In some circles, speaking ill of Dr. King is blasphemous. But wasn’t he just a man like ourselves?
January 15th is Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. Dr. King is often the seminal figure in regards to civil rights in this country. That was a tumultuous time, and it took a lot of sacrifices by a lot of people without regard to race or gender to create a path to a brave new world. I attended a lecture/comedy show by Dick Gregory and he gave a chilling account of that time, saying that black people would leave the house in the morning not knowing if they would return home alive at night, their life light extinguished by the very entities sworn to protect them.
Dr. King represents for me a mirror for all of us, but not in a conventional way. His legacy is almost undisputed; as I’ve already alluded to, even though countless others fought the good fight, he is revered with the gravitas of a godlike figure who was able to crumble the walls of the establishment with his words. The narrative is that he was unflappable, relentlessly working to erode the hypocrisy that the borders of this country personified in his day: reciting the creed of human equality while socially and overtly endorsing subclasses of citizens. In the black community in some circles, speaking ill of Dr. King is blasphemous.
The mirror that Dr. King represents is simple: what is ‘goodness’ really about? What does it mean to be a ‘good’ person? There’s the Dr. King that we all know, and the Dr. King that remains largely concealed from the mythos. Dr. King, the adulterer, having a penchant for trysts with white women, no less. Dr. King, the smoker. These are values that we don’t associate with heroes. The man who led the chorus of ‘we shall overcome’ had personal demons that he couldn’t quell himself. So who exactly is Dr. King … legendary leader who was incorruptible, or this ordinary man who played his public persona while simultaneously burying his skeletons deeply in the closet?
This argument applies not only to him but to every one of us in all walks of life. Ray Lewis is an all pro NFL player who is certainly headed for the hall of fame. He has a gift to inspire people with impassioned play and speeches. Yet, he is also remembered by many for a night where a man lost his life in Lewis’ company, rumored to be at his hand. In those who know him more intimately, his large family spewing from his loins is legendary, being a father to multiple children with multiple women. These types of socially deviant behaviors are frowned upon. So who exactly is Ray Lewis?
Usually it’s the decision of the storyteller who gets to dictate legacy. That’s why a lot of people don’t know about Dr. King or Ray Lewis’ shortcomings; those details are rarely told. Yet they are central to the identity of these men, not so much that they are contradictory to their true essence and character, but they are pieces to the larger jigsaw puzzle. There is no complete picture without their shortcomings.
Which brings us full circle to the question of what is ‘good’? What kind of legacy will we be remembered for? Or better yet, why do we expect more of others than we do ourselves? We want our heroes to be indestructible, without blemish, yet want others to tolerate us in our frailty.
At first I would say ‘goodness’ or the concept of being ‘good’ reliant upon subjectivity. We as individuals decide what’s good for us. I love Dr. King and Ray Lewis, but others abhor them. I don’t view them with rose colored glasses; I know full well that they are flawed individuals. I would expect no less of them since they were brought into this world under the same conditions we all are and subject to the same trappings. Yet, to be achievers on the scale they are, takes much more than what most of us can muster.
This has provided me a working definition of good. Goodness is a connection, an inspiration, a movement to be greater than now. Its not that we’re inherently bad or that anything is wrong with us, but we can always be better, or at least strive to be, and that pursuit will result in us rising the tide of the world. That is the beauty of Dr. King, Ray Lewis, or anyone else we would want to label as ‘good’; not that they are without flaw, but that they can be examples of the attainable.
Image credit: Ron Cogswell/Flickr