Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Hayi i MLK Guini?

Martin Luther King Jr. Day passed recently, and this year it was very different, for obvious reasons. America saw the election of its first African American President, and so people are feeling like a lot is suddenly possible, as the symbolism of America has been rocked, as its status as a white souled nation challenged indirectly, even though Obama was hardly a card carrying member of the Black Panther Party.

As an Ethnic Studies scholar MLK Jr. is someone you always hear plenty about and always have to confront the ghost of. He is an inspiring figure, somebody who accomplished great things, who said many great things. Last year I went to the Martin Luther King Jr. historical district in Atlanta, Georgia, and saw his home as a child, and also different exhibits on the civil rights movement. Bai hu admite na guaha nai kana tumanges yu'. Manachu i taotao gi ayu na tiempo para i direchon-ñiha para u difende i tinaotaon-ñiha.

But apart from these incredible things, MLK is also something to be wary and cautious of, much in the same way that Barack Obama is.

The glorification of MLK threatens to mystify all of us and forget how movements and social change actually happen. They do not happen because of a single leader or inspirational figure. Those are always there, but there are always far more than the memorialization of an event or its canonization will allow. The stories of social change with a single great leader who embodies everything wonderful about said social change are all after the fact accounts. All simplifications, meant to make the writing and remembering of that event as easier, more palatable, more simple and in the case of struggles over racism and institutional violence, make them seem more inevitable. These sorts of hero building make it seem as if a Messiah will soon arrive who will magically organize and inspire people, who will alter the consciousness of the opposition and make things the way they were really supposed to be. All that racism stuff, all that oppression and marginalization was just a detour on the path to the ultimate fulfillment, in this instance of the true greatness of America: equality, even if its of the eventual, deferred for a few centuries kind.

But this is the danger in all larger than life figures. On the one hand they have the potential to animate us, to activate parts of our mind, inspire us and expand our imagination. This is the mainstream excitement over Barack Obama. He has now "opened up" the Presidency to all black people in America. It is now possible for a black child in America to think and believe that they can be President when they grow up. MLK and Barack Obama are now figures which push our imagination, that show us how things can change, and hopefully push us to be a part of that progressive momentum in our own lives.

But at the same time, these larger than life figures can make us forget that we do have a role in shaping our communities or determining our futures. With this hero-making, we can easily assume that it is actually these figures who do the improving, who are the ones who can actually change things. We can project onto them the responsibilities that we know we have. Instead of the mantra “we are the one’s we are waiting for,” it is very easy to assume that “those big shots, those heroes are the ones that we are all waiting for.” The making of heroes thus serves a conservative impulse, one for detachment and apathy. As if the responsibilities for improving our communities can be left to those larger than life figures, as if we need just have faith that they will arrive, and so long as we believe in them when they are here, everything will be fine.

So for every activist, someone like MLK is the dream that can help them connect to other people, communicate the need to act or provide them a history of progressive action, but also the bane of their existence, partially for the reason mentioned in the previous paragraph. But in another way, MLK can also be cited as an example of why no more action is necessary, a success who acts like capstone upon history. Barack Obama will no doubt soon function in the same way, that whenever arguments about racism in America are submitted, they can so incredibly easily be dismissed by simply saying the number “44.”

As I am a Chamorro activist (much to the dismay of various family members or friends), these sorts of issues aren’t just academic, but are a part of the how I engage with Chamorros and others living or tied to Guam. Chamorro culture and Guam culture are both frustratingly “laid back” and so conceiving either of them as having a history or legacy of activists or heroes in the vein of MLK is almost unbelievable. The natural way we are supposed to be on Guam is relaxed, not take things too seriously, not really stand up and fight for anything, but simply let it all wash over us, rolls past us.

Some of the tough work that I do is convince people otherwise, to make sure that they know that there is, like in any community a rich tradition of grass roots organizing, activism, people taking up critical causes, fighting the colonizers, fighting the power structure, etc. These are not just politicians, as often times leaders and heroes is automatically translated into i mampulitikat. But this tendency to overestimate the inspirational potential or society changing abilities of politicians isn’t the toughest part about being an activist invested in Guam’s decolonization. The toughest part is overcoming the mental colonization that manifests even in the way MLK is invoked on Guam.

Unfortunately, the minds of many Chamorros has become accustomed to looking to the United States first, even when it comes to defining themselves, or speaking from their own hearts about justice on Guam, and so MLK is thus something almost everyone on Guam is prone to cite even before considering somebody who is actually from Guam. Part of what I do is asking the simple question of, “who is Guam’s MLK?” Rather than accept MLK as the epitome of social movements, a fight for peace and justice or inspirational action, why not seek some of our own heroes to join MLK in the pantheon of progressive archetypes?

Knowing what I do about Guam’s history, I can come up with dozens, perhaps on a good day, hundreds of possible figures that could take on this role. Some alive today, others recently passed on, and some reduced to the robust imagery for t-shirts and tattoos. What are some that you can come up with?

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