Monday, May 26, 2008

An Acceptable Stance for a Black Man

By Wendy Smooth, an assistant professor in the Department of Women’s Studies with a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute

History is breaking on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Well, almost breaking I should say, if an agreement can be reached between an artist and the commission in charge of art for the National Mall. Some years ago, the US Congress passed legislation to erect a monument of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the National Mall. King will become the first non US president to have a memorial erected in his honor at the foot of the Tidal Basin. This has not come about without its share of controversy. The latest is the depiction of King at the memorial site. The US Commission of Fine Arts who is responsible for overseeing projects for the National Mall has demanded that the artist Lei Yixin alter his depiction of Dr. King because the Commission finds the artist’s interpretation of King “too confrontational.” How did we get to a moment in which Dr. King, one who critiqued America’s system of racial apartheid and called on the nation to hold to the values she expressed in the constitution, could be read as anything other than confrontational? King is the iconic figure of a movement that was rooted in speaking truth to power and standing up to the powers that be in the face of great danger and ultimately death. However, today in our memories of Dr. King we conceptualize him as anything but confrontational. Talk about a recasting of history! In an op-ed appearing on, Ibram Rogers captures it best writing, “King was never happy with America, so why are the Feds forcing him to smile now?”

Many bloggers and columnists are commenting on how this takes King out of context, so I won’t belabor that point. However, I am interested in why in the midst of honoring King he must appear more “meditative” and “less rigid”? This requirement builds on other situations in which racial reconciliatory moments have come at a cost. Moving forward and engaging in racial reconciliation seems to require that those who have experienced oppression relinquish the realities of their historic wrongs. Those who have a history of getting the shaft are often expected to bear the cost of racial transformation or reconciliation. Bearing the cost means exhibiting a willingness to pocket the pain, dispersing of any feelings of anger, disappointment, or condemnation. At any moment in which their well-earned anger is expressed they have violated the unspoken rules of reconciliation.

Now, I have always answered affirmatively the question “Can’t we all just get along?” but the question I find myself asking over and over again in powerful moments of racial transformation is on who’s terms and at what costs will this getting along occur? Does our collective “getting along” necessitate that we come to the table ignoring the conditions and histories of those who have experienced oppression at the hands of those in power? This is at the forefront of my thinking with every step of the O’Bama campaign beginning with his attempt at running a deracialized campaign yet running into the “black enough/ too black” debates. This is echoed for me with the controversy over Michelle O’Bama’s comment that she is proud of her country for the first time. And it is at the core of the outrage over Jeremiah Wright’s comments that America has not lived up to its creed. It concerns me that coming together must happen without recognition or note of the suffering that some have endured. Isn’t it possible to allow people who have suffered greatly to acknowledge their past and yet move forward together?

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