It had to happen. The problem of outsourcing is very real for the United States, and puts us all in such a precarious political and social space. Politically, outsourcing is bad for us because it chooses cheaper labor at the expense of our national interest in reasonable (full?) employment for our fellow citizens. Socially, outsourcing is good for the consumer self, providing cheap goods and services for a lot of us. I’ll skip the familiar reflection on how this is capitalism’s endgame, etc., and just underscore the fact that all of it is just so precarious. We’re off-balance when balance might really help. Outsourcing. Sigh.
But there are also, one assumes, certain limits. For example, when it comes to memorials and the like, one is pretty safe in the assumption that memorials reflect something of the cultural space to which they are constructed in memory. Authorship might matter quite a lot. In fact, I’d say it is a kind of moral imperative, which is why I’ve posted a few things here on memory and memorials – including two on the Flight 93 memorial and remembering the Amistad, slavery, and even lost neighborhoods. My thoughts in all of those pieces drew on a fixed conviction: the authorship and context of a memory or memorial means everything. Who owns the memorial – both in terms of authorship and those represented by the author – would seem to be of central importance. To be honest, I didn’t even question that assumption. My critical remarks drew on presumably shared assumptions about proper forms of creation and representation.
How is that context altered when the work of memorialization is outsourced? Perhaps that is just another way of putting so many of my anxieties about our works of memory – for example, maybe tourism is itself a kind of outsource of memory, sending existential pain and history out to the commodified world, thereby making it safe for consumption. But the recent story about a Chinese sculptor working up the Martin Luther King, Jr. monument for the National Mall is all the more literal. And all the more disturbing. And so all the more instructive.
This is not a random monument. It is destined for the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
This means, to me, that the monument has an elevated sense of seriousness. The question is one of national memory, of making a place in our center of political power and meaning for one of the great moral voices and actors in our small history, and so really a question of how we represent, to ourselves, the meaning of our own history. I think Gilbert Young, quoted in the Associated Press story, sums it up nicely:
“They keep saying King was for everyone. I keep telling people, ‘No, King wasn’t for everyone. King was for fairness and justice,'” said Gilbert Young, a black painter fromwho has started a Web site and a petition drive to try to change the project.
“I believe that black artists have the right to interpret ourselves first,” Young said. “If nobody steps up to the plate to do that, then certainly pass it along to someone else.”
Interpret ourselves. I imagine that phrase both edifies and makes anxious a lot of Americans. Anxiety for not just those uncomfortable with race and issues of racism, but perhaps even those on the multicultural tip. Let me start with this straightforward claim: King, Jr.’s legacy is a painful one. The pain of that legacy is saturated with all sorts of hope, transformation, and greatness. But it draws on pain. While we in the U.S. might first recall the glory of the “I Have a Dream” speech (rightly so, it is one of our moral high-points in the twentieth century), we might also recall films of dogs attacking crowds of African-American men, women, and children. The fire hoses. The faces of the children killed in the famous Birmingham church bombing.
That pain was borne by African-Americans. It was also a pain that reached far back into U.S. history, into the saddest and most violent centuries before the Civil War.
While that might seem a trite remark, even obvious, it is a simple fact that ought to inform our thinking about memorials to King, Jr. and the civil rights movement in general. The specificity of all this pain to which the monument will bear witness matters. What does the foundation creating this memorial have to say?
The foundation also points to King’s preaching — in a quote that will be incorporated into the monument — that to achieve peace, humans must “transcend race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”
“The bottom line is Dr. King’s message that we should judge a person not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character,” said Harry Johnson, the foundation’s president and chief executive. “In this situation, we’re talking about the artistic character.”
Artistic character, not skin color. Here we arrive at the real reason for this memorial’s outsourcing. And also a moment of insight about our relation to painful memory about race, something caught nicely in the phrase “colorblind racism.”
What would it mean to underscore, rather than outsource, the racial character of the memorial, both in its author and its meaning? That is, what would it mean to remember that King, Jr. was black and that his struggle was with and for black people? In other words, what would it mean to tie the memorial to that history to which it bears moral witness? Well, that would re-open up all those wounds in our memory, sadden us even as we remember a national hero who saved us from so much violence, and perhaps even re-frame some of the ongoing violence with which we’re all too familiar: racism in politics, the workplace, New Orleans, poverty rates, etc. Perhaps that’s why we’ve outsourced this, for without a white or black author of our nation’s memory of King, Jr. and the civil rights movement, we can forget that it was in fact all about white and black people. And that the message and the radicalism of his thinking is still too relevant. And that Letter from a Birmingham Jail might still disturb our shit. And that the dream of which he spoke at that very same National Mall still needs to be articulated, heard, struggled for. Or how called we are by the pain of hearing King, Jr. say it: “I may not get there with you.”
I’m tempted to just go philosopher on the foundation’s defender. Alright, let’s assume the whole “don’t judge by color of skin” thing is relevant, that we should all be colorblind. Alright, I’m colorblind. But now I can’t imagine or perceive the very history remembered in this monument. There is no history here without race and racism. I know it sucks, but, hey, if it sucks that bad, let’s do better by ourselves and our children, ok? That history wasn’t colorblind. There is no civil rights movement, no Martin Luther King, Jr. without color. You need black and white people to remember that stuff. To wash it off the monument, well, that’s just too easy to critique. History is unimaginable without what you’re trying to wash off.
But that’s really the essence of outsourcing, no? You get a bargain, even if the realities of your own political life are harmed by that bargain. In this case, the bargain is a memorial without color, without race, without the pain of racism’s cruel voice and hand. We get hope without the dogs, fire hoses, and bombed-out places of worship. What a deal! Except that every collectivity needs memory. Every collectivity needs memory, even when it hurts – perhaps we need memory most when it is painful. Without that pain, we have no violent and despicable reality against which to measure our own growth and failures as a collective.
I wish we hadn’t outsourced our memory. I really, really wish we hadn’t. Let’s hope it is not too late.