The Functional Aspects in King’s Writing: Reflections on ‘Where Do we Go From Here’

Where Do We Go From Here is Dr. Martin Luther King’s existential question, that leaves one to ponder the journey to a materialized space — proposed in his summation: chaos or community. This vehemently registers as obtuse, yet creatively brilliant. Or, it verges, on the notion of a risk, — of just how disenfranchised, Black people are in the United States.[1]King’s deployment of chaos as a descriptive noun relative to community produces a comparative tension that the reader is forced to re-imagine throughout the read. The mere audacity to equate chaos or community as a binary function is an interesting phenomenon to interject from the commencement. Because King uses “or,” he is intending chaos or community to be functionary in its application. There is nothing static, abstract or cerebral; he is writing a strategy to ignite a movement. In Where Do We From Here: Chaos or Community, Dr. King is presenting strategies for navigating through a terrain which may be chaotic or neighborly. [2]

Dr. King details how white fragility is amassing the courage to continually mishandle the humanity of Black people. He carefully, almost to a disheartening reaction, presents how whiteness has managed to misconstrue the difference between equity, equality and justice. Firmly positing that if one can respite or peace within spaces of justice, then equity and equality will become inevitable participants. But, justice wrongly affixed constructs an equality and equity that only benefits the privilege — white racist. King is desperately striving to engage a power structure that is, keenly, destroying, any resemblance of, anything that represents a powerful emblem of Blackness. Thus, King desire to dismantle racist structures and not just un-seed rhetoric, is visible. Interestingly, and yet inexplicable, it appears that he focuses more on un-seeding Black Power rhetoric in comparison to white racist rhetoric. Nevertheless, King’s desire to reconstruct a system that has intentionally allocated Black people as second-class is emerging. King audaciously writes, “Jobs are harder and costlier to create than voting polls.”[3]Here is where we find King in-breaking a designated space. Yes, he understands the voting poll is a valued placed but he is carefully assessing it in comparison to the jobs. This embarks on the notion of chaos or community from a personal connective. Understandably, both voting and jobs have lasting effects but he understands that there is more at stake when one attempts to create jobs. Jay Electronica, the New Orleans’ rapper, has a lyric in the song Renaissance Man, where he says, “my grandmother want leave the fuckin projects, I got to raise the slum up…”[4]In spirit of Dr. King, Jay Electronica (Jay Elect) is attempting to reconstruct chaos in order that it may benefit those who in are locked in its space. King is visualizing people like Jay Elect’s grandmother who will never leave or give up but need access to jobs and the voting booth. So, moving within a Jay Elect-ethic, he is making every effort to raise the conscious of white America as well as trying to restructure the system. Is King successful?: is the fundamental question, and could quite honestly be the simultaneous answer. This is Baldwinian frame of reference, where James Baldwin seems to use questions as answers. Not in the Socratic sense, in order to move the conversation into greater depth but in a way that finites the conversation with the rhetorical question. King is presenting such a frame but does himself a disservice with the subtitle chaos or community. Because he is developing infrastructure—community— in the midst of chaos, the usage of “or” forces the reader to make a choice throughout the text. But, clearly, he is not asking folks to make a choice; he is insisting that community can be developed in the midst of chaos.[5]Thus, we see the Jay Elect- ethic being brought to the foreground of the text.

Early in the text, King makes an integral shift that incorporates race and economic equality to the struggle for freedom in community. He writes, “Negro programs go beyond race and deal with economic inequality, whenever it exists. In the pursuit of this goals, the white poor become involved, and the potentiality emerges for a powerful new alliance.”[6] Though King does not mention much about the connection between the poor whites connecting to the movement this particular point blares out for further explanation. King has just expounded upon the fact that there has been “sluggish progress” but proceeds to denote how poor whites joining the movement becomes a major happening that sparked life into what King was strategizing. [7]What King did by gaining the coalition of poor whites was he solidified the validity of their agenda. This movement could no longer just be labeled simply a movement for Black Power, because poor whites had a valid investment within the movement. This is embarking on the Christian term of koinonia which means to fellowship but there is an investment that is connective with the fellowship. King’s theological underpinnings are vastly coming into play as he is strategically building the movement. He is faithfully trying to construct a movement that considers all of humanity (or at least all the men.) King is embodying this in his speech and praxis which makes it palatable though oftentimes disagreeable in application. I contend that King was wrong when he states that “Black Power was a slogan without a program.”[8]The Black Panthers were on the scene operating within the spectrum of Black Power with the Free Breakfast Program burgeoning on the horizon of January of 1969. And, within its corpus of thought and operating principals, they had white people who worked closely with them. What this depicts is King’s genteel southern Christian roots that radically beckon reconciliation with the hope that Black folk will get a significant piece of the pie to survive. King is pressing for this strategic move to happen but the emergence of Black Power registers with the spirit of the traumatized and beaten Black community. What it also shows is the slight disconnect that King has with the majority of the people who follow him. He cannot in a visceral manner understand why this is connecting with his followers. King’s upbringing is not similar to many of the people who are following him in the movement. So, to encounter such a radical statement like Black Power and a figure like Stokely Carmichael is a pedagogical event that forces him to comes to grip with his lack of street cred. Here is where I ponder the question of whether King is now asking is it chaos or community in an individualistic sense — self-introspection.

King critical analyzes of capitalism is the worldly problem that goes intentionally overlooked because to address his analyzes is to admit guilt. King was adamant that the world was amply filled with enough resources to care for the people of the world. The problem was that the greed that has humanity trapped has blinded the rich into believing that it has the authority to ration those natural resources to the highest bidder. King states, “There is no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in human will.”[9]When material wealth overshadows the welfare of the hungry evil has become a necessary good. King is viewing capitalism through such a perspective, but is not as bleak as I may be painting the picture to be. King generates a concerted effort to find the good in capitalism but continuously demonstrates how people are corrupted by capitalism’s thrust. Honestly, he admits, that we all live “eternally,” “in the red.”[10]I believe this is King giving capitalism the opportunity to get it right. However, he undoubtedly, comprehends that capitalisms will ultimately fail to see how we all are inextricably connected to others. It is within that theoretical framework where King is trying to find the sweet spot for the movement and the justice of America. The failure of capitalism to see “truth is collectivism” is the crux of why it is hard for King’s ideas of community to flourish in a capitalism. I want to be very clear that I am not saying that it cannot be constructed or started; but, I am referring to flourishing. King’s idea of community thrives on a collective theory of we all make it through whereas capitalism is centered upon the best/chosen/strongest only make it. Therefore, flourishing is not a communal happening but is individualistic. King is strongly and passionately fighting against the notion of capitalistic venture that rescues the privilege one and ostracizes the oppressed many. King understands it this way: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”[11]This is the revolutionary stance that King is aiming to ascend toward throughout the movement.

What I am proposing in this reflection is that King is not asking a question but making a statement. Throughout the text he is wrestling with what that statement will ultimate resemble, but, nonetheless, he knows that he is preparing for something in the end. I found King to be a bit to compromising in some places but I understood why he approached it in such a manner. Because, it is one thing to write a text for academic musing but it is another to write a text that will used as revolutionary weaponry. The application is different but how scholarship is appropriated in the given space challenges the writer to creatively construct a sentence that may save a life. Writing with that in mind is something that King had to keep in the forefront of his thinking, I suppose.

I have constantly repeated that King was not really asking a question but making a statement when he asked where do we go from here, chaos or community. In the last sentence of the official pages of the book, King writes, “This may be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos or community.”[12]King has waited to the last sentence of the book to show that his question was his answer. He is still trying to figure out what America is trapped within. There are glimpse of how he is being influenced but the real changes do not bear fruit to a little later in his life. King is unsettled, and, rightly, so.

Concluding Thought

Blackness has always been the ambivalent reality of the American project. King’s brilliance is that he understood Blackness and the how racism handcuffed the humanity of the Black body. Where Do We Go From Hereis King’s attempt to provide a piece of literature that would speak to a generation after him about what the movement had to endure to get “that” point. He is very referential throughout the text and hopeful that people will look back, and remember what was exemplified by his generation. King has a nostalgic appeal that is essential to remembering how Blackness was the center of his reality. Though he is an integrationist, which is centered in his interpretation of Christianity, King is deeply committed to the plight of Black people. For most people, I would consider this a contradictory statement, but for King, it is a testament to his character. He embodied his belief in nonviolence and integration, which made his love for Black people even more viable. He was willing to give his life for the Black community. King was not just about frivolous banter but was action prone. He believed, “Education without social action is a one-sided value because it has no true power potential.”[13]What can be concluded is that King was serious about making functional words and actions. I go back to his usage of “or” rather than “and.” I still believe it was problematic to entitled the book this way but using “or” produces a forthright-ness that engenders movement. And, we when we think of Dr. King we think about movement.

 

[1]I am not quite sure how to verbally commit to how risky I believe King is moving within the title. But, my usage of a comma to then a dash is an intentional indicator that signal that something I happening with speech that must be attended to. This is very Baldwin-like when words escape his grasp he tends to use punctuation as points of contention.

[2]Martin Luther King, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, Beacon Press: Boston, 1968.

[3]King, 6.

[4]Jay Electronica, Renaissance Man, Style Wars EP

[5]This is something that is not noticeable from a service read or from an initial perusing of the text. It is only after close reading that it become visible that King is not asking the reader to choose but actually declaring such to be.

[6]King, 17.

[7]King, 17.

[8]King, 18

[9]King, 187.

[10]King, 191.

[11]King, 193.

[12]King, 202.

[13]King, 164.

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Here Is Your Win

I left home today saying a needed a win today. It has been a rough couple of weeks but I have been resilient in my pursuit, nonetheless. Well, instead of doing my normal trip to chapel and community lunch, at Chicago Theological Seminary, I was going to stay home. I was not feeling overly excited about how life was punching my in the mouth with disappointment. Then, I remembered that we were honoring the Muslim sisters and brothers killed by the white supremacist in New Zealand. After getting there late, and being apart of one of the Muslim prayers, we went to community lunch. Before I was getting ready to leave Brian E. Smith called me over to his table and asked me some questions about his son and baseball. He introduced me to a sister at the table and shared with her that I played professional baseball with Dodgers and was currently a Ph.D student. This sister, a Muslim mother of 2 (teenage boy and a younger girl) asked how I went from professional baseball to a Ph.D. student. I shared my journey and I told her that initially, I was not going to come over to the campus today. I preceded to tell her that I left home thinking, “God, I need a win.” Her reply to me was, “Well here is your win: my son! He needed to hear your story.” Now, I am not sure why but she said it was a win for him being there today.

At that table a Black Christian man from America sat with a Muslim woman from Great Britain and shared the grace of God together.

Real community is safe and affirming…we win.

The Frostbitten Rumination

The way that I experienced the cold this morning was unbelievable; I may have been on the pre-stages of hyperthermia as my hands were on fire. As I was removing three days of snow off my wife’s car, in a temperature with a -15 wind chill, I wondered how could a country allow homelessness in such frigid conditions. My 10 minutes in these conditions were just meager, as I was geared up from head to toe, but, I ponder on how do those without such gear survive in such conditions. And, the sad truth, is that we believe we are heroes and saints because we over blankets and warm meals when in actuality they should have had them in the first place.
Thus, the need for philanthropy becomes the quest of the day. Philanthropy is an unjust metaphor for the wealthy to find news to overt paying taxes, that in turn produce means for those in need of blankets.
We live in a broken system where wealth is measured on the backs of the broken. Evidently, there will be a price to pay for exploited the broken and the broken will seize the moment to rebel against the broken system.
By the time I came out of my rumination and pondering, I was convinced that the fires of hell are actually frostbitten events to the body.

Do #BlackLivesMatter to (all) Black Theologians

It is an affront that Black people would even have to ask whether they “mattered” to those with whom they have an invested interest. The collective notion that one has to request whether #BlackLivesMatter to (all) Black theologians beckons at an opaqueness and level of Tupac-ean hypocrisy.[1] Tupac makes a clear distinction about ecclesiological/theological authority in the third verse of Blasphemous.[2] Tupac writes:

The preacher want me buried, why? Cause I know he a liar

Have you ever seen a crackhead, that’s eternal fire

Why you got these kids’ minds thinking that they evil?

While the preacher being freaky you say “honor God’s people”

Should we cry when the Pope die? My request

We should cry if they cried when we buried Malcolm X.[3]

 

This is the rebellious stance of a woke generation. This assertion of Albert Camus’s essays of revolt constitute a means to be engaged in the process and impetus of rebellion; it is the “awareness” – being woke or awakened to the moment.[4] Tupac critiques the theological powers of the Black church with claims of negligence and malfeasance coupled with trickery of young minds. Furthermore, he is re-adjusting the theological lens through which he (and, maybe others) will envision a just God. Tupac is connecting the freakiness of the pastor with the honorability of God: if the pastor is crooked then God must also be captured within the same crookedness for allowing such a person to function. Ultimately, Tupac’s final critique, “We should cry if they cried when we buried Malcolm X,” belies the false piety of the theological/ ecclesial powers residing in the preachers/pastors and the Black theologian. Tupac identified how “papal authority undergirds the exploitation of colonized people, and he contrasts this colonial authority with Malcolm X’s authority, one who fought for the liberation of marginalized peoples.”[5]

What Tupac, other musicians and young activist express through their art and actions is a call to “report and reflect.”[6] It is the urgency of the moment that announces “so precisely the nature of the society, and of [the artist or theologian] in that society, that other [people] will be moved by the exactness of [their] rendering…”[7] These young Black activist are making Black theologians answer the call to re-imagine their theological ethic: to consider the need of those on the outer margin of the margins – Black bodies, queer bodies, disabled bodies, criminals and the poor. It is the rethinking of how to make theology an existential practice that is usable for the everyday believer and not a theological sword fight in the academy between scholars.

#BlackLivesMatter: The Hip Hop Aesthetic  

The voice of Hip Hop is gradually “becoming” a viable stream of conscious that is beginning to register in the minds of Black theologians. The consequence of Hip Hop’s ontic swag, cautions many Black theologians to completely solidify it as an authoritative or persuasive voice within the church. I would claim that Hip Hop “is” the voice of the unheard with the same epistemological intensity that the riot “is” the voice of the unheard. I am deploying “is” as more of a locative term rather than a descriptive term. My attempt is to use it as a way of describing time, context and location in contrast with metaphorical usage. Thus “is” is more indicative of how King’s words were appropriated in the sixties; I am asserting that Hip Hop fuels this generation with the same fierceness. Therefore, Tupac clearly articulates, “I am not saying I will rule the world but I am going to spark the brain that will change the world.”[8] Kendrick Lamar is the product of that spark and his song becomes the soundtrack for the movement, We Gon Be Alright.[9]

Hip Hop captures the sensibilities of the #BlackLivesMatter movement through a poetic aesthetic – authenticating itself as a soundtrack for life. But, Hip Hop not only stands as a musical accompaniment to/for the movement; Hip Hop embodies an ontological metaphor of how many young activist enter into the convening space of protest. Their claiming of identity and ability to, genuinely, synthesize with a diverse group is a Hip Hop aesthetic.[10] In Faith and Ferguson, Leah Gunning Francis pens a memoir of what it resembles to engage, theologically, with such a group.[11] She makes the claim: “this was not an ideological movement, but a process in which bodies were taking to the streets to be seen and heard in the quest for justice.” [12] This is #BlackLivesMatter operating within a Hip Hop aesthetic that is calling the church to task, existentially. The calling is through active engagement on the streets, and not simply through sermons, prayers and useless words.

Francis recognizes the synergy that is happening amongst these young people and some Black theologians/preachers. There are “God moments.”[13] But, there are moments when the young activist insist on coming into the space with a Hip Hop aesthetic – doing it our way, protesting without prayer. And, this may be a place of contestation for some clergy, who are trapped in a puritanical Christianity: They can only envision assistance one particular way, and all other forms are wrong. This re-adjusting period is the gap or the fissure where one may propose whether #BlackLivesMatter to Black Theologians or is it indeed just a photo opportunity. Because the appearance is such, that one could assume, that if the Black Theologians cannot speak, they become useless. Retrospectively, for the young Black activist this may signal an inauthentic relationship with (their) God, ultimately, questioning their overall commitment and more importantly, their theology.[14]

Conclusion

Does #BlackLivesMatter to (all) Black Theologians? That is a personal question that each Black theologian and preacher/pastor must answer for themselves. What I have presented in the few pages here was not an answer but more of a complication of the question. This is a process often employed by James Baldwin throughout his speeches. His methodology was to complicate the question, and by doing so, he would – inadvertently, but purposely – answer the question.

I suspect that Francis gets it right in her presentation of Faith and Ferguson: she lets the narrative tell itself. What we find in her work are theologians and pastors who are willing to take a backseat to the young Black activist, who are boots on the ground in Ferguson. They are there for support when needed and soldiering up for the fight at other times. Comprehensively, the end result is:

The fight for justice in this movement is a fight for the freedom to be seen and valued as human beings “just as you are” –not in a prescribed way that renders you acceptable so long as you fit a particular mold, but in an authentic way that makes room for each person to be able to be fully him-or herself.[15]

 

 

[1] I am drawing on the framework of Charles Long’s usage of the “theology of opaqueness.” This thought was introduced to me by Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary Ph.D. student, Bryson White, during a conversation about Tupac. White acknowledges Tupac as opaque theologian that is addressing the sociopolitical ills of Black bodies trapped in a neocolonial project. Charles Long, Signification: Sign, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion, Davis Group Publishing: 1996., 199-213.

[2] I am intending, purposely, to make the pastor/preacher and the theologian to reside in the same existential setting. Though they may function in a slightly different manner, I am situating them in alignment with each other as a (Black) figure that Tupac would be addressing within the church.

[3]Tupac, Blasphemy [Explicit] (Interscope; 1996)

[4] “Awareness, no matter how confused it may be, develops from every act of rebellion.” Albert Camus, The Rebel, Vintage International: New York, 1956.,14.

[5] This was a point of contention that was made from Bryson White in our discussion about Tupac’s critique of the church.

[6] LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Home, New York: William Morrow, 1996., 251.

[7] Ibid.

[8] I Will Spark The Brain That Will Change The World – Tupac [September 14, 2014]. Youtube Video [September, 2014] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uijBebYpoto

[9] Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly, [Interscope, 2015]

[10] Efrem Smith and Phil Jackson makes this clear in the The Hip Hop Church: “You would think that their various takes on truth would make this kind of postmodern freedom march impossible, but it seems as if in the urban community there is a way to bring people of faith together with people of goodwill around issues of social justice. Hip hop culture has an influence as well as a tolerance that brings disparate people groups together… A more liberal political agenda seems to lead to a relative stance on truth, with high regard for multicultural tolerance.” Efrem Smith and Phil Jackson. The Hip Hop Church, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005., 110-111.

[11] Leah Gunning Francis, Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership and Awakening Community, Chalice Press, St. Louis, Missouri, 2015.

[12] Ibid., 58.

[13] Ibid., 24.

[14] This is with the theological supposition that theology has the potential to drive practice.

[15] Ibid., 109.

Ph.D. Coursework: the refreshing or a bullet (I had some time to kill)

For the past few months, I have wrestled and wondered about the importance of finishing my Ph.D. program. I figured , I could read the same books and have the same stimulating conversation with the brilliant, Black minds without the neverending deadlines. But, every week, I find myself mining through the books and conversations, trying to push Black hope just one inch further. I admit, there are moments of guilt and resentment, when I see brothers and sisters in the midst of the struggle, while I am sitting at my table trying to analyze the political theology between Tommie Shelby, Charles Mills and John Rawls.

 
Ph.D. coursework feels like an infinite fight between two futile adversaries and no one wins.

 
This constant need to be in the fight is a strange calling; it is a call to something that is greater than you but appears to register your being. Honestly, coursework has the same feeling but it operates in a different mode. There is another type of calling that pulls at different places of the spirit –an overwhelming, that transforms into a refreshing and/or a bullet.

 
How you view and experience the bullet is the strange place…