(This piece was originally published in the South Seattle Emerald and is republished with permission.)
Myths can destroy our dreams …
I’ll tell you why that thought haunted me after I visited Montgomery, Alabama, a historical crucible for both brutal oppression against Black people and their courageous resistance against it during the Civil Rights Movement.
It wasn’t anything I saw at the EJI Legacy Museum, an institution laying bare this country’s legacy of slavery. Not the museum’s depiction of the slave trade, Jim Crow, police brutality, or other eras of American oppression. It wasn’t the hundreds of steel monuments, one for each county where white mobs lynched at least one of 4,400 documented victims — men, women, children — by hanging them, drowning them, shooting them, and burning them alive.
What haunted me most was the juxtaposition of two monuments outside the state capitol, with their contradictory histories and clashing narratives offering incompatible distillations of Black history.
The stone monument to my left exalted hundreds of descendants of the enslaved who in 1965 endured the billy clubs cracking against their skulls, dog fangs ripping the skin off their bones, and bullwhips tearing at their backs, as they marched against segregation from Selma, Alabama, to the steps of the state capitol, steps that were in clear view from where I stood.
Directly across the street, to my right, another monument, built 60 years earlier, praised Jefferson Davis, who led soldiers in a revolt against the country of their birth rather than accept the emancipation of the enslaved.
It was Davis, the former president of the Confederate States of America, who once said, “African slavery, as it exists in the United States, is a moral, a social, and a political blessing.”
In the year 2023, in the shadow of the former capitol building of the Confederate States of America, two groups receive equal treatment: a savage, mutinous government that denied humanity to a class of people, and the people who demanded their humanization.
I was born and bred within the liberal monomania of Seattle, where such displays couldn’t occupy a cesspool’s foyer let alone public land. I still live there. But that’s not why my sensibilities were shaken by what I saw in Montgomery.
What’s so jarring about that imagery is how perfect a metaphor those opposing monuments are for the current state of this nation: two warring narratives, vying for supremacy, only one of which can emerge as the compass of this country, seizing hold of our past so it may guide our future.
You can see these two visions vie in Missouri, a state that can’t pass policy for long-term child welfare but can readily ban 300 books by Black authors from the schools those children attend. Across America, the presence of truth-telling and historic context in classrooms is framed as guilt-peddling, as scapegoating, as a way to evade personal responsibility.
Why do they forbid the teaching of the social dynamics that have erected an edifice of inequality, instability, and social anguish? Because it enables a mass forgetting of the terror committed, trauma experienced, and atrocities tolerated in this country, along with the blood that still soaks in our soil.
For some, better a flattering and false retelling of our past that shrinks from calling slavery, slavery; racism, racism; exploitation, exploitation; genocide, genocide; dominance, dominance; and truth, truth.
Better to frame the present as having materialized exclusively through personal uplift, grit, and enterprise. No room for the machinations of race, class, and patriarchy. No room for the impressions they’ve indented into our society, entrenching power dynamics that live and breathe in our current day.
When I was asked to reflect upon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” speech, my mind fixated on that imagery from Alabama, all too vivid in my mind, myth at war with reality.
King’s speech, given a year before the day he was assassinated, was a plea against our nation’s increased involvement in Vietnam at the expense of addressing poverty on our terrain. America left Vietnam almost 50 years ago, but King’s message still reverberates today, because it encapsulates the war we face in this society: a narrative war, with reason, knowledge, empathy, and humanity all becoming casualties.
If the specifics of King’s speech address a different time, his diagnosis readily speaks to the present.
“Is our nation planning to build on political myth again, and then shore it up upon the power of new violence?” he asks.
While a genuine question then, it seems all but rhetorical now. The three years since the horrific murder of George Floyd have promised us overdue examinations of — and antidotes for — the ever-injustices ailing this country.
Instead, this grand reckoning held our collective attention for all of what seems now like 15 minutes. The murders of Tyre Nichols, Keenan Anderson, and Anthony Lowe speak to our infantile regression to grasping at fables, fables that ultimately blunt any significant change within our society.
Our response to the unceasing police killings is once again a myth: that progress for people of color will come from leading institutions — whether city halls, police departments, or school boards — that still disproportionately kill, miseducate, and degrade Black communities. In response to the myth, reality screams, “What does it matter what color the executioner is if the objective is execution?”
Animating the myth is a fear that if we show our young people the truth, they will be afflicted with the guilt of an oppressor or overcome by the rage of the oppressed. In response, reality shouts, “Truth may not bring comfort, but it does escort understanding and with it an obligation to repair whatever damage we’ve identified — whoever caused it.”
The myth shouts, too, that the paramount forms of power in this society — power over violence, power over information, and power over assets — can only be monopolized. Reality responds that the power of peace, the power of knowledge, and the power of resources can be shared.
King invoked this reality when he said, “We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives, and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
As I write this, Tyre Nichols’ family buries him in the presence of the family members of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Botham Jean, and Eric Garner. As I write this, it has been reported that since 1975, $50 trillion dollars have been diverted from working Americans to America’s wealthiest 1%. As I write this, our country inches closer to conflict with China by boosting its military presence in the Philippines, while further reducing its already timid empathy toward the people of Haiti, who find themselves in a crisis that we’ve exacerbated.
To quote King’s speech once again, our only hope lies in our ability to “go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”
But we can only access that hope by rejecting the notions that personal progress will somehow manifest racial equality within society, that an ahistorical origin story is enough to keep the demons of our past from tormenting our present, that an unexamined status quo will ever produce the transformative solutions craved by a society decaying from inequality, sickness, and hopelessness.
It is no wonder that King’s words were originally met with widespread derision, denunciation, and ridicule — from the White House, from the unions, from editorial boards across the country, even from the NAACP — almost immediately after he spoke them.
In a nation fueled by myths, reality can be much too hard to handle.
Dreams of a better world, harder still.
Marcus Harrison Green is the publisher of the South Seattle Emerald. Growing up in South Seattle, he experienced first-hand the impact of one-dimensional stories on marginalized communities, which taught him the value of authentic narratives. After an unfulfilling stint in the investment world during his twenties, Marcus returned to his community with a newfound purpose of telling stories with nuance, complexity, and multidimensionality with the hope of advancing social change. This led him to become a writer and found the South Seattle Emerald. He was named one of Seattle’s most influential people by Seattle Magazine in 2016 and was awarded 2020 Individual Human Rights Leader by the Seattle Human Rights Commission.