detail from Labels for Hair Ribbons by Manuel Ocampo a delectable selection of oriental appetizers
Monday, January 20, 2003

: . "I May Not Get There with You":

Martin Luther King, Jr., radical revisionist: an interview with Michael Eric Dyson [Part I, Part II]:
    You argue that the liberal mainstream's tendency to overly focus on King's "I Have a Dream" speech has obscured the dramatic change of heart that King underwent towards the end of his life, when he became more radical, more anti-imperialist, and demanded reparations for African Americans. King, you contend, spoke out against "the triplets of misery: racism, militarism, and poverty." Black leaders are so often pigeon-holed into only talking about race, but King seems to have had a broad and international vision of radicalism and progressivism.

    ...Martin Luther King, Jr. had an international vision that linked local forms of suffering with global forms of corruption and oppression, and that allowed him a very powerful critique of American practices by refusing simply to be a nationalist. In an era when King came to maturity -- an era of American exceptionalism and American isolationism -- King shattered the prism through which America viewed itself as a world power and linked its own global expansion to forces of oppression that made it a bully. He made America confront its own bully status -- that's what he did with Vietnam. He said, "We are criminals in that war, and we have committed more war crimes than any other nation, and I will continue to say it." That kind of radical resistance to the American status quo and to America's self-identity and self-conception was radically threatening, in a way that proved, ultimately, I think, harmful to King himself, maybe even leading to his death. So I think his broad catholic (small "c") social vision linked issues of economic misery and social suffering of American blacks to blacks in South Africa, to brothers and sisters dying on Asian soil, and he also saw the connection between American domestic practices and American foreign practices and the suffering of poor people globally, people from the so-called Third World. Martin Luther King was insistent on connecting, in a way that Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon brilliantly did, what was going on here to what was going on abroad, and saw the vicious consequences of colonialism and tried to resist them as powerfully as he could...

    You say that black youth a few years ago "embraced Malcolm X as a griot, but King, with his successes and failures, may be the spiritual father of the hip hop generation." You say King has as much in common with Tupac Shakur as he does with Reverend Ralph Abernathy. How is Martin Luther King like Tupac?

    ...I know that King is not Tupac, but having said that, Tupac doesn't have to be Martin Luther King to be accepted, struggled with, and to be viewed as a worthy bearer of good news for young black people -- even though it's contradictory that, on the one hand, he applauded black women and, on the other hand, vicious misogyny to make his point. So he was a complex figure, but he still bore good news to young black people -- the good news of saying, you ought to be full of rage at the principles of racism and classism that make you poor, you ought to stand up against forces that make you poor, you ought to stand up against forces that beat up on you, like police brutality. For example, when Tupac said:

    Just the other day I got lynched by some crooked cops
    And to this day them same cops on the beat get major pay,
    But when I get my check they takin' tax out
    So we payin' the pigs to knock the blacks out.

    Well, you ain't got to be involved in Marxism 101 to understand that that's an astute analysis of the subsidization of our own oppression. Tupac understood that the tax base of [black] America was helping support the very policemen who were not protecting them, and that's a very sharp point that many people overlook. They simply see Tupac as a young man who went astray and got put in jail because of a rape charge, and don't see the complex life he led outside of that. And even when he gave in to his worse side, there was more than enough evidence that here was a highly intelligent and gifted figure who was capable, at his best, of articulating the claims of rage, anger, and invisibility or hyper-visibility, from which young black men and sometimes women suffered...

    And what I mean by comparing Tupac and Martin Luther King -- no disrespect to Dr. King -- is to suggest that many people overlook the same faults that King had in common with Tupac to announce his genius, while refusing to see in Tupac some of the same characteristics that King evidenced -- that is, the ability to speak truth to power, to represent an entire generation's anxieties about the erosion of certain rights. They didn't do it in the same way, to be sure, Martin Luther King had much more training, much more rhetorical genius and political power in fighting the battle for black America, but that is no slight on Tupac -- times have changed. Martin Luther King couldn't be Martin Luther King today, because the political demands for representation have been shifted, partially at least, into the cultural realm. So politics is not simply about electoral votes and non-parliamentary pressures put from prophetic figures on existing politicians. It is also about the articulation of black rage in a cultural sphere. It's about hip hop's expression of rebellion against black bourgeois capitulation to the status quo and its surrender of a prophetic voice. And I think Tupac represents that in a very powerful and direct fashion.

More from's MLK Research Center.

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