Today is Martin Luther King Jr Day, an American Holiday celebrating the life and martyrdom of the icon of the Civil Rights movement, Reverend, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The holiday itself is an ironic symbol of the struggle for racial equality in the United States. I remember how hard Black leaders of the 80’s had to fight to even get the United States to recognize the day. I remember seeing Stevie Wonder explain how the song, “Happy Birthday” was both a tribute to Dr.King but also to raise awareness of King’s legacy. I remember that Republican politicians like Jesse Helms and then President Ronald Reagan opposed the idea, questioning his legacy, importance, accusing him of being a communist, and being afraid of the cost associated with the potential holiday. I remember Reagan eventually signing the holiday into law after it passed both houses on such a wide margin he could not really veto.
I remember when the song, “Sing Sing Celebrate” was released to commemorate the passing of the law. Featuring a dated 80’s beat and icons like Whitney Houston and Run DMC in their prime, it was destined to be played ad nausea every January which is cool. It’s nice to see Whitney Houston before we discovered the demons that she could no longer contain.
I remember being in undergrad in Atlanta where Dr. King was from and the 3rd January of every year being a huge holiday, like Black Christmas or what Juneteenth should be, with a massive parade. I remember the juxtaposition when later as an MBA student at the University of Illinois, a public school, my department scheduled an “optional” orientation on the Monday of the holiday. I remember the faculty being completely surprised that the Black students were livid and protested.
So today, as I sit in my apartment in Rome, I remember the man. I remember visiting Ebenezer church in Atlanta where he began his career and visiting the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, where some racist coward took his life. I watch and listen to my favorite speeches by him, the classic “I Have a Dream” and “I Have Been to the Mountaintop”. I cry every time.
I have to reflect on his words, “America, be true to what you said on paper”. “Somewhere I read…of the freedom of the press”. Record scratch. It will be 50 years this April and although race relations in America are so much better than they were in Dr. King’s era, there is still so much work to be done. As we enter this year with #45 in office, the press having to justify their existence every 2 seconds amid a constant stream of “fake news” accusations, and knowing that in 2017 at least 1,000 US citizens were killed by police, many of them Black, I am so grateful to be abroad.
In his “I Have a Dream”, speech, Dr. King talks about Blacks, Jews, Gentiles, Protestants, and Catholics coming together as a united America. In the last presidential election, more than 90% of Black women voted for Hillary Clinton, while about 65% of White men voted for Trump. That is how divided America still is. That along racial and gender lines, we are so ideologically different.
Now that I am abroad, I am steeped in diversity. It is not impossible to have a diverse group of friends in the US, but it is not usually organic. It is a sometimes arduous task as Americans like to split into their racial and ethnic enclaves. It is like the movie “Higher Learning” or even “Mean Girls” where everyone self segregates. Outside of businesses where it is mandated that certain demographics be hired, and you are hard pressed to see Black and Brown faces, America is still very segregated. When you do see diversity in business, they are still far too often in entry level or blue collar, poorly paid roles. And although discrimination in housing is illegal, segregation is rampant. Once the veils of blockbusting and redlining were lifted, Black people were forced into certain neighborhoods by simply being priced out of others perpetuating segregation.
When Dr. King speaks of all of God’s children, Black men and White men, Jews and Gentiles living together, he meant on American shores. Abroad, expats that speak English hang together. I have friends that are American and British, Italian and French and from various other places. They are Black and White and Latino and Asian and Muslim and Gay and Straight. Since being abroad, I have dated men from all over the world of various races, an experience that was not as easy in the US. We bond over our differences and more commonly our shared human experience.
I am American and Black so race is embedded in my psyche. Yet, I have heard on more than one occasion, when I comment on race to an Italian, “Yes, but you are American”. Black folks from other countries have a different experience. I always acknowledge that, but this is about the American Dream and abroad expats are lumped into an American heap, but in the US, we are divided so deep and biting that the divisions are at once infinite, profound, and inane.
My experience is not isolated. I am part of various expat groups on social media where Blacks have found the “American Dream” abroad. People that live in Africa and the Middle East, Europe and South America, Asia and the South Pacific that have proclaimed they are happier having left with no plans to return. Then there are those that are tethered by job or family or fear and work only to finance their wanderlust for more than passport stamps but a different life.
Today, in 2018, as the current US government is seeking to deny so many that have been living there citizenship. deporting those that have lived there for decades, and discouraging new immigration, I have to ponder King’s Dream and how it seems more myth than reality in the country of my birth. So nearing the 50th Anniversary of Dr. King’s death, on this Martin Luther King Jr Day, I realize that sadly for me, I found King’s dream, the American dream… abroad.