MLK Day Ramblings

Having only been alive for about thirty years I find it impossible to say for sure, but I’m pretty certain that time has sped up.  What I mean is….you can look back at history and read about an event that happened in 1100 and then read about an event that happened in 1200 and, while the details of those events may be different, you feel comfortable assuming they happened in an extremely similar world.  As such, there is an obvious connection between events that occurred centuries apart from one another.

100 years ago seems like ANCIENT history these days.  This is mostly due to the astounding expansion of technology.  I saw a stat several years ago about the rate at which our technological capability increases…I do NOT remember what the stat was but the idea was that our technological knowledge DOUBLES all the fucking time.  I am a fan of this.  I think God gave me a brain so that I can be smart and understand every possible thing about the world I can and use it to make a better society.  All that.

But there is a definite downside to all this knowledge.  The explosion in what we know has made it very difficult to relate to events that happened before our time.  My great grandparents were alive 100 years ago.  These are people I met when I was a child.  But the world of 100 years ago is completely foreign to us today.  How do we relate to people who considered cars a luxury, wrote letters with a pen, and had never conceived of the possibility of watching porn on the Internet?  100 year is FOREVER.  My assumption is that it was not always this way.

Americans take pride in being part of a “post-racial” society, whatever the hell that means.  Those who take this idea to the extreme like to say outrageous things like, “I don’t even notice the color of someone’s skin.”  This is a preposterous (and not really all that noble) claim.  Our nation’s history is so built on racial turmoil, and our current climate is so inundated with racial debate, that I can think of fewer claims more naive than the dismissal of the importance of race.

I usually read a book about Martin Luther King every January.  This year I was in the middle of so many other things that I sort of slept on that.  But one of the things I am in the middle of is The Bridge, David Remnick’s biography of Barack Obama.  I think that reading a book about Obama is a fair substitute for reading a book about King, because, as the heir to King’s dream, this holiday is very much about him.

The 2008 campaign was one of the most notable – and certainly the most rewarding – political moments of my life.  What was especially fascinating was that for all the obvious racial implications of that moment in time – the symbolic importance of a Black man being elected, Obama’s appeal across Black-White lines, the nauseating racist backlash from the vocal minority of America’s lowest common denominator – there was still this underlying current of thought that in a “post-racial” society, nothing going on had anything to do with race.  White Republicans (sorry to be redundant) were appalled by statistics showing well over 90% of African-Americans planned to vote for Obama, while Black Democrats bent over backwards to convince the world that they were voting based on the issues, not the candidate’s skin color.  Meanwhile, the rest of us fumbled around trying to rectify the obvious historical importance of the moment with the pervasive idea that this moment was somehow not all that important.

Well consider me in the camp that believes that moment WAS incredibly important.  I voted for Obama in the Democratic primary and I am very comfortable admitting that race was a key factor in my decision.  Our society is not post-racial just because our government no longer enforces blatantly racist policies and we find it socially unacceptable to say the N-word.  Forget about the overwhelming subtle racism that still exists…we are only four decades removed from all out, state-sanctioned hatred.  This type of hatred takes more than a generation to recover from and this is proven by the great disparity seen everywhere from college entrance exams to incarceration rates to poverty statistics. It is a great insult to tell anyone affected by these numbers that race does not matter.

I was student teaching on Inauguration Day in 2009.  I watched the inauguration twice at school that day and spent much of the day choked up.  In the morning I watched it live with an ELL class whose teacher was explaining the events in Spanish (“La Casa Blanca”), which seemed one of the most appropriate ways to celebrate this moment.  In the afternoon I watched the recording in the gym with the entire school.  I watched my Black students swell with pride as Obama took the Oath of Office, giving legitimacy to the age old myth passed down by mothers that “even you could grow up to be president one day.”  As much as I love rap and basketball, it was a beautiful thing to see my kids trading in their G-Unit gear and Lebron jerseys for Obama t-shirts, fully understanding at a young age what was going over the heads of so many adults: I have a role model who looks like me.  He doesn’t rap or play sports but he is the most famous man in the world. Don’t tell me race was not important at that moment.

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4 Responses to MLK Day Ramblings

  1. this is honestly one of the most insightful posts i’ve ever read about the issue. you’ve given me something to think about.

  2. doctorwaffle says:

    My students constantly surprise me when talking about issues of race, class, and gender. On the one hand, they really, truly believe that equality exists within our society. Since SOME people are able to transcend race, class, and gender and be successful, that automatically means that anyone who does not simply doesn’t want it bad enough. I find that to be a frustrating place to teach from. In a sense, I want to agree with them – yes, anyone can succeed now! keep studying and trying to accomplish your dreams! – but then I think that mindset can also gloss over the issues. The assumption that anyone can succeed inevitably leads us to dismiss those who didn’t make it. They just didn’t work hard enough.

    But the other thing about my students is that they are smarter than they let on. And once they figure out (or remember that) barriers still exist for people who are “othered” by our society, they seem to want change to happen. I don’t know what they’ll do with the information, but sometimes they just need to be in the uncomfortable position of talking about these issues.

    It is generally much easier to ignore race (aka claim that we are in a postracial society). Same goes for gender and class. But insisting on bringing those issues out into the open reveals that we are much less post- anything than we would like to think. And it forces us to change our attitudes, beliefs, and actions.

    To sum up: This is why I’m a teacher.

    • kerouaccat says:

      I think this is a pretty good way to summarize the stance of liberals vs. conservatives on social issues. Conservatives champion personal responsibility…and on the surface that’s great. It’s hard to argue with the idea of someone working hard and pulling themselves up by the bootstraps and living the American Dream. But because something is possible does not mean it is likely or even conceivable. (Actually…I may need a dictionary…I think by definition it may exactly mean it is conceivable.) That’s why liberals recognize the need to do something to level the playing field. It’s like that Obama quote about how instead of focusing on the mistakes made by the pregnant teenager we need to focus with what is wrong with a society that has cultivated these mistakes. Or something. Now I’m going to stop before I start to ramble about the Republicans who twist King’s words to make him sound anti-Affirmative Action.

      That doesn’t really surprise me about your students. Without being familiar with UF demographics my assumption is that the majority come from moderately Republican families so they default to the whole personal responsibility thing…but since they are college students and their hearts are bigger than their tummies they are impressionable to a liberal view on the matter. I guess that’s really what college does for you ideologically.

  3. lilslik says:

    You are such a good writer. Best MLK rambling post. I don’t even think it was rambling. You should change the title.

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