More than another holiday: the importance of MLK Day
Here's a playlist to accompany this piece that is full of Black musicians from the past, present, and on the rise. Featuring The Roots, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, The Isley Brothers, Peter Tosh, and many others.
The genuine intention behind creating days of observation is to spread awareness and draw attention to historical events, topics, and figures. It could be as local as "Founder's Day", as wide-spread as "Boxing Day" or as universally recognized as "World A.I.D.S. Day." To some, these days of celebration and remembrance are an important day of reflection due to their own personal ties to the matter. A person who has had family members In the military probably has a strong, emotional investment with Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Others who may not share the same family tree of Service still have an immense amount of respect and appreciation for not only the day, but for those who put their lives on the line to defend the country.
Growing up as a first generation child born to West African immigrants, I didn't have the typical Black experience in my Northeastern suburb. While I had many friends from many different ethnic backgrounds, a majority of my friends were and still are White. At times during my early years, I found it difficult to find my voice and identity. It wasn't like I was forced to assimilate to the point where I lost my true sense of culture, but it was evident that I lived within a suburban bubble. My fairer-skinned friends and their parents never pushed an agenda for me to act more like them; they were always welcoming and accepting of me and my interests. But looking back in retrospect, I missed out on opportunities to further enrich my knowledge about my culture.
A line from Earl Sweatshirt's deeply introspective and somber track Chum has resonated with me because of how much it related to me personally:
Too Black for the White kids, but too White for the Blacks.
While most of my classmates were geeked up about the new Blink-182 CD, I barely knew anyone that shared the same enthusiasm about the new G-Unit tape. As I got older my music tastes diversified, but I experienced the same difficulty sharing my thoughts about Ratatat. Quickly dismissed as "wack" by my black churchmates, I felt slightly out of place while being completely present.
To myself, my M.O. was always to be an insider looking out, beyond the scope of my own background. Inversely, however, in most social settings, I typically felt like an outsider looking in. I'm grateful for having experienced both sides of the draw because of the well-rounded perspective that I've gained as a result of being immersed in both cultures. However, what I have come to learn in life is that fully embracing who you are and where you come from is equally, if not more important than being partially familiar with both sides of the pitch.
From Kindergarten to college, MLK Day was important, but selfishly, it was just another day off of school, more than it was a day of reflection.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, in the heartless center of the Jim Crow South. During an extremely turbulent time in the trenches of a landscape that favored discrimination, simply being black had severe consequences and restrictions. Less than a century removed from legal slavery at the time, many limitations were placed upon Black people during Segregation. Not only did African-Americans in the deep South have to worry about how their families and communities would stay afloat against current laws, the threat of actual violence was meant to keep the disenfranchised "in their place."
For the smallest of offenses and many times for no reason at all, random acts of terror carried out by constituents of the Ku-Klux-Klan were common in an ecosystem that devalued black lives. The most notable event: a 14-year-old named Emmett Till who was brutally beaten and lynched for harmlessly flirting with a White woman. Was this a rude and foolish thing to do, regardless of the circumstance and context? Absolutely. Did it justify the horrible events that transpired? Absolutely not. The most sickening detail of the entire story is the fact that the killers were acquitted of the charges less than a month after Till's death. Five months later, protected by Double Jeopardy, the men shamelessly admitted to what they did to that poor boy.
Domestic acts of terrorism like this and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church were essentially shrugged off (the first member of this planned attack, which killed an 11-year-old girl and three teens did not get convicted and sentenced until 14 years later). While the punishments for being a vocal man of color were grave, the fortitude of Dr. King's ambitions was much stronger.
Dr. King was an integral cog in the Civil Rights Movement during the 50s and 60s. A peaceful, conservative activist with the passion of his voiceless ancestors before him, King was, in large part, responsible for organizing some of the most important protests during that era. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, Selma and what has become widely regarded as his most influential contribution in the Civil Rights Era: The Great March on Washington. An event in which 300,000 people heard Dr. King's impassioned call for the end of prejudice and injustice more commonly referred to as the I Have A Dream speech.
The culmination of Dr. King's efforts took place in the years following the March on Washington. On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The following Summer, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 took effect. The passing of these monumental laws gave Dr. King and other prominent leaders in the Civil Rights Movement a strong belief that things will be different for the next generation of people who face discrimination in the United States. Their struggles were not in vain.
Things are far from perfect almost 50 years after the assassination of Dr. King in 1968. In that time, major strides have been taken in the name of equality for people of all colors, creeds, and sexual orientations. The culture surrounding entertainment - in film, music, and sports - has helped to further the advancement of creating a general sense of unity for all. The sacrifices made and risks by people such as Jackie Robinson, Ruby Dee, Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, and Ella Fitzgerald were just as important to the Civil Rights Movement as those who were considered just "activists."
Their contributions to the Movement paved the way and made it possible for those such as DeRay & Netta, LeBron James, Beyonce, Donald Glover, and Ta-Nehisi Coates to voice their opinions while we try to make sense of the world. While lynchings and other acts of violence in the name of racism are not as flagrant as they once were during the Jim Crow era, swathes of African-Americans are being harmed and killed by police at an alarmingly high rate. To quote Kanye West:
2016 was the most eye-opening year of my adult life. 2017 was even more fucked up in terms of justified acts of racism (i.e. Charlottesville), I've always known that racism and prejudice still existed; I went to college in the middle of Pennsylvania so, of course I experienced subtle and not so subtle discrimination during my four years there. But the results of the election cycle of 2016 and the actions of emboldened supporters of the Commander in Cheeto really brought out the animosity that has been stewing for years. Equally as shocking as it is disgusting.
After the first year of this clusterfuck of an administration, I really have no idea what to expect in the next few years. 2018 may very well be the season finale of America, but for me, I now have a strong sense of identity. I am a proud Black man - a first generation descendent of two hardworking African Immigrants who does not give a flying fuck about your heritage, nationality, what gender or race you are, what your sexual orientation is, or what political affiliation you are. As long as you're a tolerable and decent human being, you're alright in my book.
I have a strong sense of who I am as a young man, and I have a clearer picture of who I hope to become in the future. I solemnly swear to never take the sacrifices made by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for granted ever. Without his contributions to society, we all would undoubtedly be worse off as a nation.
A message to my younger self: it's not just another day off from school or work, it's a day of remembrance that should be held in the highest of regards.
Martin Luther King Jr. was Black Excellence personified.
Let's take this day, collectively as a Nation, to reflect on ways to make him proud and carry on his legacy.