Keep talking about race

OPINION

  • President Obama speaks during the Let Freedom Ring ceremony Aug. 28 in Washington, D.C.
President Obama speaks during the Let Freedom Ring ceremony Aug. 28 in Washington,… (Getty Images )
September 03, 2013|By Stephen Markley, @stephenmarkley | For RedEye

I find Martin Luther King Jr. an infuriating historical figure.

Not because of anything the good doctor did in his lifetime, which was monumental and inspiring, but because of the way his mantle, image and aura have been appropriated so vapidly.

Gun advocates cite him to further proliferate firearms. Advertisers employ his image to sell consumer goods. Pretty much everyone left, right and center appropriates his mantle to advocate whatever position they're hocking. Yet the uncomfortable truth about King is that he was a radical, widely reviled before his death for telling young black men, in his actual greatest speech, to not go fight a racist war in Vietnam.

Fortunately, the 50th anniversary of the March of Washington didn't serve as a banal exercise in back-patting for our progress. The first black president, the first black attorney general and legends of the civil rights movement such as Rep. John Lewis did not let the moment pass without pointing to some of the abominable civil rights fights that continue, from mandatory minimum sentencing laws to voter suppression initiatives to the educational quagmires of inner-city America.

Whatever you think of the presidency of Barack Obama, it has exposed race as the live wire it has always been in American society. It was my half-assed, plausible-but-not-deeply-thought-out thesis that most of last year's Oscar-nominated films were actually subconsciously about the Obama presidency and the state of race in America ("Lincoln," "Django Unchained," "Zero Dark Thirty," "Argo" and "Beasts of the Southern Wild" being my principle examples, although it helps if you get me really stoned when I talk about it).

In the summer of 2013, leading up to and during the commemoration of the most memorable civil society event of 20th century American history, the conversation about race seems ready to burst the seams of our culture: the tragedy of the Trayvon Martin incident, the haunting new film "Fruitvale Station" about the killing of the defenseless Oscar Grant, the eye-poppingly bizarre minstrel act put on by Miley Cyrus at the MTV Video Music Awards, the growing discomfort with the Washington Redskins' patently racist nickname bubbling over in sports commentary.

I admit, these pieces by themselves mean little. Taken in the aggregate, though, they are a damning laugh from deep within the gut at the post-racial society envisioned by everyone from a Supreme Court happily gutting the Voting Rights Act to a twerking pop star who thinks black women's bodies make for a funny visual.

Yet I don't necessarily see all this as bleak. We're witnessing the rise of a conversation within pop culture, led by the likes of "Fruitvale Station" director Ryan Coogler, the prominence of John Lewis' graphic memoir "March" on everything from "The Colbert Report" to Comic-Con, and the ceaseless demographic transition that's quietly replacing a lot of old, white people clinging to outmoded, desperate excuses for their own fear and loathing with a new generation that understands you can't heal anything until you first expose the wound.

We must grasp an elemental truth of American life: that to ignore the conversations about race and class and history is to ignore not just humanity but reality.

RedEye special contributor Stephen Markley is the author of "The Great Dysmorphia" and "Publish This Book."

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