Yesterday I attended RIT’s 36th Annual Expressions of King’s Legacy, with keynote speaker Marc Lamont Hill. The event started with the beautiful Reenah Oshun Golden and Dee Ponder sharing their powerful words and music.
Dr Hill spoke about the neutering of MLK’s legacy, his reduction to the ornamental, to the insipid postage stamp. Yet when he was alive, he was an enemy of the state, deemed a bad influence for the younger generation, someone who had been to jail too many times. He would never have been invited to RIT to give a keynote lecture.
Dr Hill spoke about the radical imagination – how our goals and actions do not have to fit the limits of our present circumstance. He also talked about radical listening, by which he meant the ability to listen to every voice and connect social justice struggles all over the world. It was a wonderful (and much needed) reminder of the internationalism of Black power movements. For example, one cannot dismiss war because one is committed to the alleviation of poverty, one cannot talk about prison reform without talking about school reform. MLK saw the interconnectedness between the triple evils of racism, poverty and militarism – forms of violence that validate and reinforce one another in order to create a vicious circle.
Capitalism, of course, is the fountainhead of this systemic violence, for what is war but economically marginalized people in one country killing other poor people in another? What is environmental degradation but the placement of power plants and waste dumps in certain neighborhoods? In Flint, car companies had refused to use water that was causing car parts to rust, yet that same water was deemed potable for Black children.
Dr Hill wants MLK’s “I have a dream” speech to be retired because of how it has become a trope for American diversity. The speech is not about dreams, it’s about broken promises. It’s about capitalism’s inability to deliver any kind of equality.
Yes, it can be lonely to talk about racism, transphobia, and the Israeli occupation of Palestine. It can be unpopular to focus not just on Trump’s excesses but also on Obama’s drones and our ongoing wars. But make these links, we must, and link our radical imagination to radical action in order to fight and resist together, we must.
I found Dr Hill at the end of this event and shook his hand. As a woman of color from the global South, as a Muslim American, I thanked him for saying the word “Palestine” and for acknowledging Obama’s drones. It’s a challenge to get activists, let alone people in the larger community, to stand by these truths. It was incredibly important to hear these words spoken loud and clear in such a large forum.