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18Jan/100

The Language of the Unheard

"When you are right you cannot be too radical; when you are wrong, you cannot be too conservative." - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today is the tenth anniversary of the national recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Ten years ago it stopped being the impotently-named “Civil Rights Day” in Utah and “Lee-Jackson-King” day – wherein General Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson got top billing over MLK – in Virginia. As a nation we get closer and closer to readily acknowledging that we have and continue to be terrible not just to blacks, but to everyone. Martin Luther King Jr.'s efforts, the efforts which eventually won him a bullet in the head, worked toward dismantling the mindset of a nation which emancipated its slaves only to treat their newly-fellow citizens with as much vitriol and derision as it could muster. A nation where the poor took up arms against the poor on the basis on the basis of tradition. The same “tradition” which prevented them from ever seeing past these artificial divisions long enough to rise out of the shit they were born into, lived in and died surrounded by.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a dangerous subversive at a time when the country desperately, desperately needed dangerous subversion. It is important to remember the need if only because it is easy to imagine the '50s were Leave it to Beaver and the '60s were long hair and free love. These years were a peak of institutionalized hate; a time when giving your fellow citizen the shit end of the stick on principle was status-fuck-quo. I'm not saying we live in some sort of post-racial wonderland right now. I'd like to think things are a bit easier for blacks, but we still have sundown towns, and constituencies which would elect Strom Thurmond's desiccated corpse were they allowed to. And we still institutionally (that is: without openly acknowledging it even to our individual selves) maltreat fellow citizens on account of race, class, creed, gender and orientation. I can't even acknowledge that I or anyone I know are totally free from the prejudice of even a single one of those concepts.

This country, by the very laws which make it free, needs its revolutionaries. We shouldn't be remembering Martin Luther King Jr. as an individual who was honored as an assassinated orator. We should remember him as a man who a malformed social system resisted at every turn. A man who inspired right-minded individuals of all walks to brave police, hoses and dogs to tell the world that society had internalized a disease, and they would put their very lives on the line to expunge it from the body politic. An idealized perspective, definitely, but sometimes idealism is exactly what we need to fight for a day which it is necessary to fight for, but may sadly never come.

I think everyone who is reading this ought to take some time out and watch Spike Lee's Bamboozled (trailer). Spike Lee is a director of eminent skill and has the unblinking fearlessness needed to create a film about a black man bringing back blackface minstrelsy to the people. Black face minstrelsy, you ask? Didn't that go away with vaudeville and penny-farthings? I wish. In 1978, 1978, the British could turn on their televisions and tune into this (the actual clip is from a 1960s episode):

That's the Black and White Minstrel Show. A huge BBC hit up until the year before All In The Family was canceled. (Aside: I am aware that that All in the Family, one of the first sitcoms to deal head-on with social ills, was based upon a British show, but my point stands.) This show wasn't satire or anything but what it looks like. In fact, the show lost audience when they stopped doing it in blackface. And for those of you who are enjoying the entertainment value of this, which it has in a sugary and mindless fashion, Lee addresses that in his film. You will laugh because it is funny and you will feel uncomfortable because … it is funny. Bamboozled is probably the best exploration of the African-American in media I've ever seen, and an amazing (and highly expressionist) film to boot.

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