The illusion of history does not serve to move us towards progress; rather, the myths that the illusions construct hinder any forward movement and in many ways serve to repel and repeal any progress towards equity and equality. The James Baldwin documentary I Heard It Through the Grapevine (1982) makes this abundantly clear. Dick Fontaine and Pat Hartley follow Baldwin as he returns to the South, retracing his initial trip to the South during the Civil Rights Movement in 1957. In his return trip, he visits Atlanta, Birmingham, Jackson, New Orleans, and St. Augustine and details how nothing, twenty five years later, has changed. Progress has not occurred. As Eddie S. Glaude puts it, “Baldwin’s return to the southern ruins serves as a primal scene of instruction for the nation: He attempted to make explicit the perils of the illusion of progress and what it meant for a country at the dawn of the Age of Reagan.”
Baldwin continually confronts the “illusion of progress,” and as I watched Baldwin retrace his 1957 journey, I kept thinking, “Baldwin highlights how nothing how the illusion has stifled progress, and here we are, forty years after his second trip South and the illusion still has a firm grip on our collective national psyche.” The construction of illusions and erasure of history occurs rapidly as individuals see an opening to reconstruct the narrative in a way that will uphold white supremacy and the mythological histories of the nation. Speaking with someone during the protests against Rosalynn Carter’s commencement speech at Morehouse in 1980, the person tells Baldwin, “Here in Atlanta, Martin Luther King is what I sometimes call the principle industry. The whole process is to honor since he’s dead. What has happened here, in particular, but largely across the country is that the whole movement of the 60s is identified with Martin Luther King, Jr. as though he started it and ended it.” This is the “nine-word problem” on the Civil Rights Movement, “Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, I Have a Dream,” and the problem arose quickly during the 1970s. Remember, this interview took place in 1980, only 12 years following King’s assassination.
The man continues by stating that there are those, within the community, who have a vested interest in reworking the narrative of the movement, and he tells Baldwin, “Actually, what is missing there is a sense of history, of knowing where we are and where we were.” Here, he is specifically speaking about individuals who lived through the movement and their children, who would be those walking across the stage at Morehouse and elsewhere in 1980. Along with this, we must think about the statement in a broader, national sense because time and time again we have see that we are missing “a sense of history,” and by missing that history, or crafting a shiny, gleaming illusion of that history fails to help us see the present as we should, as a continuation and repetition of history under a new guise.
Instead of focusing on King’s calls for economic justice or his calls against police brutality or his calls against the Vietnam War or . . . his legacy has become nothing more, for those who wish to claim progress, nothing more than the closing section of his “I Have a Dream” which he delivered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963. Writing about Glenn Beck’s August 28, 2010 rally at the Lincoln Memorial and on the anniversary of the March on Washington and on the spot where King delivered his speech, Anthea Butler points out that Beck invoked Abraham Lincoln and King during the “part nationalist rally.” King’s words have been “appropriated,” as Butler continues, “as a way to promote values of self-sufficiency and character, avoiding conversations about race.”
The illusion of history and the appropriated myth of King would be shattered if individuals merely read King’s entire speech. If that was the only speech they read by King, they would encounter his condemnation on police brutality and his critiques of the United States when he tells us that “America has defaulted on this promissory note [of equality] insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.” But wait, some might interject, King gave this speech before the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. Yes, that is true, but those acts, while opening the door to progress still saw backlash. In fact, we see this backlash on full display at the end of I Heard It Through the Grapevine with a clip of a Klan rally at the slave market in St. Augustine, Florida.
As the Klan members, with their hoods and robes on, walk into the market, an older woman stands in the crowd and encourages others to “applaud these men.” The Klan members carry Confederate battle flags, Christian flags with “KKK” written in the white spaces, and the America flag as the proceed into the open air market. The speaker, with a megaphone, tells those gathered, “This civil rights bill, or act, or whatever they wanna call it, we feel is unconstitutional. When our forefathers wrote the constitution, n****** were slaves. They were property and property alone.” The people who gathered at the market did not go away when Lyndon Johnson signed the civil rights acts. They didn’t magically disappear. They remained. The history they supported remained, and it remains. In the posthumous “A Testament of Hope,” King writes, “Many whites hasten to congratulate themselves on what little progress we Negroes have made. I’m sure that most whites felt with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, all race problems were automatically solved. Because most white people are so far removed from the life of the average Negro, there has been little to challenge this assumption. Yet Negroes continue to live with racism every day.”
While in Atlanta and reflecting on King’s legacy, Baldwin says as we see him sitting near King’s memorial, “The monument in Atlanta is absolutely as irrelevant as the Lincoln Memorial. It is one of the ways the Western world was learned or thinks it has learned to outwit history, to outwit time — to make life and death irrelevant, to make that passion irrelevant, to make it unusable for you and for our children. There is nothing you can do with that monument.” Here, Baldwin points out the ways that monuments serve to flatten and erase history, to placate individuals and to create myths and illusions. What does a monument to King do for us and our children if all it says are the final words of “I Have A Dream”? What does it do? It prevents, in so many ways, progress because it condenses King and the movement to nothing more than those nine words.
While I am focused on King in this post, he is far from the only individual who has succumbed to the illusion of history; however, he is one of the most prominent, especially in the ways that his life and legacy have become a way to virtual signal the illusion of progress and change. One prime example of this has to be various police departments, specifically Columbus and Miami, unveiling Black History Month police cars and using words and images of King in the promotion of them. This limits King and the movement to nothing more than a soundbite that can be used to advance one’s position. King’s positions on poverty, police brutality, war, the military industrial complex, and much more get pushed to the side “not only,” as Butler writes, “in the service of a color-blind gospel but as a promotor of evangelical and Republican moral values.”