Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Martin Versus Barack

Dream. Hope. Fantasy.
By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Native speakers of American English in any register or regional variety would understand “Dr. King: A Conversation with Barack Obama?” to be something other than a question about probability. What seems to be a question is ultimately an invitation to play a game of fantasy history. The question that is not really a question invites a person to play at being a Time Lord like Dr. Who or a mythological god who is capable of tricking the Fates to reinscribe events that give shape to human histories.

Playing fantasy football is a fairly innocent exercise in skill, passion, and desire. Playing fantasy history belongs to a different, more consequential realm of human experience. Dream and hope are the common properties of both kinds of fantasy. The sport fantasy allows one to brag about having uncommon luck or intelligence in athletics and management. On the other hand, the history fantasy permits the fleeting satisfaction of fiction and then demands that one return to the banality of everyday life.

On the eve of celebrating the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, I have no interest in writing fictions about a conversation King might have had with President Obama. It is sufficient to grapple with those narratives of actuality we name history. That exercise requires my discriminating between how King addressed power and racial democracy and how Obama uses the power of the Presidency in the wonderland of so-called post-racial conditions. Memory (or lack of memory) seduces many of us to mythologize Dr. King, to engage in hero-worship or iconography.

Our daily consumption of misinformation encourages many of us to demonize President Obama for failure to live up to the bar set by his pre-2008 concept of the audacity of hope. Passion untempered by thought encourages many of us to enshroud Dr. King with sainthood for his sacrifices and his dream. We forget the contingent, time-contextualized nature of being human. In both scenarios, smoke gets in our eyes.

Listen to the music, lyrics, and vocal execution of Curtis Mayfield’s “Underground” from his second studio album “Roots” (1971). Absorb the meaning and the sound. Some of the emotional smoke evaporates. Some not all. Dr. King is not God. President Obama is not Satan. They will not have a conversation about the rules for testing and torturing Job. The only critical conversation we need to have is with the political contradictions within our being-in-the-world, our Selves. Ungame thyself to be free.

14 January 2014

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