Additionally many educators no longer feel a sense of responsibility for engaging difficult questions because educational institutions reward them for avoiding controversy and confirming the status quo.

The Answer is Not at the Back of the Book, Seneca Vaught

19 January 2016. It is the day after the official holiday commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. and MLK’s actual birthday — a span of days blanketed with tributes as well as every conceivable way one man’s words and legacy can be twisted to suit a need.

MLK Day 2016 passed in the wake of #ReclaimMLK, #BlackLivesMatter, and #OscarsSoWhite (just to note a few), and now we walk and talk through the days before Black History Month.

Now what?

MLK Day and Black History Month are mostly so much tokenism and appropriation — or better phrased misappropriation.

As the #ReclaimMLK movement has emphasized, MLK has become a whitewashed martyr, a passive radical serving the purposes of the privileged.

I began teaching the radical MLK over thirty years ago, along side Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Malcolm X as well as Gandhi. Eventually I added Howard Zinn’s People’s History.

This was in rural upstate South Carolina in the 1980s and 1990s. This was not a popular or easy thing to do. But it taught me some valuable lessons as a privileged white male.

Race, class, and gender are irrefutable markers for privilege and oppression, but those markers are not the roots of that privilege and oppression.

Privilege is about ideas, privileged ideas.

MLK the passive radical is allowed because sanitized ideas are safe for those in power. The real MLK, radical anti-war, radical anti-capitalism — these ideas are not allowed, remain purposefully muted.

As Arundhati Roy has explained, “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

Now what? is informed by the Bill Cosby problems — and yes, I mean plural.

The Cosby sexual predator problem has taken years to rise through the Cosby problem deliberately silenced, and preferably unheard: Cosby’s sit-com fame and popularity as a public black-shamer.

Cosby thrived and survived his own demons in part because despite his surface markers of disadvantage, he was embraced for his ideas, ones that conformed to the messages of the privileged class — boot straps and all that.

And it is no stretch to note that the silenced and unheard Cosby problem has been replayed when Hillary Clinton (against her burden of gender) received applauds for her “what if white people suffered as black people do” stump speech.

Yes, there is privilege in all its blindingly white light like the myopic #AllLivesMatter.

What if a free people refused to tolerate anyone’s indignity remains silenced, unheard.

Privilege is an idea, a series of ideas — ones that can be and are voiced by a wide variety of people who look like privilege and look like oppression.

If we want to embrace MLK as a martyr for a color-blind society, we must admit that privilege feeds on seeing, but wilts under the scrutiny of listening. It is not that we should not see race, class, and gender, but that we must listen to the messages behind what we see.

Privilege twists MLK into a cartoon and builds walls around anyone willing to tell the story.

Privilege does not want to hear that equal rights do not mean equal opportunity.

Privilege is threatened by critical education, critical media, critical citizens.

“The purpose of history is not to confirm the answers,” Seneca Vaught explains, “but to challenge the assumptions and raise new questions about the past that relate to the present.”

19 January 2016. A week and a half before Black History Month 2016.

Now what?

Originally published at radicalscholarship.wordpress.com on January 19, 2016.

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/

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