Sunday, April 6, 2008

Paying attention

If you were in the world that day, you probably remember where you were that day.

Your mother or your father were crying, or had been before you saw them. If your mom or dad was black, those tears or evidence of same were seen on a face whose eyes had something extra, something worse. The tears were bad enough falling from those eyes.

What was worse, for so many black mothers and fathers of so many black boys and girls and dreamers in training, was the scream behind those eyes on that brutal spring evening in 1968. It was that edge of the hysterical, an almost explosive hopelessness.

For them, for the nation, in a moment, the world had no floor.



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There was an America before the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and another America after. The dividing line between one iteration of the nation and another was that stark, that utterly defining.

Never again would the aspirations of black Americans be so wedded to the words and vision of a single individual. Martin’s absence forced black America into a wake-up call that black America is still dealing with.

To some extent, the postmortems of the day of his slaying are beside the point. What matters is the state of two generations of African Americans since his passing, the ways in which the dream he heralded at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 has projected itself into our contemporary lives, and the potential for America to realize today the panoramically multiracial nation he posited.

Dreams are often derided by Americans, who see themselves as hopeful people but practical, spiritual but pragmatic. Many have long dismissed the scope and breadth of Dr. King’s vast ambition for America, uttering the word “dream” with an all but audible sneer, whether delivered on talk radio or newspaper editorial, on the air on in the blogosphere.

Our daydreams and reveries are, all too often, recounted as an indulgence in consideration of the impossible, a flight of fancy inevitably followed by a return to earth, a “coming back to reality,” the quotidian concerns and facts of everyday life.

That a dream could be, should be part of the fabric of that everyday life is an idea that escapes many Americans — particularly the American media, whose regular-as-clockwork homage to Martin tends to end at one minute after midnight on April 5th.

That’s the reality of how the nation regards King’s legacy: Every April, we indulge in yet another sad, wistful gaze at the glittering heirloom in the jewelbox before putting it away for another year, sighing for the what-might-have-been, with only glancing regard of the what-was, the what-is and what’s next — and what binds and connects them all.

◊ ◊ ◊

Today, as Barack Obama, one man who literally embodies Martin’s grand vision for America prepares to possibly lead America, old and new fears arise. Concerns for Obama’s safety increase in direct proportion to the success he continually achieves. But today, the assassination that’s most feared isn’t a literal, physical one (though some have darkly hinted at such a possibility. Let’s not go there) but an assassination of the content of his character.

Character. It’s that defining aspect of a person, or a politician, we tend to overlook in the 24/7 rush to instant knowledge and analysis. It’s this important component that we tend to look at in the shorthand of the soundbite. A one-minute video snippet of a pastor fulminating with frustration with his country becomes the basis for accusations of being un-American. The wearing of Somali garb during a visit to Somalia is turned into grounds for debating the wearer’s allegiance to America. A man's surname is an invitation for linkage to terrorists. Character assassinations all.



It’s this kind of rapid judgment call that Martin Luther King would rail against if he were alive today. The content of one’s character isn’t so easily come by. You actually have to listen to someone to find it. You actually have to think. Maybe that’s the greatest legacy Dr. King has left us, not so much a dream as a national mission statement: A call on Americans to regard their neighbors, and themselves, with more than snapshot wisdom — a call on Americans to pay attention to who and what they really are, independently and collectively.

For all his human faults and frailties, Martin Luther King was paying attention. Martin never let the what-was of America be ignored by the what-is of America; he never accepted that either what-was or what-is about this nation could overshadow the what’s-next. The agony of his departure forty years ago left the nation with unfinished business. Here, now, forty years later, in ways he’d be astonished to discover, it’s still unfinished. Here, now, in an America seemingly on the cusp of something transformative, Martin Luther King’s work must still surely be our own.
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Image credit: Public domain.

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