I’ll take three…
I watched the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, Benji, for the twentieth time this weekend. This very moving film tells the tragic story of the shooting death of Chicago basketball sensation Benjamin Wilson. At the time of his death, the 17-year-old was ranked the number one high school player in the nation and so was a highly sought after recruit. As Michael Wilbon attests in the film, stories of promises unfulfilled are often compelling and this one is no less so.
The film features many of Benji’s friends–some of whom had known him since he was just 3-years-old. Every person who chronicles his life and his promise is male, except one person. Though Benji’s mother appears in the film through television footage, she does not author her own words directly for this film, which was made after her death in 2000. The one woman who appears was a friend to both Benji and Billy Moore, the sixteen-year-old shooter. The first ten times I saw the film, I don’t think I paid much attention to the nearly totalizing male voice and perspective, but once I did, I began to think a great deal about how the “bro-mance” works to create a mythical, heroic tale of Benji as an unchallenged truth. While the tragedy is no less affecting given this limitation, other perspectives would have certainly challenged the narrative of good versus bad and innocence versus guilt as the most prominent themes in the film.
The male chroniclers limit their evaluation of Benji’s faults. Despite these limits, Benji’s faults still surface. While the men, for example, extoll the love that Benji had for his girlfriend Jetun Rush, they overlook his aggressiveness towards her as nothing more than the two having challenges in their relationship after the birth of their son, Brandon. What they construct as a lover’s spat is better described as violence over her refusal to give him the attention he wanted. On one occasion, he grabs her and becomes so rough with her that when a teacher intervenes, Benji reacts by hitting the man and knocking him to the ground. According to his friends and family, Benji was incredibly apologetic to his teacher and regretted his actions–as did his mother who was frustrated that her son, the number one player in the country, struck a teacher. No one, however, link his imperfections–as one friend muses–to his aggression towards Jetun. His friends and family seemed to overlook his aggression towards Jetun at school and on their fateful walk to the bus stop where he meets his shooter. To them, Benji looooooved Jetun and this was evidenced by him crying over her, according to his brother, and apparently through what he expressed to his friends. Jetun’s story might have challenged this romantic narrative and highlighted an ego that his friends insisted was totally justified confidence.
Rather than romantic love, the more interesting love story that I think the film tells is about forgiveness. Unfortunately, most of this narrative gets displaced in the film and is told mainly through the bonus features. The bonus features grant more attention to Billy Moore, the person who shot and killed Benji. Moore tells of how he accepted responsibility for the tragic act that cost Wilson his life; how he asked Benji’s parents for their forgiveness; how he asked Benji’s friends for forgiveness; and how he continues to work to make a positive contribution to his community. Unlike the romance/bro-mance of the central narrative, the tale of Moore’s quest for forgiveness does not seduce the viewer into a familiar tale of good guys and bad guys. It’s a shame that the love story of seeking redemption doesn’t provide the allure of (b)romance, because, to cite Don Henley, forgiveness really is “the heart of the matter” complicating the fairytales and myths mistakenly taken for history.
In much of the scholarship one reads about the tragically brief life of Martin Luther King, Jr., one can observe the great efforts scholars make to engage King’s struggles to resolve the tension between a ministry centering on his role in advocating and living a life consistent with the gospels and the private man who was habitually unfaithful to his wife Coretta. The numerous male scholars writing about King overlook the possibility of considering King’s chronic infidelity through his promulgation of nonviolence; instead, they read the fact of his chronic infidelity solely through the lens of King’s religious vocation and the pressures, tensions, and anxieties related to the stress of his besieged life as a public figure. For example, in I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr., Michael Dyson asserts this:
“In King’s case, the varied functions of black privacy were even more highly charged. During much of his career, King’s private time was spent where he and his colleagues shaped strategies for social change. King’s time at home was severely curtailed by the inhuman demands of the movement. He spent nearly twenty-seven days of most months in pursuit of the prize of black liberation. Inevitably, this separation weakened King’s sexual bonds with his wife and eroded the quality of time and affection he could devote to her and to their children. To be fair, King’s habits of sexual adventure had been well established by the time he was married. His personal and public circumstances only amplified his sexual indiscretions” (161).
Dyson follows his analysis of King’s serial infidelity to a very thoughtful reading of patriarchy and King’s full embrace of it. No one disputes that King was a male chauvinist who believed that women were not equal to men and thus unqualified to lead. Married women, like Mrs. King, were expected to raise children and keep house.
Others offer similar readings of King’s habitual infidelity. In Jonathan Rieder’s book, The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he recounts a brief conversation that nearly matches the connection Dyson makes between the activism that pulled King away from his family as well as a response to stress. Rieder writes:
“A friend once raised ‘the subject of [King’s] compulsive sexual athleticism…after being prompted by a worried mutual acquaintance. ‘I’m away from home twenty-five to twenty-seven days a month,’ King Answered. ‘Fucking’s a form of anxiety reduction.'” (78)
Rieder’s portrait of King follows his interest in the various rhetorical situations and communities that King addressed, held membership in, and engaged personally. Thus, the ribald language King ostensibly put forward in this exchange reflects his position in a close-knit community that recognized his humanity, respected the fact of his private life and private needs, and accepted him–faults and all.
I can go on and on with the examples of scholars writing about King’s private sexual escapades in relationship to patriarchy, male chauvinism, and the anxieties of being a besieged man, but so far, I haven’t read where any of these very interesting and thoughtful King scholars have associated King’s adultery with his fierce commitment to nonviolence as not just a tool but a philosophy. To that end, while activists marvel at King’s keen understanding of the relationship between adequate wages and human dignity as well as the significance of living with integrity, there is an arresting silence about the limits of King’s vision as it pertains to the relationship between adultery and violence. Perhaps those who discuss the matter assume that in describing patriarchy, they’ve said all that needs to be said about violence, but if that’s the case, there needs to be more interrogation of the limits of nonviolence as a life philosophy when it accepts the violence of adultery. In describing adultery as violence, I aim to place it within the scope of King’s vision and commitment to human dignity and integrity. While King’s infidelity was not made public knowledge until his best bud, Ralph Abernathy exposed it in his autobiography, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, it was a very open secret to those in the movement–and of course the U.S. Government. So what is intriguing to me is how often these oral narratives offered by King’s friends convey an awareness of King’s infidelity, and not a single Christian one of them ever seems offended that King’s actions could have shamed, embarrassed, and diminished his wife’s efforts to live with dignity and integrity.
I recently finished reading Ben Kamin’s book, Room 306: The National Story of the Lorraine Motel, and despite its great reviews, I found it underwhelming. The interviews are very short and the conversations lack, what I consider to be, rich engagement. One of the more egregious instances of such an occurrence is featured in chapter three, which Kamin titles, “Lover at the Lorraine: Georgia Davis Powers.” Most King scholars cite Powers as one of the three mistresses he had genuinely strong feelings for. In citing her presence at the Lorraine Motel on April 3, when he gives his famous “Mountaintop” speech, and on April 4 when James Earl Ray kills King, there is no further attempt to bear greater scrutiny regarding her witness. Understanding Powers as a party to the violence of King’s infidelity challenges the consistency of Kamin’s presumption that “witness” merely refers to the lethal violence of King’s assassination and not the routine, everyday violence committed against Mrs. King and their children. Failing to recognize the leniency granted King’s routine infidelity implicates many “witnesses” to the persistent aggression King’s entire circle maintained against Mrs. King. The documentary short, “The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306,” offers an example of what appears to be the easy embrace of such aggression.
The film centers on the witness of Reverend Samuel “Billy” Kyles who was the only person who actually stood beside King when he was hit by the lethal bullet. Kyles and his wife were hosting King and his guests for dinner at their home. While dinner was scheduled for six, Kyles told King the meal would be served at 5 because he knew how casually King regarded time. Though Georgia Powers does not appear in the film, Kamin’s book, and numerous others, report that she and one of her girlfriends were extended an invitation to this dinner party. So far, I have yet to read anyone rigorously engage the fact of Powers’s acceptance into the home of a minister and his wife as the guest of a married man as an affront to Mrs. King. As long as their coupling remained ostensibly discreet, King and Powers were free to disrespect, disregard, and dishonor Mrs. King at will. The one time Powers was prevented by someone in King’s circle from accompanying King was when Powers attempted to ride in the ambulance as King was taken to the hospital after being shot; Andrew Young is credited with interceding at this moment. Powers contends that she spent the rest of that tragic evening at Rev. Kyles’s house surrounded by the dinner prepared in King’s honor. The last time she would see King’s body was when she flew to Atlanta for the funeral where she offered her condolences to Mrs. King.
Overlooking the violence of adultery as an accepted component of a philosophy of nonviolence is an egregious omission. Though Mrs. King was not assassinated, she was routinely assaulted by most of the people who shared her world. It seems to me that the dynamics of nonviolence are inadequately engaged when the violence maintained against Mrs. King is so thoroughly dismissed; it’s amazing that she lived as long as she did given that so many people populating her world were trying to kill her. Nonviolence as both a tactic and a philosophy may have been an effective strategy for building a movement against white supremacy and disenfranchisement, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be an effective practice for black women who try to claim and maintain dignity and integrity for themselves within a marriage. This story, the story of the assault against Mrs. King, makes you question the possibilities of nonviolence as a model for building intimate relationships; it seems to work just fine for citizens and lovers, but nonviolence doesn’t appear to support a wife’s desire to experience the longevity that King longed for. Instead, as nonviolence may serve as an effective strategy for systemic change, at the same time, it expands the ways we can conceptualize domestic violence.
Rashard Mendenhall played running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers for four years before being picked-up by the Arizona Cardinals. Now, at 26-years-old, he’s decided to retire. Mendenhall wrote a wonderful blog post for The Huffington Post about his decision. Skeptics presume that his decision is based on his desire for a larger contract, but Mendenhall’s own claims make more sense to me. In his post, he offers that he’s done as much as he wants to do in football and would now like to pursue his interests in “dance, art, and literature.” Mendenhall represents those of us who are quite comfortable knowing when we’ve had enough; who can admit when what the culture tells you is good doesn’t feel that way to you; who find it worthwhile to explore other areas of life we may find interesting; who can say, “I’m done.”
If what you enjoy in life and about life aligns with what the culture holds in high esteem, fine. For many of us, however, this alignment doesn’t hold. When such congruency fails to hold, being honest with one’s self about this rift opens up a path to worthwhile experiences that might just facilitate a higher quality of life. Rashard Mendenhall definitely offers a model for making a life from the materials and elements you find valuable and being honest about the stuff others tell you makes it so. I’m looking forward to seeing where Mendenhall goes next because it might actually be more interesting than having to listen to another former athlete offering commentary on ESPN or the NFL Network about the latest game through the lens of their own glory days.
Like Black History Month, Women’s History Month began as a week long celebration. Though this national dedication began in 1981, before being extended to a month in 1987, I have no memory of women’s history being marked until the mid-nineties–and even then, I thought it was a reactionary effort to somehow challenge February as a month set aside to honor and acknowledge black American men and women. It’s interesting that even while I attended an all-girls high school, Women’s History Month was never acknowledged in any way; I’m not sure why. Certainly my high school didn’t diminish women’s work, labor, talent, skill, and ideas…maybe they just assumed that the school itself paid homage to women’s strengths and capacities.
From what I’ve observed, celebrations of Black History Month tend to be celebrations that list black achievements and as I’ve listened to radio commentary that acknowledges Women’s History Month, the focus appears to be on where women can work. If you know a woman or a girl and you’re not encouraging them to enter a STEM field, you’re doing them a disservice because a girl’s goal should always be on showing men that women can do what they can do…blah, blah, blah. I don’t have anything against Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics, but I do think too much emphasis gets placed on how hard and difficult those fields are to master. These fields are highly remunerated and often well-respected professions so if you’re prepared to work in the STEMs, like to work in the STEMS, employed to work in the STEMs, what’s so hard about that?
I don’t have a daughter, but I know lots of little girls and I care about girls and I can never see myself becoming deeply invested in whether or not girls enter a STEM field. Instead, I think about how much emotional, psychic, and spiritual strength girls, particularly black girls, are going to need to bear the weight of all the tragedy they’re in store for through their own vulnerability or the vulnerability of their loved ones. Concentrating on preparing girls to enter a STEM field will not prepare them to watch the man who killed her son, brother, father, uncle, friend, neighbor, classmate, or cousin go free. Where a woman works may not prepare her to take in the brutalized flesh of her only son–something Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett Till’s mother and Jacqueline Johnson, Kendrick Johnson’s mother, both did; the mistrial that insulted Lucia McBath, Jordan Davis’s mother, Dominika Stanley, Aiyana Stanley-Jones’s mother had already suffered and both were reminders of what Latasha Harlin’s aunt Denise (Latasha’s mother was murdered in a nightclub before Soon Ja Du killed Latasha) endured; I’m not very optimistic about Denise McBride, Renisha McBride’s mother, seeing a better outcome than her predecessors and I’m also not sure how much their model will help her.
Many fathers, uncles, brothers, friends, cousins, and neighbors also suffered losses alongside these women, but during Women’s History Month, as I am beginning to think about it, the figure of the mother, like Michaelangelo’s Mary bearing the weight of her dead son, figures most prominently. Mary. Mary. Mary…”tell Martha not to moan.”