As we approach the celebration of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, images featuring the illustrious civil rights leader are appearing everywhere. Most of those images reflect the pride of those who identify with Dr. King’s dream of equality. Others, however, are derided as disrespectful to the legacy of a man who preached social change through nonviolence.
Images such as the one featured above, created by a Michigan based event promotion group, have drawn sharp criticism for the perceived desecration of Dr. King’s image. The group claims it meant no harm and intended for the event to benefit the community.
While it is certainly easy to see why one would take exception to the image and the event, what is more difficult is determining where we draw the line between homage and disrespect of one’s legacy. Contrary to popular opinion, this is not a new phenomenon. Photoshop created a monster long ago, but we only began to express outrage when it finally hit home for us personally. If the “Freedom to Twerk” flyer is considered disrespectful, what say you about these flyers previously circulated by others?
Well okay, maybe that last one was over the top. There are actually many more such images out there, but you get the point.
Which ones are disrespectful and which ones are not? While we decry the alleged dishonoring of our heritage by a generation seemingly intent on trying to shock the senses of society, we somehow see no problem with the liberty taken in other manipulated expressions, such as this mashup of images of MLK, Malcolm X and President Obama:
You do realize this gathering didn’t happen, right? Many will point out that there is no twerking going on here and no gold chains dangling or bottles popping. That would be to totally miss the point. I agree that this image doesn’t appear to portray any of these icons engaged in any “immoral” activity. Does that make it any less disrespectful of the legacy of all three? We started a trend of creating gatherings that didn’t happen and celebrating them. Now we want it to stop. Where should it stop? Who decides?
The problem with judging what does or doesn’t qualify as art is that whenever the original of anything is modified, there is no clear line of demarcation as to where to stop. By becoming the art police within our own culture, do we as African Americans invite the rest of society to judge us as a whole? What makes us look sillier – the images themselves or our fighting over them and throwing each other under the media bus by disparaging our own youth for what one could argue is a harmless expression of creativity? Usually the loudest criticisms of such displays come from within the ranks of our own race, arguably dividing us along generational, social or economical lines. Some would argue that such infighting just feeds into Willie Lynch theory. Others would say that to say nothing about such rogue expressions is to appear to condone ignorance.
Could there be perhaps a third alternative? Could it be that a generation very far removed from the history they are using as a canvas for their expression is simply expressing their own rage against the societal oppression of their voice using a symbol that they equate with a voice for change and empowerment?
Or have they perhaps just decided to leave the fighting and bickering to us while they enjoy their freedom to twerk?
Brian C. Scott