Yannick Giovanni Marshall
It is always an awkward moment, finding yourself emerging from the fugitive hideouts of Black anticolonial thought just to come upon the scene of the annual graverobbing of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Awkward not chiefly because it is a macabre scene: stealing from a murdered man’s messages and memory whatever can advance the political system he was killed for opposing. But because, as part of that segment of the Black population who is not smiling – the unfriendly “Black folk” birthed of the intellectual tradition of slave revolts, marronage and anticolonialism – you get the sense that you are trespassing.
The digging up of King’s meaning, the tug-of-war battle over who has the right to say what he meant, is really none of the Black anticolonialists’ business. It is a lovers’ quarrel between, on one side, the colonists who are liberal and say that Dr King’s dream was a racially harmonious America and on the other, the colonists who are conservative and say Dr King fought for a world where Black people should not benefit from affirmative action or any civil rights efforts directed against inequity. It is none of your business what happens between those lovers. Still, you get the popcorn out and watch the bitter but often disingenuous battle play out. An inheritance fight over Dr King’s philosophical estate.
A man who even Black anticolonialists – who do not believe, as liberal colonists do, that colonialism is a thing that with enough tender loving care can perhaps educate itself into multiracial utopia – must admit was as complex as he was genuine. A man who put his body on the line and was on the cusp of discovering that the burning house of settler-colonialism was not worth integrating into. See, the liberals had him first. He marched with them almost until the end. And using this historical fact they claim first rights to him and push forward on his patriotic dreams of peaceable coexistence on stolen land. Colonialism is dreamed up to one day be just. A place where people of all races could put their differences aside and develop a slave master-designed society into one which lives up to the ideals of the slave-master framers: freedom for all slave masters. The liberal colonists (they seem to prefer the term “critically patriotic”) pull the string at the back of their customised Dr King puppet and it utters: “America has given the Negro people a bad cheque, a cheque which has come back marked insufficient funds.” They then quickly tape the mouth over just in case the doll arises and speaks, as Dr King did nearing the end of his life, doubting the possibility of justice in a colony and rushing past the scam of the peaceful protest into a defence of rioting.
“The language of the unheard” he called it. A particularly interesting phrase considering the liberal historians’ silencing of the slave revolts which are not only older than the so-called “Long Civil Rights Movement”, but have proven to be more effective than attempting to persuade oppressors to treat the oppressed humanely through open dialogue. But then, descending like vultures on the funeral parade to pick at whichever parts of Dr King’s message could be repurposed for anti-Civil Rights actions, land the conservatives. Conservatives, who have lost the battle of ideas at least twice. First, in the 19th century, they lost their pro-slavery argument: the idea that the Africans must be kept in chains and violently beaten in order to keep them in subjection to “the superior race”.
Then, a hundred years later, in a second major blow, conservatives lost the apartheid: the idea that Black people need to be kept from the better things in public life, that they should be restricted from swimming pools and neighbourhoods and consigned to dirty water fountains, kept from voting, their books banned and their thinkers imprisoned. As you will note this is still the conservative position. Although today that position must – almost entirely due to the success of Dr King and the “Civil Rights Movement” winning the ideological battle – be presented in code.
Apartheid can now only be executed through Karens demanding proof of residence from Black folks at that swimming pool rather than the Southern Sheriff. One justice for a white supremacist president and another for those framed by police who plead guilty to reduce the sentence and legal fees is not “segregation now, segregation forever!” but “our imperfect system”. No “black codes” outlaw Black insolence but “his being disrespectful to an officer explains his death”.
It is no longer said that Black students should be working on farms and not filling their heads with dangerous ideas. It is said that Black book bans are necessary to keep children safe from the harms of knowing what was done to Black people. Dr King won. But in a colony, all “victories” for racial justice are superficial. The starting pistol goes off. The race to the grave begins. Political columnist Ed Kilgore, delicately, as if with gloves used to handle archival material, makes the routine, obligatory call to return to King’s message. “We Still Need Martin Luther King Jr’s Aspirational Patriotism.”
But wait, here rides in the conservative Texas senator Ted Cruz who snatches the marionette: “Today, Dr King would be ashamed of how profoundly [the NAACP] have lost their way,” he says, angered that the kindly Civil Rights organisation issued a travel warning to Black people visiting Florida during the state’s recent bid to be the anti-Black capitol of the United States. Enters Ibram X Kendi, author of the white liberal swooned-over How To Be An Antiracist. Perhaps angered at his own misuse, he grabs Dr King’s legacy back. Right alongside Dr King’s dream, he warns, “Historians must reclaim [Dr King’s] nightmare as a symbol of the progression of racism.”
GOP presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy intercepts the football. He says Kendi is actually like a modern grand wizard of the modern KKK and anti-racism is the real racism. The charge of “reverse racism”, of course, being a staple of white supremacist ideology since at least the campaign for the abolition of chattel slavery. The abolitionist intellectuals, the Indigenous, white, and Black people who harboured runaways, the freedmen and women dedicating their lives to advocating for the end to racial incarceration were the “real racists”. Black people free, they say, is anti-white. Ramaswamy quotes King, selecting the anti-Civil Righter’s favourite “I hope my four children grow up in a country where they are judged not on the colour of their skin, but on the content of their character.” Favourite because the quote can be stolen away from its criticism of white supremacy and redirected, judo-style, to silence the critic.
The student pointing out, “White supremacists burned down a Black orphanage in Tulsa …” is quieted with “Hush, hush now. Dr King said not to see colour. Also, you are not allowed any more to say white supremacy has led to bad things. Tulsa was about something else. Eighteenth-century Southern plantation life was teamwork between gentlemen and their agricultural helpers. And maybe, when you really think about it, the Holocaust didn’t happen.” Indeed, during his “diversity is not our strength” town hall, Ramaswamy suggests that white supremacists did not exist. Less than 24 hours after that speech, a white supremacist murders Black people in “DeSantis Country”.
At this point the show becomes dark – the popcorn is put away. It is almost your business now, this manhandling of Dr King. This way and that, he is pushed and pulled by every shade of colonist. Forcibly ventriloquised here. Misquoted, made dogma there. Dressed in, and used along with Indian background to be the obsequious water-carrier for white supremacist ideas. The person of colour turned white supremacist surrogate forever, trapped in the purgatory of overcompensation. Flung here, flung there, spun around, the colonists’ chew toy. Two warring ideals tearing at one misused body, the dogged strength of the fiction of a better colonialism alone keeping him from being torn asunder. You flee from the festival of his grave-robbing back to where you belong. To the intellectual tradition of the runaway slave, and marronage. The fugitives and escapees whose raison d’être is the building of a future world unlinked to slave-mastering. Away from the patriots and flag-wavers. Far from the maddening mob of Eichmanns who consider four centuries of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous killings as “stains” on the otherwise valiant project of settler republicanism.
You run on towards the outskirts of the colony, terrifying to plantation master and plantation-state apologist alike. You retreat to Malcolm X and the others who do not see any American dream, but an American nightmare. You stay with those who resist the coupling of Malcolm and Martin as a dyad “necessary for Black America” – who know the grave robbers have come for X as well. And with an aggrieved “so long King”, you turn your back as his memory is batted, his body – a suit entered into by people who cheered on the police and dogs sicced at the protests for Black life in 2020 as much as they did in 1965. And in 1865. And in 1776. But there are limits to your sympathy.
Malcolm X tried to warn you, doctor, that America would turn out like this. As did David Walker. And now the thin Blue line rises over the spectre of Black freedom – as fecklessly as the Confederate battle flag before it – with you now impaled atop it and waved when useful to white supremacists. “Martin Luther King would be turning in his grave!” The grave they put you in. You, sir, used as a scarecrow to keep the opposition to white supremacists in its place like the heads of rebels and runaways planted on fence posts to terrorise the enslaved population into plantation patriotism. You should have known. Ask the maroons, the slave revolt, long-escaped from the History patrols. Passed on through whispers so the College Board can’t pick up the scent. Begin with the runaways turned troops who burned down the White House in 1814. Or ask that other Black preacher – less celebrated by the colonists – who also had a dream in Virginia. Black anticolonialists will tell you: that was no way to march on Washington.