media justice: a contemplationWhile I was in Atlanta, I went to the MLK historic site. I walked to the site in the early morning. There was a light mist across the city, the few other early risers nodded easy hellos as we all went about our business.
I didn't know what to expect at the historic site. I'm embarrassed to admit, I didn't really know MLK was from Atlanta. I had always thought he was from Alabama (he preached in Alabama but was born and raised in Atlanta). So as I walked to twelve blocks down Auburn Street, I was unprepared for what greeted me. Historic churches, stores yellowed from age, restaurants shoved in the back of storage buildings--the history and the present of the people of Sweet Auburn mixed together into something called life.
And then as I crossed the final street, I saw it--in the distance, bathed in early morning mist and sun, was a site that some how, has always been in my memory:
Who doesn't know Ebenezer Baptist Church? Who doesn't know the blue sign with the simple white cross? Who hasn't been raised hearing stories of the righteous action and holy community that flourished out of Ebenezer?
At the church, I found out that they play old speeches of MLK's. You can go sit in the congregational hall, listen to the speech, pray, take notes, reflect. I could hardly speak to the man at the front door as he told me this--tears were coming and I think he knew it. He gently pointed me towards the hall. I wondered how many half sobbing people he's directed toward the hall.
The hall, which has been reconstructed to how it looked back in 1963, is well lit and cool. Pews are comfortable and well worn. I noticed several people rubbing their hands on the pews, as if listening to the past through their fingers. The walls have intricate designs etched into them, and the windows are small but etched in beautiful dark colors.
I sat in the middle of the hall and just watched for a while. A group of grannies sat right up close, in the first couple of rows. They stared intently at the front pulpit when MLK's speech played--their body's rigid with attention, their hats tense from their focus. A younger woman that was with them whispered to them about half way through the speech, and stood up as if she was ready to leave. The other women didn't look away from the pulpit--but one of them yanked the younger woman down with an intensity all mothers know. The "stop being so rude" intensity.
The speech that was played was an earlier version of the "I have a Dream" speech. A crystal clear sound system lifted the deep measured voice of MLK throughout the hall. The speech was so clear, I thought for a good part of it that MLK had recorded it in a sound studio. But about half way through the speech MLK made a joke at which time, the entire congregation he was speaking to laughed in response. And it was then that I realized--the absolute clarity of his speech was due in large part to the absolute silence of his congregation. This sermon was given in the days before the March on Washington version of the Dream speech--which was when MLK flew out into the national spot light.
I could only imagine the intense feelings that must have wrapped around the congregation as this speech unfolded. The ecstasy of potential freedom, the sisterhood with the woman sitting next to you, the awe of knowing something amazing is happening right in front of you--all mixed, surely, with a healthy dose of fear. Mothers knowing that other sons had been lynched for less, old folks knowing their measured world was being shaken, young people knowing they were on the front lines whether they wanted to be or not--everybody knowing that just down the street was a fire station armed with white men, just up the street was a police station armed with white men, and surrounding them, a city of whiteness that had, only a few decades earlier, been a part of a a race riot where scores of black people were killed.
But still, protected by the red bricks of the Ebenezer Church, MLK spoke on, and his congregation listened.
And technology captured it all, the words, the silence, so that forty years later, an overly emotional bfp could sit in the same hall thousands of others had, hear the message and accept it into my life as millions before me did.
There's probably not many people that would consider playing old recordings in a church to be any type of "media." In the day and age of corporate controlled media and "if it bleeds it leads" local media, we have grown accustomed to the idea that media is something you get from the television or internet and is supplied by "reporters' and 'journalists'--aka people who went to school. We are inherently distrustful of "unreliable" news--reporting from those with no degree or not legitimized through corporations or news that isn't reported through television or the internet, or even worse, that which is deemed as "biased".
And yet, while I am comfortable in assuming nobody can remember last night's local news (or more likely, didn't even watch it), all of us have at some point, heard or watched at least parts of MLK's speeches. All of us, at some point or another, have been forced to interact with his message, his community's message.
Because whether we acknowledge it or not, MLK's speeches act as a timeless indicator of his community--both the black community in general as well as the local community he grew up in (the Sweet Auburn community) and the local community he organized in (Alabama).
In the Dream speech, MLK connected the shared experience of violence against black folks across the U.S. such that a community was formed:
We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
At the same time, however, he kept his speech firmly grounded in his local community:
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
And through the constant replaying of his speech, through the transcribing of his speech by mothers and activists, through the discussion of his speech in churches and dorms and community shelters, the black community in New York heard of the injustices perpetrated against their families in Georgia and local Birminghamians discovered things weren't so great up North. Sharecropper connected to factory worker through a speech. A feat that most of us, even in this day and age of advanced technology, can't legitimately say "media" does for us.
All communities of color, no matter where they are, how rich or poor they are, how big, small, new, old, troubled or free, can name specific times their community was or will be mentioned on the news--1. when the men of the community fucked up some how or 2. when the community can be used to help show the world what great amazing and concerned people politicians are (ala, New Orleans).
We all know this with alarming clarity--and yet there are so many of us who do not include media justice in our liberatory agendas. There are so few of us who consider the historic and creative ways that our communities have created our own "media":
"There are five square knots on the quilt every two inches apart.
They escaped on the fifth knot on the tenth pattern and went to Ontario.
The monkey wrench turns the wagon wheel toward Canada on a bear's
paw trail to the crossroads ..."
Some how, some way, when the need was there but the resources weren't, we managed to get the message that needed to get put out to the community (or out to the world), out there. We moved past newspapers or television and went on month long walks to salt mines. We made songs and taught them to people traveling down river, we painted murals on freeways and highways that sliced through our communities, we wrote chain letters, we set up free historic sites that anybody in the world can come to, we made movies, we wore traditional clothing, we graffitied buses--just to name a few things.
We have a history in ALL of our communities of finding ways to communicate with each other in ways that are private and open, immediate and timeless, local and general.
And here we sit today--still sure "media" means corporate news, that "legitimate" means news that only talks about us when we can be used--we are sure of this even as one the biggest corporate destructions of our "media" stands not so much as the take over of BET or Univision--but the very careful rewriting of MLK's words by racist liberals, conservatives and radicals alike. Local injustice and general community building being completely overwritten by firm assurances of color-blindness and "forgiveness." A community born message of resistance against historic structural oppression defanged to nothing more than a sound bite of feel good kumbaya hipness.
But the question must be asked, if MLK's speeches aren't radical media making at its finest, why are they still being attacked through manipulation long after BET and Univision have capitulated to corporate dominance? To put it more plainly--how many times have you seen white (or even colored) politicians, media makers, bloggers, teachers, community members, etc rail against BET or Univision? By way of contrast, how many times have politicians, media makers, bloggers, teachers, community members etc misquoted, misinterpreted, or misrepresented an MLK speech?
MLK's speeches are a threat to a white supremacist structure because they can't be controlled by that structure. They are grounded in community that still exists today, and that still, for the most part, takes the same abuse and violence that it did back in 1963. A community that still aches to hear the message, that is still desperate to believe things can change.
And for all the manipulation, thievery, and self-righteous false knowledge of MLK's words on the part of the white supremacist structures of power, any person in the world can still go to the MLK historic site and find out the truth. Or google MLK speeches and find out the truth. Or go to the book store, or rent recordings from the library, or read the spray painted walls of the ghetto, or watch a Spike Lee film, or talk to their momma or granny.
MLK's speeches are a threat, because they can be communicated in ways that aren't dependent upon white supremacist media structures. And as such, even forty years after they were delivered, our communities know the real words, know the real meanings, and continue to use our in own methods of communication to spread the word and incite our communities to action.
Radical media making at it's finest.
So the question becomes for those of us who are bloggers--how can our blogs similarly act as radical media?
For far too long, blogging has been recognized as something that is elitist, white centered, inaccessible and really, when it boils right down to it, sorta self indulgent.
And yet, in spite of these critiques, we all know that there is also (as in the real world) the underside of blogging that rarely gets talked about. Like the fact that a lot of poor people use the internet to gain access to alternative eating and medical options. Or that youths of color are using the internet to organize movements. Or that the queer Arab community is finding each other through the internet. Or that the disabled community is strongly present in the blogging world--and to say that the internet provides no space to organize is actually quite abelist.
We know that, as always, we are finding our own ways to communicate--and that the question is not really should we use the internet as a form of media making/communication--but rather instead, how will we use this form of media to spread the word about our communities? What will our blogs document? What story will they tell?
While googling for pictures of Ebeneezer Church, I found this picture:
If you overlook the crowd of white folks out front for just a moment, and look in back of them--and then recall the picture way at the top of the post--you'll see, just like I did--there's a story there. There's a story in that imagery that needs to be told. A story that's probably waited much to long to be told. Or more accurately, it's probably waited too long to be noticed by people who aren't a part of the Sweet Auburn community.
But even so--without me saying it, I know that most of us know the story. Because it's the story of all of our communities as well.
And for me--that's what blogging can do--that's where blogging can lead us, what it can document.
The forever story of our community's burden.
The forever story of our community's resistance.
I leave you with the words of MLK as explained by media justice activist, Amy Goodman.
Please be sure to pass them on.
So we can all get to the mountaintop together.