Instead of service: reflections on MLK Day

Yesterday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and across the country, thousands of people participated in a day of service. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service for 2014 website reminded the reader that “Together, we can honor Dr. King’s legacy by volunteering our time. Serving is one way to build the ‘beloved community’ that Dr. King spoke of in his historic remarks.” Further down on the page was a well-known quote by King which asked the question, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’”

What would Dr. King have thought about these days of service? Would he have felt that the question he posed was well-answered by volunteers spending the holiday with his name supporting a food drive, providing transportation services to seniors, or writing a letter to a soldier in Afghanistan?

On my day off yesterday, unlike colleagues, family, and friends, I did not do any of these things, because I see things differently. I don’t believe that taking one day to volunteer – a “day on” in place of the regular day off with marches and service – is the way for sustainable social change to occur, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to suggest this. But I think doing so is becoming increasingly unfashionable, as it is to eschew a day of community service, at least in the non-profit world where I work.

What I did yesterday, rather than volunteer, was learn something new about the African-American civil rights movement in the United States in the mid-20th century. I watched a very interesting documentary called The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, which uses recovered footage of Stokeley Carmichael, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and other intellectuals and activists – who were incidentally demonized as “terrorists” and were harassed, jailed, exiled, and even killed – who drove our country to face the cultural mythologies, oppressive government policies, and hegemonic social practices in the U.S. that cloistered the Black community for so many years. I experienced feelings of ignorance, frustration at not knowing these stories, and quietly marveled at the bold, exhausted voices of these radical, independent-minded leaders: Aren’t they scared? Don’t they have children, husbands and wives, things to risk? How can they face such certain opposition from a government that can easily follow, corner, and erase them?

This discomfort is what I was hoping to feel on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

A statement by Angela Davis from the end of the film brought home for me the legacy that fighters for social justice in the 60s and 70s were trying to pass on to their children, their community, and those like myself, even as we lose our ability to shout for lack of speaking at all: “And people need to know that, particularly in the 21st century, it is important, even under a black President, to bring the kind of pressure, to force the kinds of issues that will allow us to imagine a future without war and without racism and without prisons.” This is an incredibly powerful statement, not only because of the language itself, which reflects Davis’ luminous voice and vision, but because it expresses more than a unilateral desire to seek equality among people of all races. She references some of the major apparatuses of the state that are still in place to keep the White conservative neoliberal establishment in power – namely, the prison-industrial complex and the great extent of American military might throughout the world – and seems to ask us tough questions about what we have yet to do if we want to address and find solutions to the “issues” of our modern struggles.

Taken from this perspective, I found myself uncertain, and happily so: Where do I go to learn how to make change? Who do I read? What do I need to understand? How do I move beyond the 21st-century passive consumer mentality to an active 21st-century participant in our democracy and the defense thereof?

So I read yesterday. I’m writing now, and reading more after I finish. Engaging philosophy (Kant, Marx, Hegel, Feuerbach, etc.), history (20th century as well as earlier), and social theory (relating to capitalism, socialism, imperialism, [neo]colonialism, and so on) is a powerful way to commit to change, and while it will command a great deal more of my time than 24 hours (and also perhaps bring me to terms with the widespread allergy to political conversation in our country nowadays), the commitment will be worth it, as it will shape me to be a more informed, politically aware citizen with tools to engage in the inequality and violence of our society in order to make concrete change.

Ask me the question that King asked us all one more time and this is how I respond: I am doing what I can, to be more than I am, to take up tools in my hands for our future. My service is less visible, less laudable, but I hope it will be palpable beyond a single day.

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