The martyred American giant Martin Luther King Jr. is treated no worse, or no better, than any truly heroic type in our national context. The recent unveiling of a 30-foot-tall sculpture on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., showed one of the worst sides of our country. It created a tempest in the ethnic teapot of exclusive franchise. Grumbling came from those who asserted that their “people of color” should be affirmatively given the sole privilege of making money off the statue’s creation, instead of a Chinese sculptor living in communist China. Ah so.
Ideally, those with epic personalities and epic effects on our lives should hold special places in our culture. But little is ideal in America or anyplace else, and heroism on the cheap is a defining aspect of our commercial culture. It melts the stone of actual life into meaningless lava beyond recall. When individual men and women or ethnic groups are reduced to a niche market, they are too easily convinced that heroism is a right, or at least easy to achieve if one is persistent enough. Our brave new world then shifts further downward. Life becomes something of a game show. Hostility to nuance is as commonplace as the factoid pronouncements from Fox News or the corroded version of populism we hear from the Tea Party.
We should not be surprised to find that King has been, over the years, so easily transformed into a phrase perfect for advertising shorthand—“I have a dream.” This should be easy to understand because the Atlanta minister rose to unimpeachable prominence during an era in which politics didn’t so much play the “race card” as it did the placard. Whenever one sees footage of King delivering a public address, almost always beyond him is a seemingly endless array of signs held high to purportedly deliver the meaning of whatever is being said in a single phrase, or one word, like “Freedom.” Those placards are forerunners of the ubiquitous soundbites that have overwhelmed insightful statements and equally insightful observations. So the depth and complexity of King’s various meanings are not recognized or debated with shining but contradicting data, or the substantial ideas for quality assessment that the lives of great individuals virtually demand. On the meat rack of mass-media simplifications, King has finally arrived at canned-sausage equality. This equality is quite different from the type he sought in terms of civil rights. Like the others in the majestic posse of those who fundamentally reshaped the nation, he is now held, in place—even when removed from his can—with cultural plastic wrap, a debilitated form of misunderstanding.
The hustling of “identity” has become a central product since and before King’s death, leading to hair sprays, ethnic costumes, the elevation of bad taste, endless monkey shines, and anything defined as “black.” King would not be totally surprised to find that every commercial niche of the body politic, or the market, is told that a deceptive vision of its soul, its beauty, its wisdom, its creative originality, its masculinity, its femininity, has been mercilessly pushed upon it, and that misconception of essential identity can only be understood, or pushed aside, if an invincible form of resistance is put to use. This, of course, can be bought through a written publication, and a gaggle of what might be claimed as talismans for protection against the powers of evil surrounding us all.
Things have now fallen so far beneath King’s dreams that Louis Farrakhan is always brought to any grab bag of “militant” posturing organized by Tavis Smiley and attended by Cornel West, who continues to mistake the ongoing college hustle of inspirational speaker for a cogent political vision. In The New York Times, West recently called for another version of what Huey Newton called “revolutionary suicide,” sounding as though he is ready to take up arms and die on the fateful day when his ivory tower is shelled. None of this should be mistaken as akin to the religious depth and exceptionally touching introspection one can hear from King on YouTube in his “A Minute Before Midnight” sermon, where he looks into his internal responses to the opposition that has shaken him with fears for himself, his wife, and his children, but feels the spiritual power that sobers and pushes him on to stand up in the face of murderous threats.
When King was alive, Malcolm X brought much money into the coffers of the racist cult of the Nation of Islam by speaking with contemptuous bitterness of how the so-called Negro had been robbed of his land, made into chattel, taught to hate his woolly hair, his dark skin, and his thick lips, as well as depriving all such persons of the rights any respected citizen should receive in the United States. Stokely Carmichael began as an admirable civil-rights worker, helped spread the combative advertising slogan of “Black Power,” expressed his admiration of all left-wing leaders of Third World countries, no matter how willing to slaughter, murder, or “reeducate,” and remained to the end of his life an anti-Semite willing to hector on a podium with Louis Farrakhan at Madison Square Garden. One should not forget all of the massively ignorant and incorrect statements made by Muhammad Ali when he was being fed his words by the Nation of Islam—before he escaped the cult to find a position in the national Alzheimer’s so often brought to assessment of famous and admired men. This is as inevitable for black people as for whites such as Woodrow Wilson, perhaps the most highly respected redneck ever to have lived in the White House. We should never forget that Wilson segregated Washington, D.C., after being elected and, perhaps worst of all, championed D. W. Griffith’s cinematically innovative, 1915 racist fable The Birth of a Nation, setting standards for ethnic denigration that still plague us.
That Martin Luther King was not all that most thought he was is far less important than what he was in eminent totality, a man of great personal courage, intellectual heft, and stirring eloquence. That deep sound and timbre carried the sense of affirmation and elegy that Harold Bloom asserts is the essential quality of Walt Whitman’s finest poetry. King was a grand public poet disturbed by American inequality and given to the deep fathoms of self-searching that distinguishes true poetry from the doggerel of extreme hip-hop, which dominates pop music and embodies one part of the nation’s fall into celebrated decadence, gold teeth, tattoos, ruthless commercialism, and free-for-all misogyny. But as King often said, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.”