to work twice as hard and do things twice as well just to stand equal with our White brethren. At face value, many people want to corrode the effects of racism by not mentioning it or purporting racial equality with the presence of a Black President of the United States, a Black majority owner in the NBA, Black and Latino billionaires who own everything from record labels to their own cable channels, and the absence of polarizing tools on television like nooses and fire hoses.

In each case, we see aggressive, ambitious human beings who’ve had to go above and beyond what we consider the norm of the success trail, and it’s something we have to convey to our students to this day. When one of ours runs for president, he has to set records for campaign contributions. When one of us makes art, we have to constantly prove we deserve to be discussed amongst the greatest. When we walk in for a job interview, we have to project a meticulous aura and an overconfidence to make up for the “normal” confidence shown by fellow co-workers. When we become advocates in the public arena, we have to develop distinct, passionate, and knowledgeable voices to stand out from what others consider the “normal” voices. When we walk down the street, we have to look intimidating and authoritative in the midst of increasingly suspicious looks from an authority that doesn’t look at the “normative” as threatening.

That expectations is burdensome for sure, and it’s not a burden we’ve placed on ourselves (per se). If all things equal, then why would we need to carve out an entire month to recognize our cultures? The silver lining in this weight is that, when we have a talent, we’ve been endowed with the responsibility to shine as brightly as possible. We have to take our talents seriously. If we’re in positions to make things happen, then we have that duty to make positive things happen because others won’t get that chance. I sympathize with those who, having some talent, can only think about their day-to-day obligations to their families due to their collective economies. Often, I see things that remind me of two afflictions in our communities: talent waste or simple unpreparedness.

I put my students in the latter; it’s OK for students to not see far enough ahead to get why we’re kicking their butts in the classroom, especially if we have any inkling of the struggles people went through just to get us in those seats of influence. As adults, I simply have a hard time excusing a lack of effort. The prevalent idea in some of our neighborhoods towards the “man up” mantra makes just as much sense in our work lives as our home lives. When it comes to certain students, we have to teach them twice as hard. I find myself giving so much of myself that my name becomes Mr. before I use Jose.

Then, I look at the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man whose suit was impeccable in every picture or movie we’ve ever seen him in, whose diction and baritone stoked fires decades after that shot flew in Memphis, whose words and actions have been chiseled into the hearts, minds, and veins of America, and we all have to wonder if we’re doing our parts. If he’s our prequel, then how will we write that next chapter?

I’m not saying we have to get back in the three-piece suits and dresses, but it does make me wonder what I’m going to wear tomorrow morning. Because my students are watching.

Jose, who reminds you to “man up.”

p.s. – Yes, this also applies to edublogging, which is why I said I’m done with the title.


Where Monuments Stand Still

by Jose Vilson on April 5, 2010

in Jose

Martin Luther King Statue, National Mall, Washington DC

A few weeks ago, The Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Committee sent me a mailing about the new memorial off the Tidal Basin in the national mall near the Jefferson Memorial, across from the FDR Memorial, and a little walk from the Lincoln Memorial. They asked me, and I assume plenty others, if I would donate some amount of my funds to this dedication. I read the letter and felt awesome that I’d be part of some historical moment in a time when historical moments seem to come a dime a dozen.

Yet, something told me to do a little research, and surely enough, Google returned a list of issues I didn’t feel comfortable with. First, the King family wanted some percentage of the funds from the donations since the Memorial’s using the father’s name. That wouldn’t be a problem, except that the memorial doesn’t really “make” any money, so it’s rather questionable ethically. Secondly, the model of the statue, a rather lovely dedication, came from an Asian sculptor, who some advocated immediately criticized since they felt the committee should have chosen a Black sculptor instead. Plus, looking at the donations list, it’s intimidating for a man who barely makes a liveable wage would not have an equal share in making history with donors who can chip in 5-to-6-digit donations. And all this dedicated to a practical socialist and avid follower of Christ, the most famous socialist we know.

This makes sense when we think about King and Christ as a whole, never mind the serendipity of Easter, the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection a little less than 2000 years ago, and the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination 42 years ago falling on the same day.

We can argue day and night about the merits of either men and whether to remember their deaths so passionately. For many, the mention of Jesus Christ evokes controversy from folks who either still the degree to follow his teachings or even his very existence. Similar controversies come from reading and watching King’s work. From his college plagiarism to his ungracious adultery, King’s contradictions make even the ardent disciples wince. I can’t get over the fact that the people in charge of interpreting their teachings and works often dilute them in order to pacify the masses.

One thing we can’t dispute is that these contradictions also give their students ready models for how to lead their lives in spite of their own humanity. In the pursuit of happiness, they had quite a few missteps and life got in the way of their perfect plans.

It’s also the way I feel about the national memorial. I still don’t know whether I’ll donate, even if I know how important the monument is for this country to acknowledge its most racially underrepresented citizens. It’s crazy how legacies can be represented by monuments that stand so still.

Jose, who actually went to Mass this weekend …


No More Heroes

by Jose Vilson on March 8, 2010

in Jose

Superman Dies

Last week, the whole world found out that Guru a.k.a. Keith Elam of the world-renown hip-hop duo Gang Starr had (ostensibly) died of a recent heart attack he suffered the day before. Entertainment bloggers reported it. Wikipedia reported it. Celebrities who are usually in the know said it. Then, I typed up a dedication to the man, thinking these three had become relatively credible sources.

Ten minutes later, the news of his demise was squashed.

I was crushed. Hurt. Distraught. A bit angry, especially after my apology and subsequent redaction.

Then, happy the man was still alive.

His music is a big reason I made it through college to begin with. Songs like “Royalty” and “Moment of Truth” infused awesome street symphonies with super-tight poetry in ways no one’s mimicked since. He isn’t superlyrical or completely braggadocious, but his street tales and messages of peace and reflection carried me through some tough times and even some awesome times. I never had the fortune of picking up his albums early in my youth, but as I got older, I recognized Preemo (DJ Premier) and Guru’s melodies from a mile away.

It also made me think of the people I valued as heroes, people whose names sparked chatter in their respective fields, whose work made people quiver with excitement, whose passion put them just a notch above everyone else I looked up to. During college, I met many of these folks and gathered many more heroes along the way, learning more about myself as a person through their works and my reflections upon those. Whether it was education, activism, writing / poetry, or just life as a whole, I sought these figures actively as a source of the proverbial light.

Meeting them in limited spaces gave me and others the impression that they’re somehow on another level of “avatar” than those of us acolytes. In many ways, that still holds true: when one is still learning and finding their guide in life, one needs those role models to help guide their personas and spirits.

As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve become acutely aware of my heroes’ faults. Starting from my extensive research of the long history of Muhammad Ali’s womanizing and Malcolm X before he became we semi-deify now, my ever-expanding knowledge began to deconstruct the images I had of them, and as I got older and saw my more current heroes more regularly, I saw the griminess, the discontent, the shiftiness, and the inexplicable. I also found myself at a loss for words at the indirectness and secret society rules many of them played by.

In a fit of poetic rage, I metaphorically killed every single one from top to bottom, in rhyme and meter. Like those movies where the one guy finds out his boss / government has been deceiving him the whole time and decides to abandon their rules and go guerrilla.

Except that Guru almost died.

And then it took me back to a discussion our African-American Studies department at Syracuse University had about leaders like MLK Jr., wondering whether his less savory acts devalued what he did as one of the greatest civil rights leaders in the world. One of the younger professors in the panel argued that, because he had these blemishes, he was more closely reached. Before, the MLK standard was so hard to reach for him but now, in a backwards sort of logic, he now felt better about getting to that level.

In my current position, I look at those who I consider role models and that I certainly consider myself a fan of, and have to remind myself that, for all their inner divinity, they are human. They’re every bit as emotional, insecure, wavering, and contradictory as I am. That’s what makes them possible.

Why not pray for peace with them while they’re still on Earth and not when they’re six feet under or ashes spread across a plot of land?

Everyone is on a path that’s asymptotic to 100%. That’s why I can’t blame them. They’re somewhere down the road from where I am.

Jose, who shouldn’t be this popular, you’re far too kind …


MLK Day: It Doesn’t Matter With Me Now

January 18, 2010 Jose
Martin Luther King Jr. Pledging Allegiance at the Lincoln Memorial

I’m not going to quit being an educator. Even when people want me to quit, even when the gossip comes raining down, even when the whole world tries to tell me that education is not particularly valuable in the American hierarchy of occupations, I know I cannot quit. I know when people ask me to […]

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Short Notes: Because Everybody Can Serve

January 17, 2010 Short Notes
Coretta Scott King

A few links: I’m not hating on Wyclef Jean, but his response to the accusations about Yele Haiti left me wondering. Shady business gives shady returns. [Rap Radar] What kind of font are you? Answer this interactive survey for more. (password is: character) [Pentagram] While I didn’t have VH1 Soul, I’m certainly disappointed at its […]

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I Am A Man

September 29, 2009 Jose

On Saturday, NYC Educator posted an interesting speech, and here it goes: At first, when watching this video, I grimaced. How does a teacher get to the point where they have to use such terse language for a student who’s less than 1/2 his age? For that matter, it almost seems excessive when we hear […]

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