MLK: Part of the Problem

January 21, 2013

Among the many inspiring, tear-inducing, beautiful speeches and photos memorializing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. today, one is apt to find this video:

Martin Luther King, like all of us, is a product of his time. His language in this video is what it is, and the larger point he’s making is a worthy one: we must realize that it’s not the government’s role to give us freedom or take it away, and that belief in oneself as worthy of equality is right, good, and necessary.
“… he must sign with an ink of self-assertive manhood his own emancipation proclamation. Don’t let anybody take your manhood.”
But it’s worth reflecting on how the ethic of “don’t let anyone take your manhood away” informs the way we think and act when it comes to equality. What do we think of when we think of “manhood”? Physical traits that read as masculine? Physical strength? Fortitude? Self-reliance? Are freedom and manhood identical?
The obvious problem with collapsing freedom and manhood in this way is that the formulation excludes women. Even correcting for the the common use of “manhood” when “personhood” was meant, back then, we still have to contend with the context of the word’s use within the speech. Normally, if “personhood” is meant, then “womanhood” would also make a fine substitution. Go ahead. Rewatch the video and imagine Dr. King saying “womanhood”. It doesn’t work. Dr. King means what he says: there’s something masculine about striving for freedom, which means that allowing someone to take your freedom is emasculating, or perhaps even feminizing.
In this formulation, it’s a man’s job to win freedom, and it requires masculine traits. If a woman wants to win freedom, she can, of course. All she has to do is man up.
In this speech, Dr. King notes that, in the language of the day “everything white” was considered pure, while “everything black” was considered dirty. Alas, it’s also true that everything male is considered strong, self-assertive, and everything female is considered weak and unworthy.
But there’s a deeper concern with Dr. King’s formulation, as well, and it has to do with the unspoken, assumed corollary: if your freedom has been taken, and you’ve acquiesced, you’ve lost your manhood, which means you’re not a worthy of freedom anyway. Feminine traits, whether exhibited by men or women, are disqualifiers for freedom.
We’ve grown up with this thinking, and it permeates our culture. We are each of us, in some way, that skinny boy getting sand kicked in our face by the muscled bully at the beach. Now that we know the answer to our dilemma (Charles Atlas’s muscle-building plan, of course, or a march on Washington), failure to act is our own fault, a result of our own lack of manhood.
When freedom is inextricably tied to a trait that only some of us share, whether it’s whiteness, maleness, straightness, ableness, or wealth, then freedom is no longer freedom. It’s privilege. Dr. King is a personal hero of mine, and it’s right and good that we honor his memory and legacy. But on this day, at this time, Dr. King was talking (to the under-privileged) about male privilege.
Don’t let anyone take your privilege away.
And it sure can slip away, can’t it? Manhood, the way we’ve decided to understand it, is an unstable thing. It can be taken away by anyone at any time. Don’t gawk at boobs enough? Not a man. Don’t like sports? Not a man. Don’t like beer? Not a man. Not sufficiently conservative? One commentator essentially makes her living questioning the masculine credentials of non-conservative candidates. It takes about 20 minutes of football watching to get the message: using our product makes you a man. Not using it? Well. You do the math.
So we get to this awful place where it’s not mere privilege that’s at stake for the man who thinks his job was taken by immigrants, or for the married straight man who sees gay men getting married, or for the man who thinks his children got passed over for college due to affirmative action—no, not just privilege: manhood.
Don’t let anyone take your manhood away. Defend it.
How easily can a well-meaning message to the disenfranchied about dignity become a message to the privileged about debasement?
On this special day, when our first African-American President so eloquently gave gay and lesbian equality its first acknowledgement in his inaugural address, let’s remind ourselves that the drive toward dignity and freedom is not a masculine trait, or a feminine trait. It’s a trait we all share.
I believe Dr. King. There is an Emancipation Proclamation in each of our hearts. In order to sign it, we each have to know that we are somebody, worthy of dignity, worthy of liberty, not because we’re young, or male, or female, or straight, or rich, or able-bodied, but because we are who we are.
With apologies to Dr. King, put that in your pen and sign it.

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