One of the ways I celebrated the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday was by seeing Samuel Jackson and Angela Bassett in The Mountaintop. It is a very interesting piece of theater and an interesting idea: It's about Dr. Martin Luther King's last night on earth.
(If you haven't yet seen the play, consider this your spoiler alert.) The play depicts Dr. King (Samuel L. Jackson) in a conversation with an angel (Angela Bassett). And while the conversation covers quite a bit of ground, it reveals Dr. King as a human being, as a black man of his time facing the challenges of his day with the strengths, insecurities and flaws that all men have.
While that was the part of the message that I found most compelling, I understand why seeing Dr. King depicted in this manner makes some people uncomfortable. From my point of view this is an extremely empowering way to look at leadership and what makes someone a hero. There need to be more depictions of leaders as human beings. Many of us seem to need our leaders to be deities. I think we deify our leaders to excuse ourselves from the responsibility of taking action. So our conversation around this topic often goes something like this: "Leaders are perfect -- or at least have something I don't have. I'm not perfect; therefore, I can't be a leader. That is my rationale for not doing what I am perfectly capable of doing."
Dr. King was not a great leader and hero because he was an extraordinary man -- even though he probably was -- he was a transformational figure because he was also an ordinary man who did extraordinary things.
This week I will be participating in NAESM's National African American MSM Leadership Conference on HIV/AIDS and other Health Disparities conference in New Orleans, where black gay and bisexual men/same-gender-loving men/men who have sex with men (MSM), who work in HIV/AIDS, will gather to talk about how to fight the epidemic among Black MSM. The conference is happening at a critical time -- against a backdrop of a 48 percent increase in new cases among young black MSM between 2006 and 2009, breakthroughs in new biomedical interventions, challenges to the stability of organizations that serve black MSM, and the upcoming International AIDS Conference.
The NAESM conference also takes place in the face of the ongoing forces that actively undermine our ability to address the AIDS epidemic among Black MSM. Homophobia is certainly alive and well; federal, state and local governments continue not to invest in developing appropriate HIV/AIDS infrastructure to serve Black MSM; other communities challenge programs that target Black MSMs, often rendering them ineffective, as the programs instead serve other masters or speak to other demands; and no commitment exists to truly educate Black MSMs about the science of HIV/AIDS. These and other structural barriers make it difficult to address AIDS among Black MSM. No wonder we are where we are.
How does this relate to Dr. King? People often forget what was happening in Memphis on the night that Dr. King died. That early April trip was his second to Memphis; he had visited the city the week before. The first visit marked one of the few times when the Civil Rights movement lost discipline. As violence erupted and looting occurred, other Black leaders thought that Dr. King's life was in jeopardy, so they scurried him away from the city. Afterward, some people called Dr. King a coward for leaving. This troubled Dr. King tremendously. Some also attacked him for expanding his vision beyond Black people to include poor people in general and issues related to the Vietnam War. In spite of that, he returned to Memphis to continue his work. Greatness often manifests itself where the challenges are greatest.
This is such a time. Now is the time for ordinary Black gay and bisexual men to find the greatness that is stirring within each of us. Even with all of the challenges we face, we have to keep our eyes on the prize. Given the tools that we now have -- even as imperfect as they might be -- and given what we know about fighting HIV/AIDS, there is really only one conversation worthy of our time and energy at this meeting: What are we going to do to end the AIDS epidemic, among Black MSM? What are we -- the agents/actors/activists and drum majors for justice in HIV/AIDS -- going to do?
Now is the time for ordinary Black gay men to do extraordinary things. We are at a deciding moment in the trajectory of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in America. If we allow this opportunity before us to slip by, shame on us.
Yours in the struggle,