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Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: Remembering and Forgetting on January 19

January 19, 2015 will be an ordinary day. It will not be, as
a person from Maine might say, a “wicked good” day. It will be twenty-four
hours occupying a square on a calendar, another SNAFU day in the United States
of America. Nothing that is mind-shattering, body-alarming or soul-fracking
will occur that did not already happen.
There will be no mail delivery, of course, because January
19 is a federal holiday. Babies will be born. People young and old will die.
Fire will burn. The Earth will revolve as it orbits the sun. Air will move
clouds. Water will flow or freeze. Prayers will be prayed; curses will be
cursed; terrorism will terrorize; songs will be sung. Somewhere it will rain.
Perhaps a few Americans will notice that peace and love are items that can’t be
sold or bought. Otherwise, everything will be business as usual.

 

January 19, 2015 will be a day for remembering and
forgetting. 
A few of us will struggle to remember what the life and death of
Martin Luther King, Jr. has to do with the contemporary issues of human rights
which are dramatically negated by Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad
(Boko Haram) in northeast Nigeria. International mass media would have us chant
“Je suis Charlie Hebdo” to signify our support for universal entitlement to
freedom of speech. The Internet bids us to dream that hope springs eternally,
that hope and prayers to strange gods will ultimately deliver us from the
burdens of inequality, systemic racism, “authorized” abuses of law and order by
the brave women and men who day by day put their lives in danger to uphold law
and order, and the potency of Evil. 
Social networks want us to celebrate the
heroism of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and to let such celebration overshadow
the before and after of Ferguson, as well as the magnificent sacrifices of
thousands of undocumented people who died that we might taste Freedom.
Holidays, heroes and hero-worship are not innately bad, but they do encourage
us to forget the essence of what is worth celebrating. 
In the case of Dr. King,
the film Selma provides an
opportunity to remember what a federal holiday might seduce us to forget. Like
David Walker, Sojourner Truth, Malcolm X and Fannie Lou Hamer, Dr. King was not
an avatar of Moses who led the American people to the milk and honey of the
Promised Land. Please remember not to forget the land was stolen from its
indigenous inhabitants. Scratch history as myth and look at realities.
Selma deserves
every prize it will not get. The cinematography is excellent. The acting is
quite commendable. The directing is beautifully understated. As I watched the
film, I thought of Home of the Brave (1949)
and the joy I felt as the age of six of seeing a dignified Negro (the actor
James Edwards) on the silver screen. Selma
sent electric shocks of recognition through my mind. 
Perhaps such
electricity is one of the reasons there is a rush to whitewash the memory of
Lyndon B. Johnson by criticizing Selma for
historical inaccuracies. Selma is a
template for history as a process, a well-structured “text” for “reading” the
past and the present. It is not a documentary. 
Selma sends me back to Bridge Across Jordan (1991), by Amelia
Platts Boynton Robinson, the woman in whose home Dr. King set up SCLC’s
headquarters on January 2, 1965, and to Selma,Lord, Selma: Girlhood Memories of the Civil-Rights Days (1980), by Sheyann
Webb and Rachel West Nelson, who received a victory hug from Dr. King on March
21, 1965. This descent into the past in the library of American civil rights
history is necessary to understand the present cultural, social, and economic
nightmares that trouble our sleep.
January 19, 2015 will be an ordinary day, a federal holiday,
a day for conversations predicated on two questions: Where did we go from there, from April 4, 1968? And what, to any “legal” or “illegal” American, is
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day?

Perhaps motivated forgetting, encoding failures, and
interference proactive and retroactive will not preclude our talking to one
another. 
Perhaps.
The piece was originally written for BKNation on January 14, 2015. It is re-posted here with permission by the author.