Every year around December 25, a whole bunch of people who aren't actually Christians get all misty about a watered-down version of the original faith, make some generic noise about peace and good will while ignoring all the parts of the message that might be, well, more uncomfortable ("But wouldn't the moneylenders get upset if we threw them out of the temple? That just seems so rude and uncomfortable. Maybe we should do something less confrontational."), and follow it up with some noise about how, really, we should make every day Christmas.
Then on December 26th, they just scrub all of it out of their memory hole and go back to their usual lives.
Martin Luther King Jr Day has become kind of Christmassy. A whole bunch of people who aren't ordinarily black or much concerned about social justice and all the rest of it spend some time conjuring up some warm and misty images of a man who was called a troublemaker, who criticized liberals and moderates for their uninvolved silence, and who did not give his life, but had it stolen by some angry white guy with a gun.
We'll have posts and tweets about how great a man he was, how folks of all colors should just get along, illustrated with photos of King looking noble and stock photos of ethnically diverse hand clutching. And then on January 17th, we'll go back to arguing that Colin Kaepernick should protest injustice in some less destructive and disruptive manner than kneeling during the anthem.
Perhaps this is marginally better than trying to erase the day entirely so that King's name isn't even spoken, or is tied to a name like Robert E. Lee.
But I know this-- talk is cheap (and stock photos are free). And all this talk about King and the Civil Rights movement as if it was just a bunch of African-Americans sitting politely and lovingly waiting to be recognized so that America would be slightly less rude-- this is fake history, which is even worse than fake news. My students have grown up in a mostly rural, mostly white corner of the world as part of a generation that as grown up to think that the blatant injustice, prejudice and mistreatment of blacks is inconceivable-- and so most of them cannot conceive of it, can't imagine that things were all that bad, really.
The soft fuzzy view of King fosters a soft fuzzy view of the ongoing struggles around race and injustice. The soft fuzzy King also fosters an unrealistic view of him as a man, a person, which in turns allows us to let ourselves off the hook ("I could never do anything important like that. I'm just a regular person, and I will just sit here quietly until the next Superman comes along to show us the way")
But if we look at King as a person, and our nation as a society that struggles to do the right thing, that struggle turning on the actions of ordinary human beings, many of them, far more than just one-- well, then, there's no excuse to let ourselves off the hook.
We do our students no service by giving them one more dusty figure in the pantheon of Extraordinary Humans Who Are Responsible for Who We Are As a Country. Nor do we serve them by reinforcing the notion that this is a nation that somehow drifts toward Right by some mystical, non-human agency for which none of us are really responsible.
There will be lots of posts and tweets and stories pulled up from the archives today, and many of them will be a corrective to the fuzzy holiday picture. Do not read them today, or share them with your students tomorrow. Bookmark them. Keep them handy, and pull them up and read them over the weeks and months ahead. Share them with your students on days that are NOT specifically set aside for Reflecting on the Dream or Contemplating the Issues of Race. The concerns we raise on this day really should be everyday and every day concerns. We have no excuse to stop paying attention just because the calendar turns over to the 17th.