By Mina Shah
I will be soberly celebrating his memory today. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was an amazing man, who did amazing things for this country and challenged all Americans to work towards the ideal of a perfectly just nation. He certainly deserves his own day. But please don’t wish me a “happy” Martin Luther King Day.
Today, I’m taking a solemn day, not a happy one. Because today is neither a day for unbridled smiles and sunshine, nor one to celebrate successes of times past, of the Civil Rights Movement. It cannot be a celebration of success when the successes we think we celebrate don’t exist. It cannot be a celebration while disenfranchisement gets worse and not better. It cannot be a celebration while we have presidential candidates and people with power in this country who equate White with Pure and Dark with Defamed.
Don’t smile happily and sigh with relief about our day off of school. It’s not just a day for relaxation and passivity. Smile sadly and sigh with resignation to the need for continued action, the need to continue fighting, despite exhaustion and an essential tiredness. It’s a day off to reflect on next steps to reforming the system. It’s a day to strategize on how to eradicate white supremacy and stop it from poisoning both our personal relationships and society as a whole.
I can’t have a “happy” Martin Luther King Day today. It seems futile to me to celebrate the day off that some people dread because they could have used the pay from today. Since we have not achieved the level of liberation that Dr. King talked about in his “I Have a Dream” speech, folks in this country who have not had the equal opportunity promised to them by our founding documents remain slaves to the machine of our society, working tooth-and-nail for less than a living wage.
Don’t gush to me about your three- or four-day weekend. It seems fruitless to me to celebrate something that not everyone has anyway. Not everyone even has the day off; the world doesn’t halt to pay homage to this man. Capitalism and its demands for services don’t take a break, so folks continue to work. Not everyone can afford to take the day off, so many continue to work.
I can’t have a “happy” Martin Luther King Day while the shadows of slavery still loom over our nation. Not while white supremacy acts as God throughout our nation and across the world; not while we as a nation continue to leave histories and traditions of white terror and genocide conducted by the powers that be. Not while affirmative action is the new scarecrow haunting White America, replacing the old of social mixing and inter-marriage. Not while I have peers who can separate the personal and the political, referring to the political as something distant and for others to work on instead of something we do every day. Not while there continue to be Americans who don’t see themselves as part of the problem facing race that we have in this country or fitting into some sort of solution to make this country just. Not while we’re not all committed to finding resolutions and making reparations.
Don’t wish me a “happy Martin Luther King Day” because such a thing doesn’t exist. Such a thing cannot exist while we live in an age of incarceration where alleged justice is punitive and not restorative. While death row prisoners do not have a right to representative counsel in this country. While our prison system is orchestrated to conduct a eugenics experiment under the guise of keeping our citizens safe. While the color of a person’s skin can equal the signature on a death warrant. While we live in a militarized police state.
Today, I will cry. I will cry because of the lack of justice in this country and mainstream America’s utter complacency with where we are. I will cry because at a university as prestigious as this one, there isn’t a fight over all the literature on and by Dr. King in Green Library the day before his national holiday. I will cry, because I will watch Selma and see brutality and white supremacy in America in 1965 and 1977 and 1992 and 2014 and 2015 and 2016. I will cry because of empty seats left at dinner tables and families robbed of parents and children and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins. I will cry for fear that folks I love will one day not come home because of their melanin and a system that says “guilty until proven innocent.” I will cry, because none of us are free until all of us are free.
So if you see me around campus, give me a long, hard hug. Or a solemn nod. Or a sad smile. Or sit with me in silence for a bit. Just don’t wish me a “happy” Martin Luther King Day.
Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu.