Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Best Way to Proceed: Erase History or Embrace History?

Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” focuses on the injustices that the “Negro community” were facing in Birmingham, Alabama and across the country (6). King has physically traveled to Birmingham, yes, and this is the major inciting incident of his letter to the white clergy of Birmingham, but the travel that King is hoping to inspire with this letter is the travel of America into a desegregated and non-discriminatory period. King is also writing from the confinement of a jail cell, which restricts his freedom to travel through physical spaces.

King is writing from the perspective of an African American in the segregated south, and this perspective informs almost the entirety of his argument, and even when other aspects of King’s person are used to strengthen his argument, his identity as an African American influences those other identities. For example, King uses biblical references, but distinguishes himself from the white clergymen to whom he is writing.
King’s continued reference to his being African American and his history show a pride for and an embracing of his history, though he is attempting to set the present onto a new course moving forward. He says that, “we have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights,” acknowledging the long and difficult fight for equal rights (3). He also writes a vivid passage in which he describes having to tell his children that they are considered to be inferior to the white children of their area, and are not allowed to go to the same places, and in that same passage says, “when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro … forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’” (3). Throughout the entire letter is this same depiction of King as an individual in the present, but as someone with ties to his past and the history of African Americans in America.

King’s writing about his past brings up interesting questions of history and its implications for the future. In Wendt’s Black Rainbow, Eric Mailei Foster’s history keeps cropping up, even when he does not even believe it happened, as is the case with his former identities. This de-historization seems to be the government’s way of keeping things peaceful among the people. King’s complete acknowledgement of America’s history is his way of trying to get America to move forward into a more peaceful future. I wonder, then, if we are expected to believe that either of these approaches is completely effective, as there is still much racial discrimination and disparity in America today, and Foster was unable to completely forget his own history. Is it possible to move forward by erasing history, and in America’s case, erasing race to become a post-racial society? Or must there be a frank acknowledgement of the history? Or will that acknowledgement allow us to move forward into the more peaceful society that King imagines?

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