On April 12, 1963, eight, white clergymen published the second of two letters penned in 1963 responding to the changing political climate regarding race and desegregation in Alabama. The April letter, printed in local newspapers challenged the timeliness of civil rights demonstrations:
[…] we are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.
King’s response to these clergymen, “The Letter from Birmingham Jail,” first appeared in May 1963 and a later, edited version appeared in his book, Why We Can’t Wait, in 1964. Responding to the clergymen’s critique of the timeliness of the demonstrations, King contends that:
we have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. […] Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.”
Ultimately King concludes that an act of empathy is required to understand the difficulty of waiting. As he writes, “[t]here comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.” For me, King’s letter clearly emerges as having greater moral authority than the clergymen’s letters.
The arrogance of these eight men with respect to King’s response to their open letter is apparent in their claims of being wounded by its contents. Jonathan Rieder, who articulates a common yet unchallenged assertion that King, “never bothered to reply personally to his critics, a failure they found wounding and even exploitive” is problematic. Only through an embrace of racial paternalism and racial superiority does one find it reasonable to claim that King wounded and exploited these men when they published two open letters without consulting him even one time. Those clergymen did not seek King out as they made their public statements and did not have them approved by King, so why would they expect that of him? Again, the moral authority they claim is illegitimate in light of its reliance on white supremacist logic.
I have been thinking about these letters in light of a recent interview rapper, Nelly, gave to HuffingtonPost Live in response to Marc Lamont Hill’s questions about the national attention a bone marrow drive received that Nelly planned to host at Spelman College in 2004. This drive became a site of protest for some students who questioned the use of their campus, one belonging to black women, in uncritically accepting the rapper’s project in light of his portrayal of black women in his videos; particularly, “Tip Drill.” Now, if you have not seen this video, let me warn you, it is beyond Triple-X rated; it’s just straight up nasty! One can clearly understand why young black feminists would take issue with this video. When the student group learned that their Student Government Association (SGA) agreed to host Nelly’s bone marrow drive for his then dying sister, these students required that he engage them in a conversation concerning his video, “Tip Drill,” and the representation of black women in the media in general. He decided that Spelman would not be the venue for him to host the drive. Despite this, Spelman students along with the help of a local D.J. held the bone marrow drive at a local mall and registered over 300 donors. According to Nelly, their request for a conversation was ill-timed.
In the interview with Hill, Nelly challenges the urgency of this conversation given his sister’s mortality. Today, those former students who were responsible for requesting the conversation as well as one of the professors whose class served as a foundation for grounding their activism (along with another women’s studies course), appeared on HuffingtonPost Live to share their perspective on the events that transpired in 2004. Even as a feminist, I don’t find the lines of moral authority here as clearly defined as I did when considering the Birmingham letters of ’63.
First, it’s not clear to me that a man who would make such a nasty video would have much to offer by way of critical interrogation that would make having a conversation with him worthwhile. To that end, the letter the white clergymen composed and King’s written response offer a model of protest that actually offers criticism of “conversation.” As King notes in the “Letter,” “[t]oo long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.” In American culture at least, the presumed “conversation,” often boils down to a lecture given from the ideological standpoint of the interlocutors. To King’s point, though he wishes this weren’t the case, there is no dialogue; just two clearly staked positions. I am curious to know what the Spelman students actually thought would come from a “conversation” with Nelly. What did they actually think he would say? What words might be satisfactory? Too, I also wonder about the content of the “conversation” these students had with members of their own SGA. Were they in agreement over the need for “conversation?” Were they seen as having an equal voice in the decision to add a requirement to Nelly’s bone marrow drive at the College?
Moya Bailey, the past president of the feminist organization that sought to hold Nelly accountable for the depiction of black women in his videos, addressed many of the issues Nelly put forward in his interview with Hill through an open letter. Two things that the letter doesn’t address are most interesting to me in light of the history of “timeliness” identified in the exchange between the white clergymen and King in 1963. For Bailey, “timeliness” gets associated with Lilly Allen’s video in its heavy citation of “Tip Drill,” but what about “timeliness” in the way that Nelly raises the issue? Did the request for a “conversation” with him have the same urgency as his sister’s mortality? Given that there was no timeline given to Nelly concerning when he would have this conversation, why not ask at a later time? To that point, even King had to accept a more nuanced view of “timeliness” and morality after the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. Though King wanted to return to Birmingham, prominent black leaders in Birmingham, with far more conservative views, ended his hopes for reviving demonstrations there. “Timeliness,” then, can be greatly informed by the fact of human loss. One wonders how this understanding framed how the Spelman activists reflected upon Nelly’s sister.
Though Jelani Cobb addressed the open declaration of physical violence against women that Nelly asserted in his expressed desire to “kick somebody’s ass” over the protest, Bailey’s letter supports the maintenance of such violence. Her claim that she’s “ready” once Nelly names the time and place for a throw down misses an opportunity to not only address physical violence against women but also the ecology of violence that normalizes the rape culture Nelly glamorizes in “Tip Drill.”
Marc Lamont Hill made it clear in his conversation with the former Spelman protesters that he invited Nelly to enter into conversation with them, to offer his response to their stated position, and other such configurations allowing him to share his views. Honestly, if I were Nelly, I wouldn’t take any of them up on such an opportunity. As the conversation is being framed, a meaningful engagement over appearance and reality doesn’t seem possible in that forum. What can he possibly say to assuage the obvious fact that his raunchy video does not support a feminist point of view? Let’s say he gets that–understands it, now what? What kind of “love” is Bailey suggesting as she closes her letter when only a sentence before, she’s talking about being ready to fight this man?
The moral complexities of this case are quite compelling. There is no easy resolution; no clear winners…and it just be’s like that sometimes.