Michael Jackson, Glenn Beck, MLK, and the Worlds We Create

by Latoya Peterson

Tubman Elementary Mural

“Can anyone help? Anyone?”

Last Thursday, standing underneath the hot noon day sun, I yelled out to the large crowd waiting in line for the monthly food aid provided by the mayor’s office. The crowd stretched for blocks, and my team and I set out with bottled water, candy, and bags full of surveys. We had hoped to harness the 200+ person food line for the Public Media Corps survey of the digital environment in DC. The crowd was composed of people who are generally overlooked when talking about online innovation – many of the people there were low-income, most speak Spanish as a primary language, and many did not have internet access at home.

Everyone was willing to help with the survey, particularly honing in on key words like “free,” “courses,” “training,” “jobs,” and “media.” But we soon realized we had a much bigger hurdle to jump – between the four of us, there was only one fluent Spanish speaker (as well as one “fluent in Spanglish”), and our survey was not designed for people with low literacy rates. In English, administering the survey was difficult enough – as one of the fellows surveying Ward 8 noted, what took fully literate people about 5 minutes to blow through took about 20 for those with lower rates of reading comprehension. In Spanish, with the difficulties translating technical terms and low levels of Spanish fluency among the team, that task was damn near impossible.

A sweet-faced tween girl volunteered to help translate, freeing up the other fellows to try to piece together the survey. I asked the girl the questions, she shouted back to her parents, and other people on the line chimed in when they could to help translate. In the end, we had about fifteen people all collaborating with bits of English and snatches of Spanish to get the questions answered. But it still wasn’t enough to capture as many people as were moving through the food line. Ultimately, we left frustrated – out of more than 200 people, we only got 30 surveys answered between us. Those surveys were illuminating, and spoke to the needs of having a variety of community access points and more Spanish language programming, but it also spoke to a gnawing fear that had been growing in all of us tasked with working in ward one – can we really capture the essence of the community in Columbia Heights – Shaw – Mount Pleasant – U Street – Adams Morgan from our tiny, language-limited viewpoints?

We have a reason to be concerned. The Washington DC council’s official website states:

Ward One is diversity – From the majestic Victorians of upper Columbia Heights, to Adams Morgan’s renowned entertainment district, to Howard University, historic U Street and LeDroit Park, the ward is home to some extraordinary places—and some extraordinary people. The neighborhoods of Ward One have a familiar ring to many people – LeDroit Park, U Street, Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant, Shaw, Park View, and Pleasant Plains.

Ward One is the smallest, most densely populated ward in the District of Columbia. It’s also the only ward where you’ll find no population group with a majority. Thousands of African Americans, whites, Latinos, Vietnamese, Ethiopians and others make their home here. In just one of our ZIP codes, 20009, 136 countries are represented. The Brookings Institution says that’s the most diverse ZIP code in the entire region. And more than 40% of the public school students in Ward One do not speak English as their primary language. Indeed, according to an Urban Institute study in 2003, DC’s most diverse neighborhoods are within Ward One.

This diversity brings a lot of amazing things to the neighborhood, but poses a particular challenge to inclusion – namely, how can we meet the needs of so many different people, particularly when the needs are so great?

That question weighed heavily on my mind into the weekend, which was enough to push out all the noise about the coming events. Thinking about Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally invading Washington, DC made me feel a bit ill. Luckily, it was easily avoided, especially since I live near the ever-so-dangerous yellow/green line. In the interest of my own sanity, I chose to stay close to home.

Friday night, after another day of survey gathering and site visits, I headed over to the 9:30 club for DJ Dredd’s dance party to celebrate Michael Jackson’s birthday. As we swayed with the crowd rocking along to Michael’s (and Janet’s!) greatest hits, an observation kept pushing to the forefront of my mind, one I had wanted to write about last year when he passed. While much was written about the racial politics of Michael Jackson, particularly in reference to his skin color/plastic surgeries, there was little discussion of the most striking part of Michael’s racial politics: the worlds he created in his music videos. Most folks are familiar with two of his most political hits, “Black or White” and “Man in the Mirror.”

But what always stood out to me was the populations of Michael’s created worlds – which were overwhelmingly multicultural, featuring a lot of different types of people all rolling with the King of Pop.

Michael’s worlds were often overwhelmingly urban. Featuring streetscapes and subcultures, Michael’s videos illumninated – and humanized – different segments of American and global life, in the face of a pop culture environment that insisted those types of images remain marginalized. Even his journey back to ancient Egypt became a quiet political statement.

Watching the mega-sized images accompanying the DJs selections, and looking at the assembled crowd gathered, it hit me that Michael’s legacy was one of both pop and politics – and in many ways, he had succeeded, continuing to unite very different factions of people through the shared love of his music.

On Saturday morning, I woke up early to work Columbia Heights Day for the PMC. Sore from dancing, but with Michael’s songs playing in my head in an endless loop, I worked, gathered surveys, handed out waters, and looked at the conscious effort to create community. It was interesting working an event in my neighborhood – some of the other fellows asked if the make up of the crowd go-ers reflected Columbia Heights. While the crowd was pretty diverse for a community day, it still didn’t reflect the Columbia Heights I have come to know and love. Columbia Heights Day was intended to celebrate the diversity of a neighborhood in transition, the historically working-class black and latino population meshing with the new young, predominantly white professional set. But did we succeed in creating a celebration the entire community felt comfortable participating in?

It is these ideas of inclusion and exclusion that I keep thinking of, particularly in the aftermath of this weekend.

If my neighborhood looks like this:

Columbia Heights Mural

And Glenn Beck’s world (amusingly tagged “Whitestock”) looks like this:

And Al Sharpton’s world (as seen by his “Reclaim the Dream” rally) looks like this:

Al Sharpton Rally

What type of worlds are we each creating? Beck claims he is restoring honor, but what does he mean by that? After all, Beck and company co-opted Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, where the civil rights legend stood facing a quarter of a million people, and bravely stated:

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

Beck has willfully misinterpreted the speech and intent of Dr. King’s words, claiming that it was both a coincidence and “divine providence” that he planned the rally for the anniversary of MLK day, yet making numerous references to “reclaiming” the civil rights movement.

But the proof is in the photos. If Beck cared about creating a truly equitable society, then where is that reflected? Why didn’t the Restoring Honor rally look like my neighborhood? Or, better yet, why didn’t it look like Dr. King’s original march on Washington?

Dr. King's original march on Washington

I swear, all the foolishness and movement appropriation just makes me want to scream.

The part I hate the most is that we are all involved in shaping and creating the world in which we live – even those who chose to dodge these issues. And, as Dr. King showed, inclusion and opportunity for all is something that must be fought for. Complacency will not lead to equality. Bitterness (which many trade upon for political gain) and hatred of those different than ourselves can never lead to true unity – only more divisions. Fractured Americas that do not understand each other. A nation, supposedly indivisible, that breaks far too often along the same types of dividing lines. The battle has changed, no doubt, but in many ways we are still fighting for those same values so many marched for in the 1960s.

In a way, I can understand why people want to declare the fight for racial equality over. It is tiring work, to undo hundreds of years of policy, thousands of years of conditioning that those that are different are lesser beings. It is so temptingly easy to rest on our laurels now, to say that the heavy lifting was over, that the most important goals have been achieved. And it is far to easy to allow those who did not stand with us to pervert what we fought for, to “get their country back” by ignoring the massive inequalities that still exist.

No one said fighting for justice will be easy. And it is always a fight. In our own, tiny way, sweating out in the sun with surveys that most people don’t want to take, grappling with feeling inadequate, fighting the feelings of internalized shame, wanting to give up, knowing that if we do, we will do a grave disservice to the communities that need the most help.

And all we want to do is bridge the digital divide in DC. The larger fight requires far, far more effort.

But, luckily, we have a lot of things working in our favor.

One of which is the burning desire for a better world, held by those who can look around and acknowledge that yes, injustice exists, and yes, we have the power to change it.

And fortunately, those of us who believe that we can make a change have a kick ass soundtrack to help ease the load.

(Image credits: Tim Gibbon & the LAYC, Action Ashe, Washington Post Flickr page, Washington Post/Getty archives)