Friday, January 14, 2011

Halfway and MLK

The entire 44-member Fulbright ETA contingent descends on East Java this weekend for the beginning of a two-city, halfway-there tour. We'll be in Surabaya from Sunday to Tuesday, participating in a teacher-training outreach effort that has us visiting a bunch of area high schools, and then we're off for three full days in one of the nicer beachfront hotels in island paradisiacal Lombok. I promise to get some pictures up from the latter. Maybe even the former.

In Surabaya, we're working in groups of four and are supposed to both introduce/promote MLK Day in 30 minutes then use some State Department-issue edu materials to demonstrate novel approaches to teaching English. I'll be using some folk-song CDs and intend to have the Indonesian English teachers singing Oh, Susanna in the round.

On the MLK front, I'd really like to play his Mountain Top speech and talk about my trip last winter with Angela to the Lorraine Motel and how what's really interesting about King, once you've heard the Dream speech a thousand times in a high school classroom, is where he and his movement ended up in 1968. Or how deeply moving it is to stand inside the civil rights museum housed inside the old hotel building, and to look out on the balcony corner where King was shot in the throat by James Earl Ray. Ray used a .30-06 and shot King from a window about 150 yards away. A fucking howitzer shot at easy range. You can walk up to the balcony from inside the museum and get within about four feet of the spot where King fell to the concrete floor. It's marked with a red brick and you look at it through a picture window. The space between the motel wall and the railing is only about a yard or so wide. King was standing on the balcony when Ray shot him and King crumpled, destroyed at 39, into this small and unremarkable piece of motor lodge real estate. Ray took aim from a bathroom window in a shabby rooming house, across a city lot filled with trash and sodden mattresses. Certainly King could see the garbage and the mattresses from the balcony. They were right out his door, right across the street.

The museum includes a mock-up of the room King was staying in at the Lorraine--in 1968 a black-owned motel that King chose deliberately as a base of operations after coming in for criticism when he stayed at posher digs during an earlier visit to Memphis--and it's a picture of threadbare modesty. All sites of memory and commemoration are in some way artificial and scripted--especially when they're housed in museums--but, honestly, I can't picture a better or clearer representation of how truly remarkable a person and moral, oratorical force King was than that worn little motel room with the peeling wallpaper and unrepaired broken baseboard along the back wall. Against great state and private capital power, including a despicably criminal FBI, King fought with his voice, his words, and ideas. That part we sort of know but, really, that's all the guy had. In the beginning, and in the end. You just cannot listen to the Mountain Top speech, with its spooky and heartbreaking premonitions, and miss King's fatigue. He talks about it explicitly. His fight, the nation's fight for racial and economic equality, went on and on and on. And remains incomplete.

So we celebrate the Dream speech and the early Civil Rights movement and remain unreconciled with the latter part of that project. Sure, blacks are people, too. Of course! We've got a black president! But should we all consider a different approach to social change? What did the Civil Rights Act really do? In 1968, it was a deeply disappointing and incomplete second emancipation. Even King was disillusioned. He spends probably too much time in his last-ever speech reminiscing about Birmingham and Bull Connnor; those were clear-cut vistories, in the end. But after? Where did the dream go? A very bright American friend of mine here recently asked me if it was true that King had become a Socialist and a even a kind of radical Socialist by the time of his death. I said, more like Black Collectivist. Maybe on the way to Communist! And why the fuck not? He died supporting a garbageman's strike. A very different setting than the March on Washington. Who talks about this?

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