Speaking for the great punk band The Stooges at their induction into the rock and roll hall of fame in 2010, lead singer James Osterberg, better known as Iggy Pop, began his speech by gesturing towards the absurdity of the moment.
Here he was, one of the founding figures of an American musical tradition of anti-establishment punk rock, in “the belly of the beast” at a corporate sponsored black-tie affair where, as he notes, “there’s a lot of power and money in this room,” where tickets to the event cost way more than the average Stooges fan could afford at $1,200 bucks a pop. After taking note of this corporate and decidedly non-punk environment, Iggy declares, “Music is Life, and life is not a business.”
A commitment to music as a way of life was manifested in the way The Stooges lived and played, often in an utterly self-destructive manner that refused even the slightest proprieties of industry standards and pop cultural norms. In his speech, Iggy goes on to acknowledge the musical and social community around which this mantra of “life over business” played out in the course of the band’s career. He notes that the band’s deceased bass player Ron Ashton, whom Iggy imagines as sitting in heaven above “trying to flick cigarette ashes on our heads,” knew music was life and not a business, and, as Iggy says earnestly, “Ron was cool.” Going through his acknowledgements, he notes that “the MC5 [another famous punk band of the era] are cool; my friend Danny who discovered the band was cool,” and finally, “all the poor people who actually started rock and roll music, are cool.”
Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr. was cool. Though he wore well-kept suits, was a respected Baptist minister and spoke as eloquently as any American ever has, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a punk rocker. He was a law-breaking and rebellious force of nature that dropped like a bombshell onto the terrain of white American society. His life was a flash of righteous truth, beauty and destruction that white America could neither comprehend nor control. Martin Luther King, Jr. was no business, no industry or brand. He was a life of uncontainable and explosive freedom. He was cool.
The national holiday honoring King has taken on great importance in America, occasioning marches, tributes and the generally felt obligation to give this giant of American history his rightful due. The day is usually accompanied by media tributes and recitations of the famous “I Have a Dream” speech, with its sentimentalized imagery of black and white children holding hands and the hope that one day they will “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” This is a day in which all Americans are called to reflect on how far we have come since the days of slavery and Jim Crow, and on how much more work we have left to fully achieve King’s dream.
The fact of an annual national holiday to honor King is certainly something to celebrate. The history of this holiday involved a hard-fought battle for recognition against entrenched forces of white supremacy (there are still members of congress today that voted against the holiday’s implementation in 1983), and its existence is an important testament and memorial to the fact that America is a decidedly different place in the wake of the civil rights movement King led. Yet, this holiday, much like the memory of King himself, has become routinized and normalized. Especially in white American memory, King has largely been domesticated and white-washed, used as a prop in American myths of racial “progress” and status quos of capitalist quasi-freedom. In many ways, his memory has been subsumed as just another piece of the pageantry of American empire, used to puff up illusions of racial reconciliation and cover over the fact that, as King himself put it in a less-often quoted speech, the American government is “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”
To put it bluntly, the King of popular imagination is a King refashioned for white people: daring enough to challenge the (now) embarrassing history of racism while sentimental and respectable enough not to rock the boat of white status quos too much. In this fabrication, King is reduced to a talking point for white politicians or cable news pundits, a malleable slogan for good liberals and conservatives alike, who have seized King and his legacy to support their various, and often opposing, political expediencies.
Today, it seems that King can be whatever you want him to be. I’ve heard arguments that King would support open borders and welcome all refugees as our neighbors, and that he would condemn immigrants as threats. I’ve heard that if King were still alive he would be marching alongside Black Lives Matter, and that he would have condemned them as an extremist group. I’ve heard that King would have voted for Donald Trump, and that he would have done everything in his power to stop him. Of course, some of these Kings are obviously more plausible than others. But something happens when we reduce him and his legacy to a political symbol that just aligns with whatever causes we associate with. King becomes a brand, an advertising strategy. King becomes a business selling an ideology. He ceases to be an actual life.
A life is a dangerous thing. It is uncontrollable and irreducible. A life is neither mere biology nor some kind of pure origin—it has nothing to do with “pro-life” slogans. A life is the inexhaustible connection of events, experiences and relations that constitute a particular, singular and unrepeatable existence on this earth. A life is resistance. Wherever there is life, there is resistance against powers that are trying to contain and control it. The fictional mathematician Ian Malcom, Jeff Goldblum’s eccentric character in the 1993 film “Jurassic Park,”is worth quoting here:“life will not be contained, life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously … life finds a way.”
Life found a way in Martin Luther King, Jr. As he unleashed the living spirits of democracy and justice, he broke open the powers of anti-blackness and white supremacy committed to containing and controlling black life. Even in his murder, an act of cowardly white terrorism that could not bear the sheer joy in human belonging that King radiated, his life lives on in every moment where the struggle for justice shows up. It continues to find a way.
The spirit of resistance that flowed through King and those Americans on the front lines of the civil rights movement, in all of its uncontained diversity—from King himself to Malcom X, Rosa Parks, Pauli Murray, Fred Hampton, Fannie Lou Hamer, Robert F. Williams—has always been the life-blood of America. It was there with Fredrick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs; Sitting Bull and Leonard Peltier; Nat Turner and John Brown; Ida B. Wells and W.E.B. Dubois. It is there with every person—black, indigenous, white and other—that lives in openness to the fleshly possibilities of human connection and refuses borders of violent control. Such life has always been that general force of upheaval in American history, that “punk” orientation that has found ways of opening up otherwise and new possibilities of living in a world that responds to the irrepressibility of life with the violence of anti-blackness and white supremacy.
This violence is everywhere because life is everywhere. As King knew, white supremacy fears above all the very idea of a life refusing to be contained within its norms and borders of identity. There is so much fear and hate for life itself, so many political and corporate powers that exist for no other reason than preventing life from flourishing and disrupting boundaries of control. The anti-life violence and white supremacy that King raged against—which is the same violence that underwrites so much of American society in all of its racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, anti-queer, anti-trans and anti-poor scope—is what we the living are called to resist and tear down. It is against this violence and fear that we are called to produce other worlds of capacious possibility, joy and belonging. This is King’s life, his legacy.
To conclude, I suggest that we think of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a time to reflect on what it means to simply live a life.As we celebrate, march and honor this giant in American history, we should remember that we are rehearsing a commitment to life that, when the time comes, when we are called to it, will be ready to put itself on the line and spill out into the kind revolutionary action and resistance that King modeled. I suggest that one of the things we are doing on this holiday is trying to learn what it means to take on Iggy Pop’s punk mantra in our own contexts, a mantra that King, in a very different way, lived: that justice is not a business or a slogan, but a radical commitment to living on this earth together. In that sense, we are trying to figure out what it means to “be cool”—cool like Iggy, cool like Rosa, cool like Malcom and, on this day, cool like Martin.
David Kline is a lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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