To The Man I Once Thought Lowly Of, I Apologize
Today marks 51 years since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He is a man that many of us learned about every year in school. In elementary, I was forced to color pictures of him. In middle & high school, my class read snippets of his “I Have A Dream” speech and in college, my class dissected parts of his “I Have A Dream” speech and spoke of its brilliance.
But by 18 years old, I must admit that I didn’t have much respect for him. My first year of college, a friend asked me what I thought of Dr. Martin Luther King Day. I joked and said, “if I don’t get a day out of school or holiday pay, then it’s not too important.” Little did I know, she would use that as a quote in the school newspaper. I felt guilty. I felt like I had let all black people down. How dare I not take his day seriously? How dare I mock a man who risked his life for the futures of people who look like me? A man who was assassinated because of his pursuit of civil rights? I knew it didn’t feel right, but I couldn’t deny that he didn’t mean much to me and that those history lessons about him didn’t seem to relate to my life as an African American in 2009. I carried the confusion and guilt, but never fully questioned it.
At 21 years old, I had learned of the death of Jordan Davis. He was killed at a gas station in Florida in 2012. It became known as the Loud Music Killing. I grew angry, frustrated and sad. My response to his death was a poem I wrote, titled “Refund.” On the surface, it was about Black History Month, but beneath the surface, it was about oppression and racial injustice in America. In it, I wrote:
“…Dear America, you can take back your month,
And give us a few more chapters in your American history books,
But please save the amount of space you give to Martin Luther King,
I’m getting tired of hearing about the same ol’ dream,
I woke up years ago,
And his words can’t save any of the 108 children killed in one year in Chicago…”
Of all the poems I had written, this one resonated with my listeners the most. This one helped me win contests, cash, and respect, but it also proved that ignorance is bliss.
Years had gone by before I realized that my issue wasn’t with Dr. King. My issue was with the educational system that made whiteness the benchmark and white comfort a requirement. At the time, I didn’t realize that I had only been taught the pieces of a man that white America wanted me to know about. I didn’t know that they exploited his words & legacy for their own personal gain, hiding the words he spoke that would offend white supremacy or refuse to center life around whiteness. They taught me just enough to say they honored him, but not enough to help me relate and most definitely not enough to give me hope in his teachings. Often times, they omitted the first half of his “I Have A Dream” speech and never shared any of his other speeches. They spoke about his dream as though racism and racial injustice no longer existed, but even by 2009, I had lived a life that proved otherwise.
I attended a high school 15 miles away from my home because my mother knew that the predominately black school I was supposed to attend wouldn’t prepare me for college. I was kicked out of school in the eighth grade for fighting, when two white girls fought the week prior and were allowed to return. I worked at the most expensive hotel in my city, where a mostly black staff served and catered to a majority white guest list. I attended a predominately white church where the only black leader led the choir and most black men walked in with white wives. At school and church, I was reminded that I was too dark to ever desire any affection or attention from men at all and that I could never be considered beautiful, feminine or woman “enough.” (I have since sat in predominately white churches that have remained silent as unarmed black teens and men have been killed by police officers.) I attended high school with black Hurricane Katrina survivors who had been forced to leave the only place they knew as home. Many news organizations called them refugees in their own country. I remember the protests surrounding the unfairness of the charges handed down to the Jena Six.
You see, my teachers wanted me to believe that there were no remnants of racism left and they used Dr. King’s speech to prove their point. They wanted me to believe that because things were better, they had to now be equal. It was something I could not reconcile. So, to the man I once thought lowly of, I apologize. I am sorry for taking what they gave me without questioning it and without researching beyond the parts of the “I Have A Dream” speech that made them feel comfortable.
I later learned that Dr. King had much more than a dream and he spoke about political and racial issues in ways that public school teachers may never mention. I was reminded of that when I stumbled across an article today titled, “The Misappropriation of Martin Luther King, Jr.” Dr. King ruffled feathers and was not, at the time, considered a hero. I am reminded that sometimes the truth hurts and we can’t be afraid to offend when we are standing on the truth.
It is my hope that we will all do the work of gaining knowledge, allowing people to grow and mature, listening to one another and leaving ignorance behind us.
Note: This blog was originally published in 2019.