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By Mark Anthony Neal |with thanks to NewBlackMan


Wednesday, January 18, 2012.


Two of my favorite images of Martin Luther King Jr., are not of actual images of King at all.  They are of actor Jeffrey Wright in his performance of King from the HBO original film Boycott, directed by Clark Johnson.  The first scene occurs nights before the launch of the Montgomery bus boycott and King and Ralph Abernathy (portrayed by  Oscar nominated actor Terrance Howard)—the duo functioning more like running partners—dispatch themselves to local pool halls to get the word out about the bus boycott, on the premise that, “not everybody goes to church.” 


The gesture itself is not all that important, but the film presents an image of King that suggest how seamlessly he might have integrated himself into what many might have thought—at least at the time—as fairly disparate spaces; a point that was not lost on the film’s characters who were hustled into a games of pool by the otherwise devout servant of the Lord—and his people.


The second image occurs during the film’s closing credits. With the film’s version of King’s legacy assured, we see King in contemporary Montgomery, holding court with a bunch of corner boys—young African-American men—seemingly physically, and perhaps, rhetorically at home with the denizens of the Hip-Hop generation at the turn of the 21st Century. 


In this scene it is not unimaginable to imagine this King doppelganger, rolling up on this group of would be thugs—legible in that way to far too many casual observers—and greeting them with the gesture “Lil Nigger, Just Where You Been?”.  This is, of course, part of the private King—the King that played the rhetorical dozens with his inner circle, the King who sought sexual release in the afterhours of public life, the King that has become most relatable to those generations, who’ve only known him as a dead icon and a ready made postage stamp. 


As Michael Eric Dyson notes in his book I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr., the “rules for public discourse for blacks have changed from the fifties…neither is cursing an automatic sign of unintelligence or unrighteousness.  Those stereotypes must be broken up in order to open communication between the civil rights and hip-hop generations.” As Jonathan Rieder suggests, the “sublime and decorous universalism” that defined the public King, “never encompassed the entirety of King’s repertoire of talk an identity.”


Rieder’s essay “What Kind of People Worship Here? The Labor of Legitimacy and the Passion of Prophesy in ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’” is focused on King’s dexterity at speaking to multiple publics, most often one Black and one White.  The King that Rieder presents us, is one who is highly skilled at navigating these distinct publics or what some social scientists have called parallel publics; one who deftly gestures across race and religion, who, as Rieder describes it, “glides from gentility to rudeness and from the labor of legitimacy, to the passion of prophecy.”  This is the King, who needed the comforts of community, to whoop it up, when the reporters were gone, and he needed to recover from the rhetorical pirouettes that were as necessary to the forwarding of the freedom struggles as the direct action that took place in the streets.


In many ways the translation of this King to the hip-hop generation is not an empty or simple conceit; The King that Rieder give us—the King who some view with suspicion because of his liberal borrowing of ideas in that doctoral dissertation—is the King who functions like a skilled turntabalist, dutifully mixing and remixing narratives of freedom, resistance and redemption—for himself and the nation;  A King who is at home with the sampling practices that have come to define the sonic genius of rap music production, both part of a broader continuum of Black expressive culture that privileges borrowing, sharing, and the refashioning of style and ideas. Like Sean “PuffyDiddyDaddy” Combs boasted a decade ago, “we invented the remix.”


As Richard Schur writes in his book Parodies of Ownership: Hip-Hop Aesthetics  and Intellectual Property Law, “Sampling is not simply the reshaping and reuse of recorded text, but a method of textual production…that proceeds by listening for and incorporating discrete parts, rather than completed wholes, and constructing an aesthetically satisfying text out of them.”


Part of King’s genius, was not simply his ability to speak across disparate publics, but to do so in a way that was aesthetically pleasing within these publics.  Yes, this is, as Rieder suggest, the crossover King—the King we remember every January, who gets invoked in visual mashups with Malcolm X and President Barack Obama.


Yet we still have this private King—the barbershop King, shooting the shit with his “lil Niggers”—well offstage, sometimes into the afterhours, on drives across the South, in hotel rooms where they are partaking in the fruits of their segregated celebrity. 


This is the mixtape King—the King that circulates to check the temperature of his street cred, the King who inspired those with no vested interest in the institutions and institutional figures, including King, who spoke for them, but instead simply appreciated the Swag, both rhetorical and political.  And perhaps it is this mixtape King that we all might also consider.



 Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books including the forthcomingLooking for Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities.  He is professor of African & African-American Studies at Duke University and host the weekly video webcast Left of Black. Follow him on Twitter @NewBlackMan.



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