In elementary school, I was served Martin Luther King Jr. right along with Santa Claus and Jesus. As childhood fictions dissolved, everything began to be questioned by me and not much was to be trusted or believed that was taught to me by the same people that would have me believe in absurd ideas of magical white men. It feels like with every passing MLK Day, the longing for a more complex remembrance of him is demanded from the public. This demand matches the pace that I began to be curious about Dr. King as an entire man and not just quotes. I didn’t want to know the man that has been deified and flattened by the mainstream while the “I Have A Dream” speech lightly plays as I’m being advertised fried foods. I just the same was not interested in the King that often left-leaning writers and thinkers conjure based on his masterful critique on capitalism, fascism, and white supremacy. Yes, these brilliant moments are true but divorced from his practiced homophobia and misogyny, you co-create another idealistic version of Dr. King too, even if it is more honest and radical than the Dr. King in car commercials.
The millennial conversation seems to always come back to attention. No matter how serious or frivolous the topic, there’s always an element of every conversation or happening that seems to grapple with attention, fame, celebrity, influence, or any other word that essentially means to measure people’s interest in surveilling you. It makes sense as a millennial, a member of a generation both poisoned and empowered by celebrity, that imagining Martin Luther King, Jr. beyond his dreams would reveal not a biblical magical story about crucifixion and resurrection. It’s a story of a complicated man with a complicated life with a righteous political conviction that he saw through, that had him under surveillance, that made it easy for him to be assassinated.
Because of the silly nature of the internet — the memes, the viral videos, the irreverent humor, the hyper-sexuality, and the cyclical debates — people can forget how we invited surveillance in our homes. Yes, we’re closer to the world than ever before, but this is not just a way to have global communication and unity, but it also makes hatred global and closer than ever before. It brings it to your home, to your balcony. The surveillance is now quite intimate, casual, and routine. And now I become increasingly fearful for organizers and public activists now that the balcony of a Lorraine Hotel — the place that made King vulnerable to be shot — can be anywhere if the person using the wifi to enact violence is clever enough.
People conflate assassinate with crucified or sacrificed, and I think in the case of King, this has made it so people forget that he was killed for preventable reasons. He did not sacrifice his life for a more just, free America. America took his life because justness and freedom for Black people and poor people is reason for death. He’s not a Jesus that sacrificed his life for the moral compass of this country. He is not St. Nicholas that sacrifices his summers to work for you and confronts the harsh winters to gift you things. He was a man with a full life and in front of the camera, he thought he might be able to do a good thing. With a faith in God and in the general orientation for goodness in most humans — one he had to believe in to forgive his own self for his personal transgressions against his marriage and those he disappeared and negotiated with in order to guarantee and maintain his goals — he dared to march, to talk, to organize, to lead, to sing, to dream.
But Martin Luther King Jr. himself was not a dream. In 2013, Melissa H. Perry and bell hooks were in conversation at The New School, and they tackled Martin Luther King Jr.’s history in a way that held his political and cultural significance, but expounded on other things that were not righteous and even painful to hear about King. During the chat bell hooks says, “In my budding feminism, I didn’t have any use for King and I barely had any use for Malcolm because what I felt to be their refusal to see how patriarchy was hurting and wounding black males and females, and keeping us from the love we deserve to be able to give one another.” In the same video, she proceeds to also praise King for his radicalism and foresight into the doom that the American project would produce.
This is six years ago now, but this demand for nuanced and complicated, human stories and engagement with our icons is still real and becoming a more popular expectation to the general public. We don’t want dreams. We want Martins that dream. If for no other reasons but that we have to engage the reality of a person to truly know the limits and experiences of a person, and the possibilities and worlds they birthed while they graced the earth. We can’t know Gods and benevolent ghosts any better than we do now, but we can know great, complicated dead men better if we’re not overly concerned with them appearing to be divine — like Jesus, like Santa Claus, like the Martin Luther King. Jr. that has sales and parties in his name annually.
In the conclusion of the exchange with Melissa H. Perry, she says, “I don’t mean to throw King out at all”, and without missing a beat bell hooks responds, “I didn’t think you were.”
Words by MYLES E. JOHNSON