Even without doing the research, I feel pretty safe in saying that the history of Martin Luther King day tells us a lot about how Americans have engaged the issue of diversity during the last twenty years or so. As a federal holiday, MLK day has been around since the mid 1980s; as a state holiday, it progressed more slowly, as—most (in)famously in the case of Arizona—people questioned whether King’s accomplishments merited a day of commemoration. Given the symbolic nature of these debates, the life of King sometimes seems besides the point. On the other hand, if King had not been so effective as a civil rights leader and cultural critic, his legacy would not bear the weight of Americans’ hopes and dreams. And yet it does.
I am interested in how Middlebury students regard the King legacy. At the federal level, MLK day is older than virtually all college students, which means that most Middlebury students have for years been exposed to Dr. King’s larger-than-life contributions. And today’s King, I think, differs significantly from earlier versions. That was made clear at last night’s program at Mead Chapel, an evening of “remembrance and reflection” sponsored by the Office of Institutional Diversity that included music, readings, and a keynote address by Calcutta-born Vijay Prashad, a professor of history and director of the international studies program at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. While in previous years, a MLK speaker would likely have stressed the domestic picture—highlighting race relations (especially the status of African Americans) and perhaps noting King’s emerging criticism of American capitalism—Prashad sketched a global context for today’s social inequalities and racist attitudes. He talked about globalization and “polyculturalism,” a concept that emphasizes the dynamic and fluid way that culture forms and reforms across all seemingly fixed boundaries. This notion is captured in the title of Prashad’s 2001 book, Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity, a study named for Carl Douglas’ 1974 hit song. Performed by an African American, written by an Indian living in London, and heard on radios across the United States, “Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting” makes a good theme song for MLK’s evolving legacy.
Prashad’s take on this legacy is well suited to the global mix that increasingly characterizes Middlebury’s student body—and its curriculum. These days, campus activism is often a hybrid affair, with students from a variety of backgrounds coming together over concerns about “eco-equity,” a movement that targets the relationship between the environment and poverty. Similarly, the faculty group that Dean Shirley Ramirez has convened to work on a program for the study of race and ethnicity (to be housed in Carr Hall) brings together colleagues from American Studies, International Studies, Sociology, and so on. Although the director of the center will have an appointment in American Studies, the program will be polycultural or transnational in scope.
Skeptics might well wonder whether this transnational turn will detract attention from the pressing domestic problems—namely, racism and poverty—that have long been a part of American culture. On the other hand, it is equally legitimate to ask whether these problems can be sufficiently addressed without taking into account the global context. In other words, if Martin Luther King were alive today, he would definitely be kung fu dancing.