Dear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
I’ve been thinking about you a lot for the past week. It only yesterday occurred to me that today was the day we celebrate you. As I was falling asleep the other night, I was trying to remember that quote… I can never remember the first part… “The arc of [something] is long, but it bends toward justice”? I kept repeating it in my head, trying to place the ‘something’: universe? equality? …
I finally looked it up, just now. It’s from a speech you gave in Montgomery after a march, a speech we now title “How Long? Not Long” or “Our God is Marching On”, and I found the context for the quote:
I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?” (Speak, sir) Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?” Somebody’s asking, “When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?” Somebody’s asking, “When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, (Speak, speak, speak) plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, (Speak) and truth bear it?” (Yes, sir)
I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, (Yes, sir) however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, (No sir) because “truth crushed to earth will rise again.” (Yes, sir)
How long? Not long, (Yes, sir) because “no lie can live forever.” (Yes, sir)
How long? Not long, (All right. How long) because “you shall reap what you sow.” (Yes, sir)
How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. (Yes, sir)
It bends toward justice. I find myself wondering if you really believe that. You were a man of faith, so it’s certainly plausible. I find myself wondering if I can believe that. My grandfather did, and there is no better role model for moral rectitude in my life. It seems, at least in public, that you believed in the ultimate goodness of humans, and I think that’s a much better environment for one’s soul than the lightless forest of cynicism… but can I believe it?
Did you ever just… cry? Just… weep at the height of the mountain you were climbing? Did you punch pillows or walls? Did you scream at the heavens and shake your fist at God? This article says, of the difficult times in your life when you faced violence, “In these moments, he wasn’t trying to crush his anger, or that of his people. He was trying to channel it into a higher purpose.”
I’m angry all the time, though perhaps less angry than I was 10 years ago. There are moments of daylight, surely, but I’ve spent my life in a simmering rage. And it has a tenor of self-righteousness to it, like I deserve to be angry. Like it’s my right to be angry. Like I’m supposed to be angry. Like the world owes me something. Like the world owes a white, middle-class American something. How disgusting.
Sure, I’m a woman… and there are legitimate grievances in a country where rich male politicians get to decide what I can do with my own body. But, I live in a first-world country, and I have access to birth control and gynecologists and, despite the best efforts of the Christian Wrong, my personal physical freedoms have never been hindered in any real way.
And I’m bisexual, so I could have personal gripes about homophobia, although I’ve never really experienced it directed toward me. At least, I’ve never been bothered by it when it was directed toward me, because it always strikes me as… abnormal. I realized at some point that I consider bisexuality (or, perhaps, pansexuality) to be the default, and I’m usually more puzzled than angered when folks ridicule the non-hetero. So, although I’m furious that people aren’t allowed to marry the people they love… I was able to marry. I was never oppressed for loving a man, unlike millions of people across the globe.
I get angry about the way we treat animals. I recognize that we evolved as meat-eaters… and I don’t think I’d object so much if we were using animals to sustain our lives… if we killed them humanely and used them to fulfill our needs. It’s just the commodification and coldness and cruelty that’s too much for me. But I’ve never had any problem being a vegetarian. I can get the nutrients I need easily. I’ve never had to worry about hunger, really, “starving artist” jokes aside.
So what right have I to be angry? If I were angry on behalf of others, I think I could cut myself some slack. If I were angry that the average unemployment rate for African Americans in 2011 was twice, TWICE that of whites, that would be righteous anger. If I were angry that sociopathic politicians want to redefine rape as just sex, that is justified. If I were angry that NC keeps trying to leap back into the ’40’s, denying rights to anyone but rich straight white male landowners, that’s a social cause worth fighting.
And I am. I am angry about those things. BOY, am I angry about them.
But as I’ve been holding myself up to your light, Dr. King, I’ve realized something that sickens me. The root of my anger is not about those things. The root of my anger is that I don’t have the wealth and fame and material possessions and influence that some others have. My righteous anger gets tacked on to my self-righteous anger, and the even worse part is… that it goes nowhere.
I sign petition after petition on Change.org, and they always send a thank you letter, and they talk about other examples of petitions that have worked. And I re-share political messages on facebook. And I vote, though it makes me want to puke every time I do it, ’cause it feels like spitting into the wind. And I wax philosophical about body image issues and gay rights and how there are no black hobbits. And I write blog posts to famous civil rights leaders, which are, in themselves, masturbatory and self-congratulatory even in their deprecation.
But I don’t DO anything.
I’ve never been thrown in jail for my beliefs. I’ve never faced death for them. You’re quoted as saying, “A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.” I would die for my family (both human and furry), but I don’t know about my convictions.
You had faith, both in the human and the divine, and I wish for that. I don’t believe in God, as such, but sometimes I pray to the universe or people or ideals… and I hope that I can find faith one day. Faith that the world will get better as my nieces grow up. Faith that we’ll take some steps forward as a society. Faith that we’re bending toward justice.
I know that many people today are looking at how far we’ve come, and that’s so important. It’s important to remember that we HAVE made progress and that things are better now than they were before. They’re celebrating you and your leadership and your friends and family and congregations and brothers and sisters for the progress and the inspiration. Rightly so. You deserve to be celebrated.
For my part, I feel I need to be wary of congratulating myself. I’ve been so casually involved in the civil rights struggle, that I think it’s time for some introspection. A recognition that my priorities are where they are because people like you made it possible. That’s a convoluted way of saying that… if I were still considered property, my priority might be trying to finagle my way into a marriage with someone closer to my age than my father’s. And if I weren’t allowed to vote, my priority might be subtly guiding the thoughts of my children toward a more egalitarian mindset. And if I didn’t have access to clean water, my priority might be on survival.
I only have the luxury of whining about not doing anything because someone like you DID do something.
So thank you. And may the magnetic pull of your moral compass pull me a little more northward.