We Can't All Be Kings—And That's a Good Thing
on master narratives, identity, and "the work"
Thank you all so much for your patience and care. I finally feel good about sharing my writing again. This post highlights some of what I have been thinking about in my time of recovery.
The spring semester of 2020 was rough for me long before Covid reached the U.S. About halfway through my M. Div, I was registered for several classes that dealt with Christian faith, justice, and racism.1
Back then, I had a strong sense of duty shaped by many conversations and opportunities where I heard someone say “Wow, you are really good at this.” They were referring broadly to DEI work, anti-racism education, and the often necessary apologetics that came alongside that work in Christian spaces. Back then, being placed in a space where I could talk about any of these things felt like good, fulfilling work.
But this semester, it became clear that there was a limit to how much traumatic information I could process or how many conversations I could entertain. I hadn’t even begun to question who was being centered and how this affected my energy. That would come much later.
I took a travel seminar to Atlanta, Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma that spring break for a course on Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.2 The professor who led the trip made sure we did a lot of reading before that week. I won’t dive into the entire trip, but believe me, it was so rich and transformative.
Master Narratives of Rev. Dr. King
U.S. public education has shaped many people to have certain understandings of King that are harmful. Some well-meaning folks elevate him as the standard for all Black people in the public sphere. Then there are those who do the opposite, demonizing him to the point of invalidating any positive argument or action he ever made.
I think of the poem, “A dead man’s dream,” by Carl Wendell Hines, Jr.:
Now that he is safely dead, Let us praise him. Build monuments to his glory. Sing Hosannas to his name. Dead men make such convenient heroes. For they cannot rise to challenge the images That we might fashion from their lives. It is easier to build monuments Than to build a better world. So now that he is safely dead, We, with eased consciences will Teach our children that he was a great man, Knowing that the cause for which he Lived is still a cause And the dream for which he died is still a dream. A dead man’s dream.
There are certain master narratives surrounding King that impact everybody Black,3 whether they work in justice spaces or not. Some of these narratives seem innocently positive. These narratives line up with how history is written without a critical lens—which has typically focused on great white men and the great white events that surround them. These master narratives4 serve to isolate the individual success story, erasing the communities and influences around them. For King specifically, history books write about him as if he were a messianic figure, sent to do a particular work for a season followed by a sacrificial death. He is seen as a moderate because there are white people who refuse to embrace his later more radical political ideas. He is also seen as the entire civil rights movement—as if nothing came before him or continued after him.5
If I were to integrate the master narratives around King’s life uncritically, they might lead me to conclude this: I must always present my views as moderately as possible so that moderate white people will join whatever effort I endorse toward moderate freedom. I must be a great public speaker—otherwise, am I really doing the work? I must be a great leader, always at the front holding a microphone wherever possible. When I stop moving, everyone does because it becomes clear quickly that I am the brains of the operation. Though I do not admit it to myself and others, I take on life-diminishing tasks, excuse poor health, or accept mistreatment because at least I’m not getting shot and killed (yeah, the bar be that low sometimes).
Why am I writing about King in the summer? There are many people still alive who knew him, and others who study his writings and speeches in greater depth than I am able to. I affirm the importance of this narrative-shifting work. But today I revisit these master narratives to remind myself why I say yes to what I say yes to and no to what I say no to.
Taking a pilgrimage to multiple sites of civil rights history put me in places where thousands of feet had walked. I think of Birmingham and the Children’s March. There were children attacked by police dogs and arrested. Children whose names will never fall off the tongues of those who would shove these master narratives down our throats as “compliments.”
“If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive.”
Identity / The Work
When I think about the master narrative of the “Strong Black Woman,” she is often nailed to the cross in compliments. She was “so good at cleaning up after everyone,” no one bothered to ask anyone else. She was “a natural leader,” because she got used to speaking up because suffering in silence was not an alternative. She became good at so many things just to survive and heard about how “overqualified” she was while being rejected for a role. She began to wonder how things people said so kindly could reveal how little they actually saw her…She’s exhausted, but unsure if she will be loved if she rests as deeply as she truly needs.
I have spent several months in a variety of different kinds of pain, physical and mental. Spiritually, I was not well. For a while, it was hard to pick up the practices that help me reclaim and shape what I consciously claim in my identity stories. I took a break from so much that it was very hard to fight the beast of guilt so I could rest. I realized it was so hard to get back into work when I was focused on retrieving an old rhythm. A rhythm that did not take into account events that deeply impacted my sense of self.
To be honest, I was fighting a cocktail of harmful stories and frameworks because my exhaustion led all the worst influences to have a seat on the panel of My Life. Something life-changing happened to me, that affected my ability to contribute to “The Work” my soul must have. I lived a reality where work that is typically life-giving work was hard to do. And rest that is typically life-giving rest was hard to enjoy.6
Then I had coffee with someone who follows my work and looks up to me. On that day, my heart was in the pit of my stomach so I did not think I had a lot to offer. Some part of me felt like I was rehearsing myself, at least until I stopped thinking about it. In that conversation, I offered guidance, particularly to our shared experiences and my expertise. I offered a new framework. I talked about curriculum. I theologized. I told my story, including my best jokes.
I may smile and say thank you, but I don’t accept every compliment that comes my way. But I can’t dismiss them all either. Some will have to find their way to Maybe-land.
So often we tell the stories of “great men,”7 in ways that make it seem like every milestone was pre-determined. We say they were “destined for greatness.” When I look back on my own life, I can write a story that dismisses moments like the one I am coming out of. Or I can engage a lens of redemptive suffering, minimize the confusion, and say this all led to______.
But that wouldn’t be very me of me and sometimes that is the only thing that feels like me: I am withholding. In this season, I am withholding the forced meaning-making that comes to squish a three-dimensional life into a two-dimensional one.
Maybe this will all make sense later. Maybe it won’t. Maybe I’ll find some new identity formation story to cling to, some new spiritual insight. Maybe years from now, I’ll tell the story of this pivotal time like I’m looking down from a mountain—
Today I know, for sure, I have many stories to tell and some to (with)hold. But to be a storied body right now is all that matters. I am alive, enfleshed, and persisting, holding my most precious “maybes” close.
Is there someone in your life who compliments you for something you don’t understand or embrace (yet)?
Does the compliment line up with affirmations you’ve heard in loving and treating relationships?
Does the compliment rely on master narratives or stereotypes that have harm attached?
Are there identity stories you’ve embraced that disrupt your ability to see the truth of the compliment?
For those who are interested (especially if you are a BU School of Theology student), here are their names: “The Ethical Leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” “Dismantling White Privilege, Power and Supremacy,” and “Christianity Engaging Modernity.”
There was an activist in Selma who singled me out to ask me a question about him and when I replied by saying his name as “King” she made me restate his entire name, including his titles. Though I still default to “King” academically, I always write out his full name in writing at least once.
I would carefully expand this to say all BIPOC, but I would tease this out with the nuance that for Black people, there is a particular history of respectability at work.
Shoutout to a class called “Reading Lives: Story, Autobiography, and Identity.”
A good article for those who want to read specifically on master narratives on King: “The Limits of Master Narratives in History Textbooks: An Analysis of Representations of Martin Luther King, Jr.” by Derrick P. Alridge
With few exceptions. Boston Pride weekend was amazing!
I use "great men” here because this is the uncritical way history is told, excluding women and nonbinary people.