Monday, January 15, 2007

On Martin, Metaphors, and Mohandas

Happy Birthday, Dr. King! God bless his memory. And Happy King Holiday, readers!

Okay, lots to say and I lack the finesse, the right words to say it--but I'm saying it anyway.

As a historian, and one who absolutely loves the study of the post-World War II U.S., I am always amazed by how we use Dr. King as a metaphor. He is, at once, a synonym to the Civil Rights Movement, the influence of the black church, and positive black manhood. Now, while none of those is a bad thing, they don't leave much room for him as a person; one who didn't spring from somewhere as a full-fledged leader, but whose life experiences shaped and--the part the metaphor most obscures--continually changed his philosophies.

As a mom to a school-aged child, I understand the usefulness of the metaphor. You can explain to children the bare bones of segregation, as "white people and black people couldn't...", but answering the question of, "why did it change?" is a lot more difficult. So you pull out the King metaphor, highlight it with a touch of school segregation (to make it relevant!) a dash of Rosa Parks and a smidge of "I Have a Dream" and voila! They get it.

Somewhat. You see, we can tell King's life in a very linear fashion, where it makes sense that point A (alternately his birth to a preacher and teacher OR the incident in which he was told he could no longer play with his white friends) led to point Z (usually identified as the March on Washington). My nephew has absorbed the metaphor quite well. His one minute rendition of Jim Crow and it's demise: "When he was a little boy, he played football with his friends and two of 'em were white and then they said they couldn't play with him anymore and he was upset. So, when he got big, he had a dream And so, before Dr. King, white people and black people couldn't play together and after Dr. King, they could." And we nod our heads and think, that will suffice.

Unfortunately, we remain content to let that suffice for far too long. To a point where people become resistant to learning anything else. And no, I'm not throwing up my hands and lamenting the fact that, "All they know is MLK!" I want them to know MLK and other people, too. But I also want my son to know more than names and big events. I want him to understand that segregation wasn't just about separation--it wasn't just that white and black kids couldn't play together, but that there is a whole ideology of superiority and inferiority coded into that separation. And I want him to understand about grassroots activities, especially the roles women played as organizers. I think this history is too important to be understood solely as a metaphor.

I have a person-as-metaphor left over from my childhood, too. It is centered around Mohandas Ghandi, whom I know primarily in terms of Dr. King's adherence to non-violent protest. Thus, I admire Ghandi from afar, as the securer of India's freedom (ah, metaphor) and an influence on the CRM. I have this quote by him appended to my e-mail signature:
What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?
And because I understand Ghandi in simplistic, metaphorical terms, I was content to quote him.

But, one of the friends I e-mail regularly is Jewish, and last night, she sent me this
You might want to rethink quoting Gandhi. I discovered that Gandhi recommended, when Hitler started imposing discriminatory laws against the Jews in the 1930s, that all German Jews commit suicide. After the war, when challenged, he stuck to his recommendation!
Thus, in the weeks since she has learned this, her metaphor of Ghandi, which was similar to mine, has changed. And because I am trapped in thinking not of Ghandi, but of what I was taught about Ghandi, I am really disturbed.

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