Did MLK Paint Murals or Something Too?
I distinctly remember the first time that I heard of Martin Luther King’s Day of Service. Somehow, I had made it to the ripe age of 22 years old before hearing of MLK Day positioned as a day of community service. However, at this time, I was an Americorps Corps member in Philadelphia and MLK Day was a huge deal for the organization. I felt both surprised and perplexed. I immediately asked “What did Martin Luther King, Jr. have to do with community service?” Nobody had an answer, I stared blankly then we all moved on. Nevertheless, I was left feeling unsettled by this holiday and what it had become. For years afterwards, I came back to that question and added other questions as well. “What does community service have to do with MLK?” “When did MLK’s legacy get conflated with community service?” “What would he think about this?” Eventually, I became tired of asking these questions every year as I woke up at 6am to organize or participate in an MLK Day service event. Last year, I intentionally decided that I will never participate in community service on MLK Day again and here’s why.
Non-Profit Industrial Complex and the Exploitation of Black Labor:
Now, let me start by saying that there are a lot of non-profits that do or intend to do good work. There’s even more fantastic non-profits that certainly do wonderful work yet, they are not well funded nor do they have access to large funding opportunities. I understand that and empathize with the fact that MLK Day helps them get some good work done. However, a tremendous amount of non-profits function as some of the most pervasive contributors to Black trauma exploitation. It disturbs me deeply. Recently, I had a friend compare the non-profit industrial complex to a slave plantation. He declared that instead of Black people picking cotton, the cotton or rather, the product, were their stories of trauma. The re-telling and in turn, re-traumatizing of black folks’ and their stories gets non-profits big dollars! First, it is important to remember that non-profits are dependent on these stories in order to survive, thrive and gain access to wealth. Without black trauma, there are no non-profits. In fact, I would even argue that some non-profits perpetuate the harm of oppressive systems against Black bodies. But, I don’t want to go down that road in this essay. So, again, let’s be clear that non-profit organizations depend on Black trauma but refuse to appropriately compensate participants for their labor. And what do the Black traumatized story-tellers and securers of large grant funding get for their labor? Maybe an Amazon gift card and a hoagie for lunch. That’s it. Further, non-profits tend to employ Black and Brown staff at the direct service level but never promote or fairly compensate these employees for their work. Non-profits function exactly like for-profit capitalist entities, they just think they’re better. They are not. Don’t let them fool you.
Okay Beth, you throwing a lot of shade (and don’t you work for a non-profit girl?) but what does this have to do with MLK Day?
Towards the end of his life, MLK became quite focused on ensuring the rights of poor people, ALL poor people. He connected with socialist ideas regarding fair employment, labor, compensation and how these basic human rights contributed to the best quality of life for all people. With that awareness of MLK’s beliefs in mind, I couldn’t reconcile his legacy with a day that insisted upon my free labor to uphold a capitalist structure that lines the pockets of big non-profit executives. I still can’t, so I won’t. It feels quite preposterous really. “Martin Luther King, Jr. wouldn’t want you to rest on one of a few days that you get relief from the stress of daily labor. He’d totally want you to wake up at 6am and paint this mural!” I beg to differ.
It is important to call out that white supremacy, which is dependent upon a capitalist and production centered society to survive, tells us that we are only worth what we can produce. I would assert that in some ways, MLK Day’s recent focus on work is a result of our white supremacist culture. Lastly, in my opinion, MLK Day of Community Service also aligns itself with the present tendency to “Santa Claus”, as one of my dear colleagues describes it, MLK’s legacy. MLK’s legacy has been manipulated and altered to fit within the comfort of white consciousness.
Thus, I’m left to wonder, if MLK had been blessed to make it to old age, after many years of fighting for liberation, would he understand and connect with the important radicality of Black rest.
Rest As Resistance:
I recently began following “The Nap Ministry” on Instagram. It is a page dedicated to the truly radical nature of rest especially for Black people. The page emphasizes the need for intentional rest, ways to practice rest as a discipline and quick (and humorous) responses to anyone who dares to challenge our human need for rest. That page is a gift and I highly suggest you follow it.
Since the beginning of our presence on this evil land, Black people have been told that we are products to be consumed or to produce only. As such, our full humanity has always been denied. I reject that existence. I am a person. I am whole. I am precious. And, in order to preserve my wholeness and preciousness, I need to take intentional rest. Rest subverts the filthy messages of American capitalism that assert that I am only valued based on what I can produce and do. I reject that. I am more than a laborer.
As such, I’ll be rolling over in my bed with some foam rollers in my hair around 6am on MLK Day this year and for the foreseeable MLK Day future. I will rest. I will resist the confines that this society places upon my body. I will rest and so should you.
Here’s to Martin Luther King Jr.’s Day of Radical Rest!