Saturday, August 28, 2010

Not Dr. King’s Promised Land

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"The Ties That Bind: JFK, MLK, RFK," 2004

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly. Psalm 1

I made the art quilt above to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement so identified with my hometown, Montgomery, Alabama. I made it to honor him alongside the other leaders in the nation such as President John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy with whom he is often identified, who also had great vision on issues related to social justice and made sacrifices. It reflects my belief in the potential use of art to help promote democracy and civic engagement. In so much of the iconography of the 1960s, they emerged as a symbolic brotherhood. The 2008 film about my art, A Portrait of the Artist, also spends some time meditating on the important legacies of these unforgettable men, and the image of my art quilt that features them is positioned at the forefront of my first two print card series.

It is astonishing that the Tea Party movement would attempt to hijack and appropriate the message of the March on Washington led by Dr. King in 1963 claiming concern for civil rights. That this movement, under the leadership of Glenn Beck, would promote this message on a day like today-exactly forty-seven years after Dr. King led his historic March on Washington; exactly two years after Barack Obama received the nomination of the Democratic Party for the presidency; exactly five years after the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Gulf area; and exactly fifty-five years after the brutal murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi-is deeply unsettling. The platform for today’s march seems especially ironic when considering that many conservative agendas have helped to weaken or reverse the major civil rights gains that were achieved through legislation such as the ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and have attacked affirmative action and promoted other reactionary policies that have led to widespread black economic and social dispossession.

All the talk in the Tea Party about taking back “their country” and turning this nation back to God, as if He would ever leave or forsake it or anyone, reflects a nativist ideology and an unsettling if unspoken belief that Obama’s election and presidency do not reflect the character of this nation or the will of God. These views are rooted in the view of citizenship, presidentialism and America itself as being definitionally "white," a view that goes back to the founding days of this nation as a republic in the late 18th century. And yet, one must ask some of the members of this self-righteous movement who spew this talk if God is at all present at their demonstrations in the racist posters that depict this president as Hitler, naked, and with bones through his nose? Is God present in Glenn Beck's remark that being under this president's administration is like being under the kind in the film "Planet of the Apes?" Let me guess. In this fantasy, he is made over and reborn in the warrior role of Charlton Heston. Olaudah Equiano is a man who has also been subjected to his share of discrediting in our time. (I stand firm in believing that this campaign that argues that he was born in South Carolina and not West Africa, would also of necessity make him a liar, even about his dear mother, and a blasphemer, if we consider the heartfelt and deeply moving passages of his narrative that relate to her in a later chapter). Equiano referred to such types as “nominal Christians.“

The efforts of the Tea Party to discredit the president and portray him as incompetent remind me of the ideological investments of Thomas Dixon’s 1905 novel The Clansman and the 1915 film based on it by D.W. Griffith, Birth of a Nation, which portrayed whites in the Reconstruction era as being tyrannized by a black majority that had gained voting rights, seized control of Congress in South Carolina, and threatened the nation with the possibility of what they feared most: “Negro rule.” The black politicians in this film are portrayed as incompetent, unscrupulous, and inept, and as lustful and rapacious. The film romanticizes the Klan and this organization becomes the answer to preventing the development of an interracial democracy in Dixon’s version of the post-bellum U.S. and helps to restore national unity and the division between North and South brought on by the Civil War.

Elements of the Tea Party movement are disturbing on some levels to the extent that aspects of its ideology recast the panic about black leadership in this nation that has long existed, and that is evident in these popular works. America is still America and even the Tea Party members are safe with a black man, Barack Obama, as president. It is sad that some of them refuse to believe that he is capable of working in their interests or capable of representing them, no matter what he says or does, because of the color of his skin. One would think that the earth had floated off its axis or that the sky was falling from the panic that some people are revealing because he is in office. And there are far too many Chicken Littles out there all too willing to help fan the flames of propaganda these days. This kind of intolerance and hatred will not help this nation. If we are truly in any danger, this movement, at least so far, has lacked the vision to help save it and if anything, has perpetuated divisions.

The black participation is not alone evidence that the movement opposes racism. Blacks internalize racism, and sometimes take sides against themselves. The Tea Party’s invocation of the belief in a “colorblind” and “postracial” America to attempt to claim commonality with Dr. King also rings hollow. These concepts have most frequently been mobilized to obstruct the recognition of persisting racism in this nation and have worked against the interests of people of color. The Tea Party investment in them suggests all the more that its view of Dr. King is superficial. Dr. King's movement on the capitol was about tackling persisting poverty. Dr. King believed in social justice. To oppose the concept of "social justice," to the point of not even wanting to hear the word mentioned, is to reject one of the basic values in which Dr. King believed. It was bad enough to have neoconservatives trope his words and his message so banally in the attacks on affirmative action, and to see it casually mentioned in the titles of books with reactionary messages that were in clear opposition to the legacy of civil rights. I never imagined that the distortions would go as far as what happened today. This really takes the cake. Today, if anyone feels like the sky is falling or like the planet is rotating off its axis, it's certainly not Glenn Beck. It's me, and other people like me. It is crucial to have space for dissent in the U.S. public sphere, and to protect First Amendment rights. Glenn Beck’s promised land is not King’s promised land. Let freedom ring, but ring true.

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