Sunday, March 13, 2011

An Ordinary Man

As we approach the anniversary of the death  of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I can't help but think of the sacrifice of those who fought to bring the potential of the American dream to all people. I'm not talking about the people who made headlines, I'm talking about the people who made sacrifices small and great and who are for the most part forgotten by history. The leaders of the civil rights struggle are rightfully venerated by the masses, but I think we overlook the majority of those who made it possible for civil rights to become a reality. From the housewife who donated her time and energy to the cause to the bus driver who spent all his free time handing out pamphlets to the student who put his education on hold so that he take part in a march to the bus boy who risked not only his job, but his life as well as he took part in a sit in at a segregated restaurant. I hope that at this time when we remember the ultimate sacrifice that MLK made that we also remember the faceless nameless masses who also contributed mightily to the ultimately successful attempt to fulfill the promise that was made in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal". 

The reason that I think of those regular people who made those sacrifices is that I'm not sure that the debt that is owed to those individuals can ever be repaid. How does one pay back what so many suffered to gain with their blood, sweat and tears?The election of Barack Obama and the elevation of many African Americans to positions of power and influence has led some to declare the battle for equality at an end. It is said that if we can elect a black president then blacks have certainly achieved all that they set out to accomplish during the civil rights struggle. In my view, that is certainly not the case, but I can understand how some could have that opinion. However, my question is, was the only goal of the civil rights struggle to create a climate so that a few could reach exalted heights. Did those factory workers, maids, students, housewives, sacrifice all so much in order to elevate the few?

I ask the question because I have struggled often with the thought of living an ordinary life. I have had all the advantages that a middle class life could offer. I went to good schools, graduated from college, got a scholarship to go to graduate school, graduated and became a working member of society. The problem with an ordinary life is that I feel the pressure to be extraordinary. Having lived an "ordinary" life, I can't help but feel that I have somehow failed the generation who suffered so much in order to give me the opportunity to be more than "ordinary".

American society seems to only pay attention to either the best or the worst of black society. Criminals, welfare cheats, drug addicts, prison inmates who happen to be black are consistently highlighted on the news and in popular culture. There are those who would ascribe the negative qualities of the worst of those individuals to all African-Americans. I could offer many real life examples of this, but suffice it say that this is not limited to only those narrow minded individuals that we call bigots.

American society will also heap inordinate praise on those who have been able to reach the heights of popularity or power. Athletes, entertainers, politicians, business leaders. Of course if one of those who reach those heights were to commit a transgression of some type, then all the negative stereotypes are immediately brought to bear. They are no longer one of the "good ones", they immediately become "just like the rest of them".

Given our "post racial" society, the question remains, what is required of the descendants of the greatest generation. Is being ordinary, enough? Does being ordinary fulfill the desire of those who made so many sacrifices given the almost schizophrenic attitude that society has toward African Americans? It is easy to argue that the goal of the ordinary people who were the engine of the civil rights movement was that they and their descendants be allowed the same opportunity to fail or succeed as the rest of the America. The fought for the right to be treated as individuals. They fought for the right for their fortunes to be tied to their own strengths and weaknesses.

So do I honor that generation with the life I lead? I'm not sure. I suppose on one level I do, I suppose on one level America does as well. They just happen to be different levels. We as a country have advanced enough to elect a black man as our president and yet we still manage to vilify people because of the color of their skin. Those ordinary people who suffered might say that they did it so that I could live the as I do, but I'm sure they would also be disappointed in the attitudes that still exist. The promised land is not having a black person reach the presidency, on the contrary, the promised land is being treated as an equal regardless of your level of achievement. The battle for that ultimate goal rages on. It rages on even though some would like to put the ugliest of episodes behind us.

I can honor those bravest of Americans by talking and writing about how much they sacrificed. I am not sure that I can honor them by the life I lead. The battle for Civil Rights continues today as it probably will for the foreseeable future. The battle continues throughout the country and it continues inside me as I'm sure it does inside many who happen to share my pigmentation. Is being ordinary a fulfillment of the legacy of all of those who came before me or a betrayal of it? I wish I had the answer to that.
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6 comments:

Jack Jodell said...

Michael,
"Ordinary" people who have achieved and maintained a middle class existence are the backbone of our country and have not failed or betrayed those who came before them in the least. They represent the culmination of their ancestors' heartfelt dreams, and should take great comfort in that.

Keep in mind that "ordinary" people can and often do achieve extraordinary things. Rosa Parks is one example, and even a young Baptist minister by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr is another. For that matter, so, too, are you and every other blogger who reaches millions on the internet with their heartfelt passion and constant drive for fairness, equalty, and decency in a world of cynics and uncaring fools.

The chapters in your, mine, and our other fellow bloggers have not yet been fully written, my friend. Our struggles will continue, but in the end, we will ALL have benefitted from the actions we have taken on behalf of the human race as a whole. And when we finally realize all or part of our dreams, we will no longer be ordinary, and it will be a great day - guaranteed! Keep the faith, brother.

Beach Bum said...

We as a country have advanced enough to elect a black man as our president and yet we still manage to vilify people because of the color of their skin.

Got to disagree with you on that one because I really hate to write this but I believe President Obama was elected because the country was in a mild panic and because Bush was a republican. If Hillary had won the nomination she would have won the election and since she is white probably would have won by a bigger margin.

As evidence for my statement I was floored a week or so before the 2008 election while listening to NPR interview a panel of "likely voters." One older white woman on the panel actually said that she feared "black" people would take revenge on white people if Obama was elected. Its that very mindset that gave birth to the Tea Party.

Mycue23 said...

Beach,
Regardless of the factors that led to Obama's election (and even with the economic crisis in full swing I was doubtful that he would be elected), the fact is that he did win the election. It does not matter that Hillary would have won by a larger margin (which I absolutely agree with). This country did something which just one generation ago would have seemed impossible. Hell just up until the actual results were announced, I was pretty sure it wouldn't happen.
So while I understand your point about the climate in the country at the time, the fact still remains that a majority of the people who voted that day chose to vote for a black man which is still stunning to me and does say a lot about how far we've traveled as a country. The comments of some (as you point out) also show how far we still have yet to go.

Mycue23 said...

Jack,
Thanks for your never wavering support of our little blog here. You've been with us since almost day one and I can't tell you how much it means to us that you still stop by. My faith in the decency and strength of "ordinary" people is always reaffirmed by what you write. I'll keep the faith as long as I know that there are people like you out there. Thanks again, Jack.

SJ said...

@Mycue23,
Thanks for this reminder. Your post caused me to remember a line from the play Agnes of God, in which a nun is asked whether she thought there were any good people left in the world, to which she gave a very qualified and conditional but ultimately pessimistic answer. I don't agree with her. There are many fighting away in the courts and in the classrooms and in the media. Some are still taking to the streets for a better society, but I’m sadly not one of them anymore. I’m not one of the good people they were asking about the nun about. I’d be embarrassed to explain to Dr. King what my personal goals were, although I think he’d match me, worry for worry. He was fighting for the opportunity for all to be grand, accomplished, excellent as well as mediocre. I would have loved to hear what he’d have to say on the environment, or the increasing ‘personhood’ of corporations. The man never weighed down the clarity of his thought with apology or aggression, and we could use a little more of that today: Just one more reason to relegate the assassin who robbed us of a great American citizen to a nameless obscurity and irrelevance.

Dr. King wanted to wage a war on poverty, on inequality. In that sense, even his legacy and significance is often short changed (calculatingly so by the self-appointed enemies of his mission) and relegated to 'only' an opposition to racial injustice and civil rights, which is no small thing in every way. Dr. King had hunter’s passion for unfairness in all its forms and marshaled the best aspects of his faith and religious culture to make change happen.
Thanks for this excellent reminder Mycue23.
-SJ

tnlib said...

What a thought provoking post. When I view the old news clips of those ordinary - "anonymous" - young people being subjected to dogs and hoses I often pay them a silent tribute and wonder what's become of them. Not so ordinary then, have they been able to lead an ordinary life since? Isn't that what MLK really wanted? Just the ((opportunity)) for people to be ordinary?

Having been married to someone of means and living pretty high on the hog, I can honestly say that I'm much more content being reduced to middle class status. I'm no longer interested in making big waves - just in contributing a few ripples here and there.

BB: "One older white woman on the panel actually said that she feared "black" people would take revenge on white people if Obama was elected." Yeah, but there are more younger people of all races than little old scared white
ladies.

Jack: Beautifully said.