On Martin Luther King Day, Recollection

On this holiday, during this week of pandemic death and vaccine hope, the threat of domestic terrorism and the promise of new beginnings, there are many ways of marking the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.. We will hear, of course, of dreams, of anti-racism, of equality and of political struggle. In this time of easy oblivion, when it’s hard to remember what day it is, let alone what happened months or years ago (the “before times”), I’d like to pause for recollection. Saidiya Hartman ’84, Hon. ’19, writes, “In every slave society, slave owners attempted to eradicate the slave’s memory, that is, to erase all the evidence of an existence before slavery.” We don’t have to accept the triumph of amnesia. “Never did the captive choose to forget; she was always tricked or bewitched or coerced into forgetting. Amnesia, like an accident or a stroke of bad fortune, was never an act of volition.” We can choose recollection.

Memory always takes place in context; it is never neutral. Saidiya writes:

To believe, as I do, that the enslaved are our contemporaries is to understand that we share their aspirations and defeats, which isn’t to say that we are owed what they were due but rather to acknowledge that they accompany our every effort to fight against domination, to abolish the color line…To what end does one conjure the ghost of slavery, if not to incite the hopes of transforming the present.

Recollection in the service of thinking otherwise, in hopes of transforming the present. This, too, can be a way to mark this holiday and those who fought to transform their own times. Let their memory inspire us in these challenging times.