By Robert Jones, Jr., re-posted from his MLK Day substack newsletter. Subscribe here.
“The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967)
Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It is a day on which a particular kind of performance is expected of every Black American.
It is believed that we should join hands; sing sweet gospel songs; be respectable, conciliatory, and most importantly, civil representatives of the man assassinated by the very nation that turned him into a hollow holiday platitude. A man whose face they put on postage stamps and t-shirts to sell back to us at a premium.
For us, today is supposed to be a day of forgiving, certainly; but most of all: of forgetting.
This day inspires a peculiar kind of performance from white Americans as well. In their case, they use it to convince themselves of their own “inherent goodness,” “godliness,” and “innocence”—even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. These are people who voted for Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump; who “don’t have a racist bone in their bodies” but vote against any and every measure that might even suggest Black equity and restitution; who watch videos of unarmed Black people being murdered by police and ask: “Well, what did they do to deserve it?”; who are in collusion with the judicial and legislative representatives replacing every living dream Ancestor Martin had with a wicked nightmare.
These are the people who are keen to remind anyone who questions their motives how they, or some relative of theirs, “marched with King” during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but whose politics are best represented by the pigs walking on two legs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm:
“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Whether for Black people or for white people, the design of this day insists upon cursory glances instead of thorough examinations. It hides misdirection beneath a blanket of aspirations. It pulls words out of their context rather than encouraging that the entire book be read, cover to cover, multiple times.
This day…this constructed day, my dear family…is a pathological liar.
If it is to be of any use to anyone (and I am well aware that it was intended to be of no use to nobody), Martin Luther King, Jr. Day can only be a day of mourning.
Everyone who hears the name Martin Luther King, Jr. should feel haunted. Not just by the ravaging attack dogs or flesh-rending water hoses or ice cream floats poured over the heads of teenagers at lunch counters. Not just by the little boys strapped in electric chairs, little girls blown up in churches, grown men strung up like kites, or grown women tossed into alleyways like trash.
But also by splattered blood and the balconies of cheap motels.
Those fingers pointing yonder? They might be pointing at you.
What haunts me on this day is knowing that my Ancestor was about to start a poor people’s movement; and America, shaking in its designer boots at the very thought, finally had to be rid of him. In their bone-deep sadism, they chose the goriest possible way to do it.
This is a day of mourning. That is all it can be. And the mourning should be endless because this country’s crimes are endless. Chief among them is to blame Black people for all of its sins. No. More than blame, this country positions Black people as the sin. Sadly, even some Black people agree with that mis-framing (a demonstration of our programming). We turn our noses up at each other. We are embarrassed by each other. We mimic the cruelties we endure and direct them toward one another. We abandon our ancient pact of community and declare war on each other over the scraps thrown from the same tables we are not invited to dine at.
We clamor to be seated at these tables, but do we ever ask what is being served? Here’s a hint: “Soylent Green is people.” And we are not cannibals, are we? Are we?
My gut says no. But diets are always subject to change. So taking self-inventory is imperative.
Ancestor Martin had a dream, but America consumes Negro dreams.
Because America dreams of subjugation.
America dreams of cash.
America dreams of star-spangled nooses.
America dreams of death.
That is why, for me, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is mourning time.
It is a wake.
Mourn with me, then.
And it is okay to weep.
But afterwards, we must gather ourselves and prepare for the long and impossible work of healing.
Robert Jones, Jr. (formerly known as “Son of Baldwin”) is the author of The New York Times bestselling novel, The Prophets, which won the 2022 Publishing Triangle Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction and the 2022 NAIBA Book of the Year Award for Fiction. It was also a finalist for the 2021 National Book Award for Fiction and was named a notable book by The New York Times and one of the best books of 2021 by Time, Entertainment Weekly, USA Today, NPR, The Boston Globe, and The Washington Post, among many others. His writings have been featured in The New York Times, Essence, and The Paris Review, as well as in the critically acclaimed anthologies Four Hundred Souls and The 1619 Project.
The Prophets has been translated into at least 12 languages, and is available (or will soon be available) in more than 23 countries, including: Australia, Brazil, Canada, England, France, Germany, Greece, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Scotland, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Trinidad, Turkey, the United States, and other territories.
For more information, please visit: https://www.sonofbaldwin.com.