Monday, January 17, 2011
Our Heroes and Their Shadows
Today would have been the 81st birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He would have been the same age as my own mother, and I attempt to imagine him less as a formidable civil rights leader in a powerful yet troubled nation and more as an ordinary man with a family of his own. I specifically envision him as grandfather who might be spoiling his children’s children much to their parents’ dismay. Perhaps I am more focused on the man than the icon because I’ve been reflecting greatly on the shadows of our heroes.
These reflections began this summer when inspired by Black August, I began using Tumblr to share quotes, photos, videos and other media of social justice figures and events of historical significance on a given day. It became as much a process of discovery and education for myself as anyone who might have read it because I certainly did not know about all the people and events. Soon into the effort my research would lead me to some troubling facts about people who are often icons to certain progressive movements, some of which I knew, some of which I did not.
For example, on what would have been Malcolm X’s 80th birthday, Peter Tatchell wrote a piece for The Guardian that argued the evidence of the slain radical’s homosexuality. Some time before that there had been controversy over the release of letters written by Malcolm to Elijah Muhammad which reference his sexual and marital troubles. I personally have no issues whatsoever with the possibility that one of my own social justice icons might have been gay or bisexual. He simply would join a long list of LGBTQ heroes to whom I feel indebted for much of the personal and political freedoms I presently enjoy. Still I am not naïve to the fact that people with radically different ideas about sexuality might characterize this aspect Malcolm’s humanity as a weakness, and therefore, its exposure as an attack on Malcolm’s credibility as a leader in particular and Black social justice movements as a whole, thanks to the persistence of narrow and oppressive notions of masculinity.
At one point, I hesitated to post something about Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood and enduring heroine of the reproductive rights and other feminist movements because of allegations of racism. At best, she was a proponent of negative eugenics. At worst, a white supremacist impulse may have been a driving force in Sanger’s crusade for contraception. Again, this troubling aspect of Sanger's character has been seized by the foes of reproductive choice to energize and expand their base, including recruiting people of color of conservative faith into a political agenda including Dr. King's own niece.
And by now it is public knowledge that the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was unfaithful to wife Coretta Scott King. Actually, he has been labeled a womanizer, and it is undeniable that those eager to facilitate the erosion of the civil rights for which King was martyred readily use his infidelity to discredit him as a leader. Thus, the urge of those who lionize King and wish to sanitize his public image is quite sympathetic. This news devastated me when I was younger, and I wanted to pretend it was not true and refused to engage the possibility that a man that I had admire so much was imperfect.
As I grow older and admittedly more comfortable with my own shadow, however, I increasingly find this impulse towards sanitization unfortunate. What do we really have to gain by ignoring the truth that extraordinary men and women of history were human beings with all the same flaws and vices that challenge the rest of us? The adversaries of justice may use these imperfections to slander them, but since their own leadership is rife with human contradictions (and in some instances, outright hypocrisies), is our desire to obliterate the personal-(is)-political history of our heroes and to disassociate them from their shadow behaviors truly driven by strategic expediency?
I am beginning to wonder if what truly scares us about letting the ugly truths about our beautiful icons be known is the challenge that it makes to us everyday people. We do not fear that by exposing the shadows of our heroes we diminish their extraordinary accomplishments. Quite the contrary, their human failings are a call for us to stop using our ordinariness as an excuse to not step up our contributions toward justice, peace and equality. We want to believe that Dr. King and others like him had such profound impact because they were preternaturally gifted beings. Demigods and saints. Angels on earth. Something other than human. Something far greater than you or I.
They were not. They were ordinary people who made extraordinary contributions despite their weaknesses and vices. Just like us they grappled with their own insecurities and ignorance. They, too, battled everyday with pride, fear, lust and all the other emotions and appetites that we confront each day of our lives. King, Sanger and X and all our other social justice heroes had their shadows. The only thing that separates them from us is that they did not use their imperfections as excuses to ignore demands for justice. We all hear the call, and their decision to respond to it with their unique gifts at the ready – at once simple and difficult – is the only thing that makes any of them special. It is a decision that each of us can choose to make at any time just like the thousands who marched, boycotted and otherwise joined King. Thousands whose names we will never know but without whom a leader like him is impossible.
If we accept this about our heroes, if we embrace the shadows that lurk behind their heroism, we can no longer say about any of them, “She made such a big difference because she was extraordinary, and I am an average person.” We lose our ordinariness as an excuse to not take the responsibility we bare to give whatever it is we can to improve this world. Erasing their humanity and taking for granted their struggles – personal as well as political – hardly seems like a fitting way to demonstrate gratitude for their contributions.
We all know that King said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Surely, he would not have desired that their inevitable shortcomings carry greater weight in said judgment than their good deeds. Nor would King have wanted for their occasional struggles with virtue to exempt them from stepping into the arena and wrestling with inequality.
So rather than honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by sanitizing his public image, we should remember the whole man – ordinary and legendary – and resolve to follow his example by incorporating social justice into our own personal legends and taking concrete action toward fulfilling his vision.