Dr. King Died So You Could Call Me Names (And Other Truths)


I attended a Historically Black College, and King Day was a super big deal. He was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, so that meant that the Alphas on the campus of Talladega College, my alma mater, used to go crazy on the holiday, which was both a day of pride and sadness, considering the way that Dr. King died.

The question would be asked, what did Dr. King make his sacrifice for? In The Untelling by Tayari Jones, one of her characters is fond of saying, “Is this why Dr. King died?”

Back then, the responsibility hung heavy on my shoulders and those of my peers, and though that burden was ponderous on King Day, it rested there throughout the year.  If we failed, we failed the same community King shed his blood for. The question of why he died—the ultimate message of his sacrifice—was  broached by African American community as a way of reminding us of great responsibility.

King did not die so we could become criminals. King did not die so a Black man could beat his wife or rape a woman. King did not die so we could drop out of high school before graduation.  And so on and so forth, etcetera. And those were the big things.

But not calling another Black man or woman out of his or her name, well, that was the absolute minimum.

Okay, so now, you’re thinking I’m the millionth Negro who’s writing an essay to say, Dr. King did not die so we could call each other n—-r or  b—h or h-. But guess what? That’s not this blog post. This blog post is about difficulty.

See, dying is a hard thing. In fact, it’s the hardest thing there is. There’s no coming back from death, and despite my Christian faith, I’m not sure there’s anything beyond death. It could be nothing, a nothing that goes on forever and ever and ever.

And if dying’s the hardest thing there is, and Dr. King did that, why are we living, breathing Black intellectuals so afraid that we won’t be liked anymore by other Black people that we won’t tell Black people the truth?

So, in celebration of Dr. King’s birthday, I’ve decided to be that rare Black intellectual who’s not afraid of risking my Black Passport by telling other Black people things they don’t want to hear. I’m going to tell the truth.

First things first.

If you are African American and you call another Black man (or woman) the n-word even if it’s not in real life but on a record, you’re not creating art.

Art is hard. Art is difficult. Calling someone a mean name is easy. You are not smart if the n-word is the first word you reach for. What you are is lacking in imagination. And you’re embarrassing me, The Race, and your mama.

Yes, using the n-word falls under your freedom of speech. And it’s also my freedom of speech to tell you that growing up in the ghetto and then making a lot of money does not mean you’re a genius. It means, your setting such a low bar makes it easier for me to make a living as an academic because anybody with a vocabulary above fifty words who went to graduate school will really look like a genius compared to you.

I guess I should thank you profusely, but again, you’re embarrassing me. And since you might not know what “profusely” means, it wouldn’t matter anyway.

Want to call a Black woman a b—h or h-? Okay. Go on ahead. But again, that means you have a lack of creativity. It also means, while you might be telling the truth when you say you love your mother, wife or baby daughter, you might consider that it is truly possible to treat your family right while treating others badly so you can still be a bad person. Just ask CEOs of Fortune Five Hundred companies or read about slave masters in a history book. An actual book, not one on tape.

Here’s some more truth: I walk into a classroom and look in the faces of my White students and wonder, how many of them think it’s okay to consider my Black female skin and think I’m nothing but a receptacle for sex, if my brothers already have talked about me that way and nobody has ever made a real effort to stop it—even the people who are supposed to know better, like Black public intellectuals and Sisters who call themselves feminists.

Let me keep going with this whole truth thing.

It’s the truth that sometimes, I want to pack my belongings in a rag on a stick and take the next Underground Railroad Train out of this Black community and start A New Race.

And that’s just when I get embarrassed about the name-calling.

Don’t even get me started on the despair I feel about Black-on-Black crime, the Black men who rape or kill Black women or each other, the Black men who won’t stay and be fathers to their children, the drug dealers (sometimes who are Black women) in our community. All those things we can help, and those things we can’t really blame on White people—but there is liable to be some Black intellectual with a Phd who will find a loophole for us to act like fools, probably concerning something White folks did to us before the telephone was invented.

I know a lot of Black people are just like me. I suspect those intellectual Blacks who talk about “Post-Race” aren’t really trying to move this society forward. They’re just sick and tired of The Present Black Race they have to belong to, people embarrassing upstanding Black folks with their bad behavior, and then, in order to own A Black Passport, we upstanding African Americans have to get in line and pretend—or be called sellouts.

Some of those Post-Race folks feel the same way I do: As much as I want to help Black people, loving this community sometimes feels like I’m in love with somebody who beats me, and who will eventually be the death of me. And then, who will marry a younger version of me, only to beat her to death, too.

We’re getting to a place where those of us Black folks who are surviving and thriving are being faced with a terrible choice: should the small number of us forget “linked fate,” turn our backs on centuries of shared history to save ourselves, or should we sacrifice our lives for the community, as King did?

I’ll tell you the final truth—a truth I’ve never admitted in print: sometimes I just can’t stand the Black community. Sometimes, I shake in anger when I see how we will justify any crime, large or small. Sometimes while I love my own Black self, I hate certain kinds of Black folks. Certain kinds. The ones who embarrass me and fill me with despair, I mean.

I wonder if that’s how Dr. King felt, in the years before his death. Not all the time, maybe not even sometimes, but every once in a while. When he thought about the negative aspects of this community, was he embarrassed? Angry? Contemptuous? Or even, hateful?

After all, Dr. King wasn’t Jesus Christ. He was just a man. So maybe Dr. King did experience those feelings, but still, somehow he had enough love for all Black folk–even the tacky ones– to stay with us. Enough love to lay down his life for us. That’s really something.

And I think about his profound love, not just on his birthday, but many other days throughout the year, when I remain with my Black community, despite everything, and I try so hard to keep reaching for love myself.

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5 thoughts on “Dr. King Died So You Could Call Me Names (And Other Truths)

  1. Stockely Carmichael said ” What the liberal really wants is to bring about change which will not in any way endanger his position” Can I add this quotation to the mix when thinking about the courage and perseverance shown by Dr King. The middle class is shrinking and what happens in 2012 may seal the fate of all Americans for years to come. New Oleans has started out the new year with more murders. Who is stepping up to the plate ?

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts
    That really hit many of our sentiments. Keep on writing and telling the truth!! Happy Martin Luther King,Jr. Celebration!!

  3. Miss Honoree, I am feeling a great deal of pain from your posting today. I won’t pretend to understand all of it, but I will say that I think that many “groups” of people share in your same feelings when it comes to their community. I am Jewish, I am horrified when I hear Jewish people still use certain Yiddish words at home or in public. I am shocked when Jewish people still use the word Gentile, I mean that is 1950’s not 2012. I am offended when Jewish men say the won’t marry Jewish women because they are frigid, Jewish American Princesses, etc.

    So as you wrote I am wondering if this goes on in other groups, whether it be ethnic, religious, culture, etc? What I wrote above has gone on in the Jewish community since I am old enough to understand. I will tell you that I did not hear that talk in my own home growing up, but there was enough around me to make up for that.

    I find it a terrible loss that the men in the African American community have not grown up enough to show respect for the women in their community. I have been a lucky woman, as I have received proper respect from all the men in my family. When I am in public and do not receive the proper respect, I will speak up if the situation is safe.

    I have join your new site! xo B

  4. Thank you for Reaching for Love, and for
    sharing so thoroughly with your readers.

    Wishing you, and all of us, a Peaceful, Creative
    Dr. King Day !

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