[Each year for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I share a special post on better remembering the many layers of one of our most important and inspiring figures and voices. This week I followed it up with a series AmericanStudying some of King’s colleagues in the Civil Rights Movement. Leading up to this post on five contemporary Civil Rights issues and debates (along, of course, with the #BlackLivesMatter movement). Add your responses and ideas in comments, please!]
1) The Reparations Debate: Thanks in large part to Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the central Civil Rights debates of our moment has to do with whether and how reparations should be paid to African Americans affected by centuries of oppression, discrimination, and violence. That debate returned to the front page this week with Coates’ critique of Bernie Sanders’ position on reparations and the conversations that followed. I fully expect this to remain one of the most heated 21st century conversations (and, in the interests of full disclosure, I’ll note that I’m entirely in favor of reparations as proposed by Coates and others).
2) #OscarsSoWhite: While I agree with those who have noted that diversity at the Oscars is nowhere near as widespread and significant an issue as one like reparations, there’s no doubt that cultural texts and representations can play a prominent role in how we think and talk about issues like race and identity. And so I fully support the efforts of Jada Pinkett Smith, Spike Lee, and others to raise awareness of the striking and troubling absence of nominees of color at this year’s Academy Awards—not least because Creed, Ryan Coogler, and Michael B. Jordan are as deserving of nominations as anyone could be.
3) Sexual Violence and Women of Color: One of the most astounding public scholarly pieces I read over the last few years was this We’re History piece on the role that sexual violence against African American women played in fomenting the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Better remembering that forgotten history would not only address the frustrating absence of women from much of our collective memory of Civil Rights, but would also and just as importantly help us consider sexual violence against women of color as a contemporary Civil Rights issue as well. That’s a conversation we must start having.
4) Tucson’s Mexican American Studiers: Everything in that post, on the threats to Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program and the high school activists who responded so impressively to those threats, remains just as true and vital (if interestingly evolving) four years later. Indeed, I don’t know that any Civil Rights issue is more important than what we teach and learn, and who has a say in deciding those questions. I sure hope that voices like those of Tucson’s students and educators remain high on that list.
5) Broadening our Cultural Horizons: Civil Rights battles don’t just happen in educational, political, and social arenas, of course. They also happen in our popular cultural texts, and in particular in whether and how those texts can more fully and better include and engage with diverse American communities and cultures. To that end, I would highlight Marcus Red Thunder, the Cheyenne man helping make Longmire so nuanced in its portrayal of Native Americans; and George Takei, whose Allegiance (whatever its shortcomings) is only one of his many efforts to expand our collective cultural engagements with Asian Americans. Thanks to figures like these two and many others, our 21st century Civil Rights histories will be as cultural as they are educational, political, and social.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other Civil Rights responses and issues you’d share?
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