Manufactured Memories….


But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your childrens children

Deuteronomy 4:9

This Martin Luther King Holiday will be the first holiday with the new memorial on the National Mall. I recall all the fanfare and excitement as the initial plans for the dedication were taking place last summer. I recall all of the Facebook photos of family members and friends standing in the shadow of the magnificently imposing stone structure. I still have friends now who return again and again to the mall to walk around under King’s shadow and marvel at the wonder of the achievement of finally having a memorial to his work. I, am not among them. I have never been to the memorial and am still somewhat hesitant in visiting. I know, I know, how can you be a Black Baptist Preacher and not visit the nation’s only historical marker to…… a Black Baptist Preacher (and to the legacy of Civil Rights in America)? Glad you asked……

Memorials, why they serve to preserve our collective history, do not always effectively convey historical truth (see scandal of the misquoted speech). That is to say, the history behind the man or woman who is eternally preserved in stone is sometimes conveyed through the prisms of convenience and relative truth. Memorials are pieces of art, teaching tools and establishment symbols all containing relative meaning for those experiencing their grandeur. For example, the Jefferson Memorial, while it is dedicated to one of our “Founding Fathers” and stands as a sign of his central ideology toward freedom, reminds some of the slaveholding hypocrisy of this nation. The Lincoln Memorial stands as symbol of the power of unity as displayed in the Union of “these United States” over the differences that separate us. For others, the memorial stands for emancipation and freedom from slavery. Memorials and monuments mean different things to different people, that is the strength of having memorials. It is also their weakness. For subjective truth can quickly devolve into a relativism that makes symbols mean just about anything you want them to. Specifically, memorials can be made to mean just about anything when placed in the hands of the right (wrong) individual.

My ambivalence to the King National Memorial is more concretely rooted in the fact that the memorial doesn’t connect with the memory of Dr. King as I have come to know him. I understood Dr. King to be about action that leads to societal change and prophetic accountability. I understand his legacy to be one of service to all humanity. The challenge of the memorial’s construction and dedication reminded me that a different reality is at work. Very recently, it dawned on me that I didn’t know him. I never did. All I have known of him was what I have been told. Everything I have known about Dr. King has been through the lenses of those who have carried their own understanding of him. I do not have personal knowledge. I didn’t see news reports about his latest rally. I didn’t attend a church where he preached. I have never heard his voice on live broadcast.

This revelation is not anything new. I had it a few years ago while attending a conference seminar in which the topic of living in a world in the “Post King Generation”. I learned from that conference that there is real power in how we remember what God has done. The text from Deuteronomy reminds us of just that. As a part of the restatement of the legal customs of ancient Israel, the writer admonishes us to take care to remember. We are neither to forget or let others deny what God has already done in the life of the community. I see this as a very important concept for our nation as a Christian in the world. It is not just the act of remembering that is important, but also how we remember that is inferred. The story has to be told but we need to take care in telling the whole story, anything less is called propaganda. Erecting monuments and statues, reciting speeches and offering books critiquing legacies are all ways of remembering. While these ways of remembering are appropriate in certain arenas, the biblical text questions us: “Is that the careful expression of remembrance or merely one of convenience?”

Fast forward to summer of 2011. As a proud member of the Post King Generation, the idea of not knowing Dr. King became all the more poignant as the imposing stone structure took shape along the Tidal Basin in DC. I regularly wondered, how the legacy of a prophet could be enshrined alongside monuments to war and aggression? A man who stood for justice and used this very site as a backdrop for calling the nation to task, now stands eternally as part an object of civil religious pilgrimage.

In the days after the completion, but before the dedication, groups of people from all walks were streaming by news media and television cameras. All of which praised the memorial’s construction. I vividly remember watching members of Dr. King’s fraternity (the organization key to the development and building of the memorial) stream by, along with throngs of tourists and some journalists excited about what this new memorial would mean in of the nation. In the interim, what have we done to drive closer to the vision that Dr. King had for this nation and the world? It would seem to me that the legacy of any memorial to “the dreamer” is far outweighed by the capacity of those who believe in enacting the dream to bring about systemic change. In this way, we take care to remember Dr. King’s work because we pick up where he left off. We become part of a memorial that serves to make a more perfect union, instead of using the symbol of stone and words to manifest dreams of our own design.

The danger of the memorial (without action) is quite simply the usurpation of the legacy of Dr. King. To be sure, Dr. King is part of our national heritage and therefore belongs to the nation, but his message was uniquely prophetic against the practices of the nation. A proud American, he spoke against the status quo and the established ways of national policy, political engagement and social mores in order to provide a much needed morality to the social discourse. Today, when free-market capitalists and conservative pundits use the national heritage in the person of Dr. King to further sell their “dreams”, we risk losing the values Dr. King embodied. When big box retailers have “King Holiday Sales” and many Americans still struggle to see the relevance of the holiday, the memorial has no meaning and we have yet to live into the dream.

My vision for truth this Martin Luther King Holiday is for all of us to read more than just the “I Have a Dream Speech” and know he was a “great man”. There was more Dr. King wanted to say and more he wanted to do. There was his stance against the Vietnam War, the Poor People’s March and his aggressive campaign for equality and justice as fundamentally American. Before we sound horns and pat ourselves on the back for what we have done in this memorial, let us complete the work that he started in building a better society. In that way, we become the memorial that honors his life…

4 Comments

Filed under Civil Religion, King Holiday, Sacred Memory

4 responses to “Manufactured Memories….

  1. mitsm02

    Rev, Thanks for the doing this. As someone who looks forward to your teaching on a weekly basis (unfortunately, my travel schedule has made that extremely difficult over the past few months), this provides my spirit with your teaching and perspective on things that I’ve come to look forward to. I know you have a ministry, a beautiful wife, and two beautiful daughters that take up all of your time, but I’m hoping you can continue to share your skill for teaching with us in this forum. God bless and thanks for the perspective.

  2. Thank you for helping us see your perspective and calling us all to higher level of consciousness. It goes back to believing what you have been told or taking the time to “know” for yourself; doing the research and coming up with your own thoughts about a particular person, place or thing. I appreciate your honesty and look forward to more. Blessing to you and yours.

  3. Asa, I am so glad that you have decided to start your blog. As a member of Mt. Olive Baptist Church and one who is blessed to receive teaching from one whom truly has the Spiritual Gift of teaching. (See link below for those who may be reading this and would like to know what I mean by the Spiritual Gift of Teaching). http://theresurgence.com/2009/06/03/spiritual-gifts-teaching

    First let me say, Asa I have been to the MLK memorial but I totally understand your reasons for having not gone yourself. If King was alive today I truly believe that he would agree with you 100%.

    Asa, your teaching has inspired me to research for myself, facts and grow in the understanding and application of God’s word. You also compel me to raise questions for myself in the discernment of your message. The MLK monument cost $120 million to build over a span of some 27 years. See link below. Source mlkmemorial.org website:

    http://www.mlkmemorial.org/site/c.hkIUL9MVJxE/b.1191509/k.48EE/Quick_Facts_About_the_Memorial.htm

    The spending the power of African Americans is approximately 400 Billion. See below.

    http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1997/february3/7t2072.html

    The African American church brings in 1 Billion Dollars annually.
    There was a time where the African American Church played a vital financial role in African American higher Education; Historical Black Colleges and Universities, (HBCU’s). Although the road to building the MLK memorial has been long and tedious and yes it finally came to fruition in 2011, the message of Rev. Dr. King has been severely undermined by the memorial itself. Don’t get me wrong, a memorial for such a man, who played a significant role, as Dr. King in shaping America’s future is well deserved and warranted. Walk with me here, $120 Million and 27 years later and we have the MLK memorial. $1 Billion brought in by the African American church annually. African American’s have $400 Billion in spending power annually.

    Spending Power of the African American (2008 statistics) From TargetMarketNews.com
    http://www.targetmarketnews.com/storyid01201001.htm

    Where is the Church today in grasping on to the ideology of Dr. King’s ministry and the ministry we share as Christians, in the fight against poverty, substandard education, support of HBCU’s and the general welfare of the American people?

    Just saying.

    Thanks Asa, I am looking forward to following your blog.

    I leave those who actually read what I wrote, with one simple message taken from a scene in Spike Lee’s movie School Days. WAKE UP!!

  4. Reading this felt like Wednesday night Bible study. As you do so well, I was drawn into your voice and the challenge to think about your message and question many of your thoughts. It’s just another blessing that I’ll ponder until it’s been processed enough and then I’ll move on. I will be forever greatful that you came our way!