An Open Letter to Brother West
Dear Brother West,
Regarding your comments about President Obama’s non-deservingness to take his presidential oath on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Bible, I am going to have to disagree. Not because I think he “deserved” to take the oath on Dr. King’s Bible, but because it really isn’t our place to judge another wo/man’s worth. Additionally, though I am a Black American woman committed to peace and justice, I don’t feel ownership over the “legacy” of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it doesn’t feel “personal” to me. Making it so personal would be to place a man on a pedestal erected–culturally, linguistically, and socially–by other men. If I’ve learned anything in my short time on this earth, it’s that all “great men,” are human and like the rest of us deeply flawed. I have absolutely no doubt that your concern over protecting the dignity and legacy of such a great man comes from an honest place, as you say, you are of that tradition; however, at what point do we take a step too close to the threshold of idolatry? Dr. King isn’t in that Bible. He isn’t the Bible. It’s just one that he happened to use.
Dr. King was a great man who stood for principles of peace and justice, but he was a human as flawed as the Civil Rights Movement. After reading Manning Marable‘s How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America and his biography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention I soon realized that the Civil Rights Movement was led by scores of pious, brilliant, talented Black middle-class men (and women, many of whom were relegated to “behind-the-scenes”). Their work, while noble, ensured the upward mobility of the Black middle-class while the poorest among us stayed that way. Yes, Dr. King stood up for poor people, but he died before he really got a chance to make an impact in that area of American consciousness.
Finally, and I really want to emphasize this point: President Obama could have taken an oath on Jay-Z’s Decoded, it wouldn’t make a difference, Brother West. The Presidential Oath is a symbolic transfer of power. We the People, but mostly they (the President and the Inauguration committee), decide on the symbolic content of that transition. The meanings of those symbols, President Lincoln’s Bible, Dr. King’s Bible, Beyonce, James Taylor, Kelly Clarkson, Richard Blanco, Myrlie Evers-Williams… all served their own symbolic purpose. As our country, our understandings, and our political economy changes so will those symbols that get brought into this moment of “pageantry,” our nation’s peaceful transition of power (something that clearly many of us take for granted, but is NOT a guarantee in many places throughout the world).
We don’t have any idea if Obama journaled the night before about how he loved that Dr. King stood for the ending of war in Vietnam. I don’t know, but he did say in his Inauguration speech that “enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.” And maybe he was just talking to Michelle about how Dr. King had inspired him to really stand up for the kind of economic and racial justice our modern era requires. I haven’t a clue, but he also said something that spoke to both. That “we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice — not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity, human dignity and justice.” While you might not agree with him taking his oath on the Holy (Martin Luther King, Jr.) Bible, Obama stood up for all three of the principles that got Dr. King killed that you mentioned: Jim Crow (which might find a correlation in our era with DOMA), the ending of a senseless war in Vietnam (the undeclared war on “terrorism,” i.e. brown people), and the rights of poor people (our social safety net).
Brother West, you too are a great man. I’ve had the pleasure of critically engaging your writing as a student. I’ve heard you speak, met you, and shook your hand. You have a humble spirit and warm personality, but maybe President Obama took the oath on Dr. King’s Bible because doing so made him feel connected to the struggle for racial and economic equality. Or, he could’ve done it to win points with liberal America. I don’t know. And that is in itself the crux of my disagreement with you. We don’t know the hearts of men, nor is it our place to act as if we do.
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