The Danger of Convenient Truth and Convenient Heroes
With another Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration come and gone, I have been considering truths.
There are the convenient truths, or the truth that you can bear. They are the ones that makes you feel good. They are also kind to the “convenient Hero,” a person who is easy to portray in a single way and someone who our society deems okay and safe to honor.
Then there are the truths that are messy. The complicated histories, the heroes with flaws, the events that also shape our society but are not so easy to describe or place in a box.
Over the past few days, I have been thinking particularly about who the world holds up and honors when it comes to social change movements like the Civil Rights in the U.S.
It is telling that we remember Martin Luther King, Jr. through a national U.S. holiday, but not Malcolm X, who also fought for equal rights for black people. Is it because, despite his known flaws and complications, King is still seen as the good, “safe” and less radical black man, that makes the establishment look good? Is it because his agenda has become mainstream?
I ponder how King promoted “forgiveness and love”, while Malcolm X was clear in his belief of militarised activism. Thus, would celebrating him be a way of saying that militant Black Panther actions were okay then and hence should be okay now? Is that the fear?
But this kind of musing over an easy, convenient hero is not limited to the United States.
Why do we remember anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela but not Steve Biko, or at least not to the same extent? How many people actually know who Biko is? And not just in South Africa but beyond. While Mandela is a towering image over the parliament square in London, Biko is missing. We should not forget that Mandela was once called a “terrorist” by the same British government that has his statue up. But in time, Mandela became a soothing lube for the establishment, and he came to a position of convenient hero because he makes the establishment feel safe.
Mandela and King advocated for non-violence and forgiveness, and this indeed makes them safer heroes. Forgiveness is what “good” black people are taught to do. From Slavery to Jim Crow and to modern day police brutality, black people are expected by white people to forgive and move on, to never show emotion, never question, and never speak. If anyone does, they are seen as an “angry black person.” We must be polite and forgiving even when our water is poisoned, like in Flint, Michigan, or our culture is called ghetto and then appropriated by white people.
Black heroes are often also erased from the collective societal memory, with King and Mandela as two of the exceptions.
We remember the white Harvey Milk, but not the black Bayard Rustin, though they both worked hard to secure acceptance and rights for LGBT-identified people. People demand that an airport be named after Milk and some have even called for a holiday to be named for him. We idolised him and put him on a pedestal, while failing to acknowledge Rustin.
How many of us actually knew, Bayard? How many of us have actually heard of him? How many of us, actually have heard his name either in black history or LGBT history?
Milk is the convenient truth. He is cool and easy on the eyes. He makes us feel the wrongs of the past. On the other hand, remembering Bayard would remind us that there was an openly black gay man in black civil right history. It would challenge the notion that black and gay are two words that can but often don’t go together.
It would also expose the evil of the American establishment in undermining the intelligent strategist that was Rustin. He was the one they blackmailed, the one they imprisoned and the one they at one time forced King to turn his back on, but who later came to organised the biggest civil rights march in History; “The March on Washington” or the one who many have claimed wrote that very famous speech “I have a dream.”
This kind of selective telling of the past is especially damaging for women. We always hear about the men of history, but not the women. Do we think the contribution of women will undermine the exalted state of patriarchy storyline we have created over time? Or do we think, talking about “herstory” will make us lose the grand of history?
The truth is, we love convenient truth. The truth that soothes us like painkiller after a tooth extraction. The one that makes us belong to a group of fashionable 21st century dummies. The one that demands less thinking on our part.
I can never undermine the impactful work of King, nor would I question the way Mandela handled the situation in South Africa. Who am I to say Milk was not a pioneer of LGBT history? No I can’t, as that will be doing great injustice to the memory of these great people.
That said, I would also not want you to undermine the work and great impact of Malcolm X, Rustin and Biko. They might not be your cup of tea, but for every King there is a Malcolm, for every Milk a Bayard, and for every Mandela a Biko. It is up to us to learn about them.
For every convenient truth, there is always an inconvenient one, the one you choose to hear is up to you.