Lester: MLK holiday is another opportunity for serving, learning, and unlearning


About peeling back and shedding the layers and layers of our consciously and unconsciously learned behaviors and attitudes that prevent us from experiencing the richness of diversity, tolerance, and acceptance, anti-racism educator and activist Jane Elliott contends that “what we learn, we can unlearn.”

Elliott, whose 1968 Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes social experiment with her Iowa third graders on the occasion of the assassination of Dr. King, knew well the value of repetition when she arbitrarily gave rights and privileges to the blue eyed white students in her class 52 years ago and then snatched the rights and privileges from the blue eyed white students and gave them to the brown eyed white students the next day and just as arbitrarily.

That experiment and so many related lessons about sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, sizeism, linguicism, colorism, childism, and religious intolerance we all learn through repetition.

We also, according to Elliott, unlearn through repetition. This relearning and unlearning --- this peeling back and shedding the layers and layers of messy stuff --- is at the heart of so many recovery programs that address behaviors and actions that keep us all from being our best selves and from living our best lives.

As I accepted the 2019 Diversity Award from the Baha’i Faith Community and the Town of Paradise Valley a year ago, I reminded my audience that Dr. King’s life work was indeed informed by the absolute need for repetition in his continual fight for social justice not just for one but for all. To disrupt the systems that continually deny each of us on one level or another our individual humanity demands a commitment to doing the same things over and over again and not just expecting but rather demanding different results.

This struggle for social justice requires unceasing commitment to repetition until the doors of equality and equity opened for one opens for all. Activist Angela Y. Davis adds a twist to the Serenity Prayer, “I am no longer accepting what I cannot change. I am changing what I cannot accept.” This sentiment underscores the repetition that underscores the struggle for justice as disrupting the status quo.

On the occasion of this another MLK celebration, let us all be mindful of our individual responsibility to seek out justice on every front. Let us be reminded that the things that divide us can make us turn on each other when we focus solely on our own livelihood and solely on the lives of those who look like us, talk like us, dress like us, think like us, and share our values.

Dr. King’s legacy is one that demands both a commitment to and a retreat from the rituals and repetitions that leave us cynical and fearful of difference and of acknowledging our own vulnerabilities and frailties. At the same time, his legacy is one that challenges each of us to reach beyond ourselves and the comfort of our own skins and communities to be of service to others.

Indeed, Dr. King’s focus on service is a decentering of ourselves to engage in a social cause that is bigger than our individual selves. Dr. King’s legacy of service is thus about risk-taking, about extending humanity to those who may not extend that same humanity to us. His legacy is not about weakness or even a moral high ground.

Rather, Dr. King’s dream is about being humane in the face of others’ skepticism, disillusionment, bigotry, and unwarranted fears; about a commitment to justice in the face of disappointment, defeat, wrong, misunderstanding, mistreatment, threats, and uncertainty.

On this occasion of this another MLK celebration of a life lived with passion and purpose, let us all be reminded that Dr. King declared himself a drum major for peace; not peace that is the absence of conflict, but rather peace that emerges from and manifests itself in civility, patience, and these ASU Project Humanities Humanity 101 principles: respect, integrity, kindness, forgiveness, empathy and self-reflection.

Let us all be reminded that perpetuating any injustice against another denies us of our individual humanity and causes us to forfeit our own spiritual, emotional, and mental peace.
Closely aligned with these Humanity 101 values and Dr. King’s teachings and legacy is this governing principle of the Baha’i Faith Community’s annual Race Unity Day: “teaching that there must be universal recognition of the oneness of all humans to achieve peace” and that each of us as individuals --- even with our own faults, failings, and frailties --- is “an individual with intrinsic value to humankind.”

In his steady march toward “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” not just for the few but for all, King was steadfast in his prescriptions about change that results from repetition manifested in perseverance and persistence: “Somewhere we must come to see that social progress never rolls on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. And so we must help time, and we must realize that the time is always right to do right.”

Our celebration on this day in this year is yet another opportunity to do better and be better than we were last year, to do better and be better than we were last month and last week, and be and do better today than we did yesterday.

Please join us on Monday, Jan. 20 for the Paradise Valley, Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. This is a yearly event held at the Paradise Valley Town Hall, 6401 E. Lincoln Drive, Paradise Valley, AZ 85253. The event will start promptly at 11 a.m. with lunch provided after the celebration.

Editor’s Note: Neal A. Lester, PhD, is foundation professor of English and founding director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.