Gilded Serpent presents...
Last Monday was Martin Luther King’s Birthday. A National Holiday. Schools were closed, government offices were closed and some businesses closed in memory of this incredible man in our history. I forgot, I admit it, I forgot about Martin and who he was. I forgot what he did and stood for, in all its intensity - what it was really about. I was trying to think what store was opened, what bank closed that day…and in the car I heard that powerful voice over the radio and I remembered. I remembered as if time stopped, and the tears started from my eyes. The years, months, days seem to go by so much faster then they used to.
On that day in April of 1968 when Martin Luther King was assassinated, I was thirteen years old. We lived in a middle class neighborhood and I went to a Catholic grade school. There were two black children in my class. I didn’t understand racism, or the truth of segregation, poverty, dehumanization or genocide. But I remember the church bells starting to ring as we were outside at recess - not a time they usually rang. Somehow I felt strange - it seemed everything was dead still, like the moment before a storm hits, but fhe air and wind seemed agitated. I didn’t understand why I could feel mourning in the air. The nuns and some parents who had unexpectedly arrived were whispering frantically. All of a sudden, more parents arrived and students began to go home. I didn’t understand why the people were taking their kids home or why their faces looked frightened, tense, sad - there was just that grave silence. I felt goosebumps on my arms. My father had unexpectedly died a year earlier, and I had had that same sense of otherworldliness. Finally someone said to me that Martin Luther King had been killed. I knew who he was; even at my age, he was someone we knew well and admired, and I was shocked.
My parents didn't come early for me; they were at work, and because of their own backgrounds of poverty and treating poor people in their small medical practice (all of their patients were immigrants and blacks and those who could not afford medical care) they didn’t fear for me….but I thought perhaps I was supposed to be afraid since others were.
There were no riots where we lived, just that numbed sense of something unspeakable happening and ending. It was a wake, a memorial, that encompassed the whole United States. I cried when I got home and the news was on the TV, and I remember crying for many, many years whenever I heard that deep baritone proclaiming those words of prophecy and strength. But today, I forgot. And then I thought, as I was crying and remembering those decades I grew up in, how long had it been since I remembered? Truly remembered ?
So much has changed in the lives of those of us who can remember those days. How many of you reading this know the history of great men of our times and the acts of sacrifice not that long ago only from history books or documentaries on the television? Dr. King's birthday is now, for many, only a small passing day to be away from work or school.
I think about the decade of the late 60’s through the 70’s as being one of the most profound times in our history, and I lived it. I went to La Raza and Caesar Chavez’s many strikes against the grape and farmworkers' industry. I wore black armbands during rallies against the Vietnam War. My grandparents' house was only one block away from where Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver started up the Black Panthers. We had sit-ins and protests, and I believed that our voices, if loud enough and calling long enough for justice, would be heard. Because in those days we did bring about change - some at the cost of great loss of life and lots of hatred and distrust.
It was a time of political upheaval, social change and revolutionary tactics taken by all kinds, races and ages of people to bring about justice. It was about stopping an illegal war in Vietnam which destroyed our young men, who are now still-shattered middle aged veterans. It was about civil rights, human rights - not in a foreign country, but here in the United States. I have to admit that I was more the radical type, and tended to join up with those who fought and talked a strong demand for change…Black Panthers, AIM, the Chicago 7, the Weather Underground.
Do we remember that young students at Kent State University were gunned down by National Guardsmen because they were holding a protest against the war? They had no weapons, only signs and convictions. The campus ran like a river with blood, and dying, wounded, bewildered youth were wondering why? How many people who hear Crosby, Stills and Nash singing "Ohio" realize that it is the tragedy at Kent State that the song is commemorating?
The Vietnam war ended; the Civil Rights movement created a new amendment and affirmative action. Social causes and resources were built up to help with the low-income, non-educated, hungry children. And we thought we had changed our world….forever . No more wars, no more racism, no more poverty or malnourished, dying children. Not in our new dawning Utopia that we had fought so hard to establish.
We also had our rules: ethnic or cabaret -striped fabrics, coin costumes and bare feet vs. cabaret dancing and beaded costumes. Somewhere in the 80’s that all kind of remeshed with the introduction of seeing real Egyptian dancers, who looked nothing like the fellaheen style we all thought was so “traditional”, The circle comes around; it is now more popular to wear the standard tribal style costuming (which is a variation on our own take on ethnic dancing), and it doesn’t matter exactly what the costume is - just how to represent one’s self. The more glitter, the more shine, the more glitz the better; the more assiut, the more Afghani jewelry, the more skirts, the better.
In Afghanistan, women dress in full burkas and the desert is harsh; there is no food, no schools, no medical help and we have an enforcement of soldiers endlessly fighting against a nomadic people who know only war and fighting.
We have another Vietnam War in Iraq, politically incorrect as that statement may seem to many of you, but sadly it will be apparent in time that it is even worse. Young men and women dying in the desert for what real cause? Those returning are scarred forever.
We brought about changes for the farmworker, Headstart programs for the inner city, a better life, we believed, for all. What happened? Now black against black crime is higher then ever. Young men, girls and children are trapped in gang shootings. Gangsta’ rap and lifestyle for those in the lower socio-economic strata - they know nothing else. There is more violence now than when Martin Luther King began his crusade against the senseless hate and violence of the time. Same hate, same fear, different reasons.
Apathy is alive and well. What happened to those of us who grew up on Martin Luther King’s words and the examples of John and Robert Kennedy, Caesar Chavez, Malcolm X, Richard Oakes and Leonard Peltier?
Hopefully, some of us will try not to forget, when we see injustice and greed and darkness falling back upon our lives, that we can make a change. That we can love, enjoy and embrace our dance, and also see beyond the yards of fabric and blinding glitter to the multitude of harsh realities that somehow need addressing. Whether through just waking up to it, or volunteering or making contributions, or taking a few minutes to honor the memory of those who did give their lives for the higher good that we benefit from. Don’t forget. Never forget.
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