Yesterday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2016. People stayed home from work. The markets were closed. Some heeded the call to serve. There was a cool Google doodle and #MLKDay was trending on Twitter.
I remember in the early years of the Obama administration, when MLK Day often felt like a celebration. We were able to feel, for once, entitled to a little pride in our progress. Not just because of Obama, but because he brought in the most diverse cabinet and staff in the nation’s history. Because of the generation of kids whose first image of The President of the United States of America would be a black man. Because we could reasonably believe that our nation was entering the healing stage of a very bad, very long affliction.
The years since have felt like going into remission. Throughout the economic recovery, African American unemployment sustained rates around double that of white unemployment. One of the major political parties responsible for helping to run the greatest democracy in history has devoted time, energy and money to making it harder to vote — in ways that disproportionately affect minorities. The number of high-profile killings of black men and women by police officers in recent years is too numerous to name them all without combing the internet. That sentence is tragic, regardless of what arguments you’d like to make about those deaths.
These were the headlines from the New York Times U.S. section yesterday, MLK Day:
The African American poverty rate in Mississippi is 44 percent. Flint, Michigan is nearly 60 percent black. The “Longtime Mistrust of Medicine” that has fueled a TB outbreak in Alabama extends back to the Tuskegee Experiment. Any “celebration” of King’s legacy needs to also account for the headlines of the day.
So here we are. What do we do? Lots of things. But since this is a book blog, my immediate counsel is to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.
This suggestion probably seems obvious, because it is. But that doesn’t mean it’s not the right one. And you may feel obliged, as a good progressive or a guilty white liberal (or both), to treat this as “required reading” in Toni Morrison’s words. But you will not feel a sense of duty once you start reading. It is one of the most humane and touching communications I have ever encountered. Coates writes as a student, a father, an American in stark and beautiful terms. If I say too much I’m going to overdo it. I was moved by this book, because it is unsettling and hard to read. It is probably the most important American book in many years, or at least for the years of racial carnage that have emerged — or simply been noticed — since we were declared a “postracial” nation.
Coates writes that as a young man he “devoured books because they were the rays of light peeking out from the doorframe, and perhaps past that door there was another world.” Devour this one, for the same reasons.