Around a week before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the internet inevitably becomes inundated with flyers advertising local freedom-themed turn-up functions, pulled from sites with lecturing names like Hot Ghetto Mess, No Way Girl, and Get Your People. The response is also predictable: We tweet and retweet and like and reblog and shake our heads and suck our teeth and say things that our parents and grandparents have no doubt said at some point in their lives. Martin Luther King didn't die for this. He's probably turning over in his grave. All these kids running around with the nerve to be in the club poppin' it and droppin' it and doing it for the Vine on the King's day!
But so what if a few people want to get drunk and sexy on MLK Day?
Sure, Martin Luther King Jr. didn't explicitly say he had a dream that one day your cousin Mooney could get crunk in any establishment regardless of color in his famous speech, but that's still a part of being free. As black people, we're still in the margins, but our collective quality of life is a lot better, thanks in part to the work of Dr. King. Why not put on those red bottoms you worked so hard to get and drop it low in the name of progress?
The argument against dropping it low in the name of progress is that these clubgoers are just using the day as another excuse to party, and the use of MLK's name and image becomes a sacrilege and the entire idea of celebrating becomes an offense. Well, consider this: The same thing is done with other non-black holidays and nobody seems to care as much. Memorial Day club party flyers contain all manner of half-dressed women posing next to eagles and American flags and baseball-filled apple pies. And let's not even talk about what they do to the poor Easter bunny. Where is the collective outrage there?
It makes sense that black folks, in general, may be hypersensitive about the way society (read: white people) sees us and the way our history is handled. When your can lose your life over how you look in a hoodie or because your car crashed and you went looking for help or you were holding a toy gun in a Walmart, every day becomes a solicitation to be treated fairly and taken seriously. All our energy is poured into being "respectable," prim and proper and perfect enough to maybe not be gunned down in the street by police officers at a higher rate than whites.
"How can we expect them to respect us if we don't respect ourselves?" asks everyone from your great-grandma Hattie Mae to Bill Cosby to Kendrick Lamar. There is no downtime, no day off. It's a burden, one that we put on ourselves because we apparently don't have a heavy enough load to carry.
Laughing wherever we want and being our full selves in a public setting, online or offline, is a luxury that many of us don't even know we don't have. In 2008, I started a satirical blog called Little Known Black History Facts. It's a collection of made-up facts celebrating lesser-known black heroes, like the first person to wish a motherfucker would and the first person to refer to diabetes as "the sugar." The point of the blog, as I explained after some considerable backlash, is not to lampoon or trivialize black history, but to attack the idea that one month of reheated black history facts about the same 10 people is an adequate treatment of black history. I also wanted to challenge the notion that we're allowed to laugh at jokes like these only amongst ourselves.
Some said the problem with the blog and its popularity was that there weren't any other websites that were serious celebrations of black history, which isn't true at all. Rappers even weighed in on the conversation, with Bun B of UGK (one of my favorite rap groups, by the way) taking a shot at the memes on his Instagram page. In the caption, he wrote that old battle cry of respectability warriors, "If we don't respect ourselves we can't get mad when others disrespect us!"
Hearing that will never cease to tickle me. Like there's a racist somewhere looking for a black person to push down into the mud who passes over one because his pants aren't sagging. "Curses, this one has too much self-respect! You're one of the good ones, sir, god bless you."
Item number 383 on the list of Inconvenient Things About Being Black (right after not being able to find a decent nude lipstick) is having to be ever poised and perfect because you never know when other people may be watching, looking for reasons to justify their racism. This idea holds that we teach people how to treat us, that we have to earn the right to be treated humanely rather than being treated with respect by virtue of being human alone.
We're never allowed to not have our shit together, and having our shit together means following a subjective list of dos and don'ts handed down from a faceless kufi-clad person in the sky. Don't twerk. Don't have kids with more than one person. Do pull your pants up because the lower they sag, the closer to doom the race becomes.
So since we have to make sure that white people aren't awful to a single black person on Earth, we can't say the n-word and we can't eat fried chicken or bananas in mixed company (I seriously know people who refuse to do this) and we're also not allowed to drop it like its hot for King's birthday. All of that is bullshit. We shouldn't have to dictate our lives based on what white people will think of us and we shouldn't make ourselves responsible for others' racist thoughts and actions. We should be allowed to be our full, round, complicated individual selves.
It's not that I don't understand the outrage about all the MLK Day flyers. A lot of them are tacky and ridiculous, and using King's image to sell tickets and bottle service is pretty despicable. This, in my opinion, is far more tasteful than this. Yet people seem more outraged about associating King with "low-class" affectations like drinking, clubbing, and gold chains than they are about clubs profiting off of King's image.
In 2014, King's daughter, Dr. Bernice King, told Atlanta's FOX 5 News that she felt like "we failed to reach these groups" — "these groups" being the people responsible for creating MLK party flyers. She called the imagery used — often pictures of King wearing Biggie Smalls' crown or rope chains with big gold pendants — "appalling" and "almost embarrassing." She also said that her father, were he still with us, would have worked with the promoters "to elevate them, to connect with them, to bring them into the movement."
This assumes that these folks are lowly enough to need to be "elevated" and that they're not already a part of "the movement" (presumably the movement to make a better life for blacks in America).
And this is the problem with respectability politics. Who gets to set the parameters for what is respectful and what isn't? Too often, the idea of "respectable" forced on black people is influenced and defined by a standard of white American morality and normalcy that suffocates and erases us as individuals. We demand perfection of ourselves that white folks couldn't possibly meet either. And I get it; conforming is easier than challenging a system that refuses to see you to open its eyes. These flyers are basically an orgy of the things that black people fear reinforce pre-existing racial stereotypes — rap, drinking, and provocative dancing. These parties never stood a chance.
So, will I be going to any of these drop-it-low-for-freedom parties come MLK Day? No. But it's not because I think they're blasphemous or am worried that a scornful white (or black) person might catch me in line. I'm just broke and I have bad knees and I'd be beyond embarrassed if I dropped down to get my eagle on and had to have help getting back up. That would be disrespectful.
Tracy Clayton is an audio producer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Tracy Clayton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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