In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence…they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir…It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.
This is the time of year that we remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Invariably, different communities leverage Dr. King during this time for their own uses—invariably, Dr. King’s legacy is sanitized and Disney-fied into a utopian imagery of dreams and little black boys and girls holding hands with little white boys and girls.
This is common in America, by the way: to whitewash blackness. America loves black soul music: it just likes when white people do it a little bit better. Adele. Justin Timberlake. Sam Smith. What’s the short little red headed dude’s name? Ed Sheehan? Him too. Not their fault—they’re solid singers. But they are doing a sanitized version of what the black version really is.
The black version of that damned, so-called “I Have A Dream Speech” is actually the “I Need a Check” speech. It’s the “You Need to Make this Right Before it’s Too Late Speech.” But we tend not to like that black version.
And the black version of Martin Luther King is not what schools celebrate in January. The black version, the black reality, is that Dr. King was arrested some 30 times for his work. The black reality is that the FBI tried to extort Dr. King and get him to commit suicide and blackmail him with freaky pictures. The black reality is that Dr. King’s life was taken by violence like so many black people throughout history under very, very suspicious circumstances in ways that look(ed) as if the government might have had something to do with it. Unsolved. Finally, the coup de grace of black reality is that folks, after assassinating Dr. King’s body, are still trying to assassinate his reputation by commenting on his interpersonal affairs as if his interpersonal affairs are anyone’s business.
The black reality is that if King had not been assassinated in 1968 he would probably have been assassinated in 1969. Or 1970. Or 1971, etc, etc. Or he would have been in prison for a long time. He definitely would not be as venerated as he is now.
That is the life of many black people historically, and especially black people who stand up to oppression. Damn, Justin Timberlake sounds nice right about now, right? ♪Haters gonna say its fake ♬
That same unforgiving life cycle has largely been true of Indigenous people on this continent as well. My hero, Uncle Billy Frank, Jr. likewise went to jail 50-some-odd times simply trying to be recognized as a human being. He was shot at for saying “You made these agreements with us. Honor them!” He was assaulted for it. He likewise got his name run through the dirt by non-Native as well as Native people who wanted this moving Native person neutralized. Fortunately, he was not assassinated, but predictably after he died the awards started coming in. Someone to celebrate! He was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was awarded a wildlife refuge with his name on it. That’s the Indigenous reality.
All in pursuit of that elusive check. How do we get that check?
And that’s ultimately what this struggle has been about, from genocide to slavery to Jim Crow to the theft of 3.2 billion acres of land. The check. Opportunity. Equal opportunity as white people. Of course, we think it’s about race because race has been the primary tool for identifying people so that they could be deprived of a check. Race was really convenient in identifying who could be enslaved if we created a mythology that they were less than human. Dark brown skin? Free labor! No check needed! Race was likewise really convenient when identifying whose land could stolen with no recourse. Light brown skin? Free land! No checks needed.
Race, of course, is not real as a biological matter. But it does have consequences as a practical and a historical matter. Dr. Martin Luther King understood that—that’s why he started the Poor People’s Campaign, a campaign to end poverty irrespective of race. Three days before King was assassinated, King sat with Uncle Hank Adams (Assiniboine Sioux) at Paschal’s Motor Hotel in Atlanta to talk about King’s Poor Peoples Campaign. Uncle Hank is Billy Frank, Jr.’s best friend and chief strategist for the entire treaty rights movement for Native people all in pursuit of getting that damned check! They were working together, black and Native united to get that check, with Hank on the steering committee of the Poor People’s Campaign.
As it is supposed to be. Native people and black people working together. Shiiiit, why wouldn’t we?
My point? The struggles are the same for black people as for Indigenous people. The struggles are also the same for women, particularly black and brown, by the way—where’s the check? Sexism and misogyny exist to justify inequities in material conditions that we call “the glass ceiling” or “gender gap”, but it’s really the same thing: it’s about a check. Mexicans and Central Americans? Same. Someone that can be paid less of a check. It’s about humanity as reflected by the material conditions of our people. Our food sources. Our housing. Our healthcare. Our education. It’s not about symbols. The check has never been about symbols—protest for the sake of protest or rioting for the sake of rioting or talking about race for the sake of talking about race. It was about economics and creating ownership of land, resources and opportunities for the most vulnerable within our community. Checks. That part seems to have been lost as Dr. King’s birthday tends to be a celebration of unity with no mention of the HUGE inequities in material conditions that are larger and more pronounced than ever.
I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.
How do we get that check? If we really want to honor Dr. King, that’s ultimately the only question that matters. THAT’S the question that schools and businesses and universities who talk that King talk should be asking: “How do we get these folks this check in a way that brings them closer to normalizing economic parity?” Stop singing those songs. Stop telling fairy tales about peace. King was violently shot because he was getting close to that check. So that’s what schools and businesses and governments who want to honor King’s legacy should ask: “How do we provide structures that give black and Indigenous and brown children and grandchildren the ability to navigate with exactly the same tools as the most fortunate within our society? How do we stop Native and black students from being expelled and suspended at rates that are exponentially higher than other students? How do we stop police from killing Native and black people at rates that are exponentially higher than other people? How do we improve the overall health of those communities that have long been the subject of, at best, benign neglect and at worst racist animus and destructive policy?”
The first step to getting to a lasting peace is by bringing the focus back to the check. Not symbols. Not slogans. Not songs. Not “representation.” Not the dream. Damn the dream. The dream can’t happen until the check is written and cashed.
Gyasi Ross is a father, an author and a storyteller. He is a member of the Blackfeet (Amskapikipikuni) Nation and his family also comes from the Suquamish Nation. He is the co-host of the Breakdances With Wolves: Indigenous Pirate Radio podcast. He can be reached via Instagram and Twitter at: @BigIndianGyasi