MLK Jr. Dream Chat | Crooked Media
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January 17, 2023
Pod Save The People
MLK Jr. Dream Chat

In This Episode

In celebration of MLK Jr. Day — DeRay, Kaya, and De’Ara cover the underreported news of the week: a new memorial honoring the Martin Luther King family opens on Boston Common, Pittsburgh police ignore city ordinances against traffic stops, and a submission for Saint Omer, a French drama film following the true events of a Black immigrant mother, is accepted by the Academy Awards.










DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Hey, this is DeRay and welcome to Pod Save the People. This week it’s me, De’Ara and Kaya talking about the underreported news of the week. And it’s MLK Day. So we deep dive into his dream legacy and our thoughts on the current state of being Black people in the U.S.. It’s a fun combo. We’re back with interviews next week. Let’s go. [music break] My advice for this week is the same advice every MLK day. Remember, MLK was a revolutionary. He was radical. What does it mean to be a revolutionary? A revolutionary is somebody who has a different expectation for this world. So we expect that everybody can have breakfast, lunch and dinner, that the police should not kill you. Those different expectations often seem really intense to people, given the status quo. But a revolutionary just says I have different expectations about this world. And radical means I’m willing to fight for them. Here we go. 


De’Ara Balenger: Family. Welcome to another version of Pod Save the People. So happy you can join us again. I’m De’Ara Balenger. You can find me on Instagram at @DearaBalenger. 


Kaya Henderson: I’m Kaya Henderson. You can find me on Twitter at @HendersonKaya 


DeRay Mckesson: And this DeRay at @deray on Twitter. 


De’Ara Balenger: Well, it is the month of great Capricorns. [laugh] You know, myself. Mary J. Blige and Martin Luther the King Jr. [laughter]


Kaya Henderson: That’s hilarious. Mary, De’Ara, and Martin. Mm hmm. My new– 


De’Ara Balenger: I mean. 


Kaya Henderson: My new triple threat. 


De’Ara Balenger: Listen. You can always count on a Capricorn. Okay. You can always count on a Capricorn. Keep us around. So I’m still continuing with my birthday week, which I share and have shared with the late, great Dr. Martin Luther the King. Um. And so, you know, I think MLK Day is always a day that brings me joy actually, you know, it is. There’s often so much we can be in sorrow about and in anger about and in grief about, and although losing Martin Luther King, who I think he was like 36 or something when he passed, which is now the age that I am, that I am beyond. Yes. There are all the feels that go with it. I think one of the things that I’ve I’d read through the years in terms of perspective on Martin Luther King and his passing is um what Nikki, Nikki Giovanni has wrote. And basically her response to it was, may the warriors in the streets go ever forth into the stores for guns and TV’s or for whatever makes them happy, for only a happy people make a successful revolution. And this day begins the Black revolution. And so I think even with the loss and later with with with Malcolm’s loss, I think it was, you know, the turn to the the Black arts movement, the Black Panther movement, um movements that have enforced radical Black love and imagination and identity. And so, yeah, it’s it’s a day that I look for that I look towards and try to look towards um with joy and hope. 


DeRay Mckesson: My favorite um King quote, he he wrote uh, whites it must frankly be said, I’m not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn. The reality of substantial investment to assist Negroes into the 20th century. Adjusting to Negro neighbors and genuine school integration is still a nightmare for all too many white Americans. And I mean, here we are. 


Kaya Henderson: I have a similar um radical, I like the radical King. I think that we you know, America likes to lionize the peaceful King and the nonviolent King and the, you know, whatever. But that’s not the only King there was, King was frustrated. King was angry. King was a whole lot of things. And my favorite King quote is similar to yours, DeRay. And to me, it feels really appropriate for the moment, because at a time when we’re talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion in a lot of organizations and institutions. And equity in a lot of our educational systems, and we see tremendous pushback. Right. Um. This is the King quote, it’s from his book, Where Do We Go From Here in 1967, which is one of, the which is, I think the last book that he wrote before he was assassinated. But he says, why is equality so assiduously avoided? Why does white America dilute itself and how does it rationalize the evil it retains? The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth towards a middle class utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately, that is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity. And like, that’s the I like the rowdy King, right? The King who is ready to call a spade a spade and and and challenge white America to really like come to the table and do the work. Um. So I you know, I have mixed feelings about Martin Luther King Jr Day. Um. I feel like, yep, I’m excited that, you know, as a community we got ourselves a Black holiday, shout out to Juneteenth, which we just just got. But, you know, I want people to know the real King, not just the King that we put in children’s books. I want people to really understand what he was calling America to do, how he challenged our institutions like the rowdy King. That’s my man. Speaking of the Rowdy King, there was also the loving King. [laughing] Who [?]– 


DeRay Mckesson: That was a segue boo, that was a segue. [laughter]


Kaya Henderson: Who all of his rowdiness and all of his work was rooted in a deep love for people and a deep love for this country, a deep love for the ideals of who we can be. Um. But we don’t, one of the things that also drives me a little bit crazy about our portrayals about Martin Luther King is we don’t see him as a person. He’s this great orator, he’s this great preacher, he’s this great leader. But we rarely see him as a dad, a husband or whatever. In fact, one of my favorite things during the month of January is there are a series of pictures that show Martin Luther King and his family on vacation in Jamaica. And they’re I think they were in like Ebony or Jet um back in the sixties. And somehow or another, we got our hands on these pictures. And so, you know, I have one of those televisions where you can put up pictures on your screen for when the TV’s not on. And so during the month of January, I have all of these pictures of Martin Luther King reading the paper with his wife, having breakfast at the pool with his wife and his kids, um recreating and enjoying himself, because I think it’s important for us to see our leaders and our heroes as people. And one of the things that one of the ways that we um are newly uh asked to consider King is through a statue that was just unveiled on Friday in Boston in the Freedom Plaza of the Boston Common, which is widely known as America’s first public park. The statue is called the Embrace, and it is a 22 foot tall bronze sculpture that uh was designed by artist Hank Willis Thomas. And it depicts the hug between Dr. King and Mrs. Coretta Scott King after he won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. It’s a $10 million dollar statue. It’s the first monument to be built on the Boston Common in 60 years. And there’s an organization called Embrace Boston, uh which has spearheaded the installation of this uh memorial. And, you know, it’s huge. It’s 22 feet. Visitors can walk inside and feel like they’re standing in the center of a hug. The hug is supposed to convey both vulnerability and security. It’s uh supposed to depict the power of Black women supporting movements in the United States. And it’s a bit of an homage to the fact that uh Mr. and Mrs. Dr. and Mrs. King met and fell in love in Boston. And um and that is a part while he was studying at uh Boston University, working on his Ph.D.. And that is, you know, a story that not everybody knows. And so this is a very important monument. And I think everybody thought this is going to be great. It’s going to be wonderful. We’ve got a new King monument and there has been tremendous negative backlash to the embrace. Um. There are people who have asked, why does it just include the arms and not the faces of, how do you even know what this is about? And if you don’t see a picture of the embrace, you actually don’t know that that’s what it is depicting. Um. There are people who say $10 million dollars is too much to have spent on a statue and that that is not what Dr. King would have wanted to spend $10 million dollars on. And that money could have been used to help poor people. But perhaps the most spirited debate on the socials and in other places is about the fact that from certain angles the statue looks phallic. And so there’s been a whole lot of hullabaloo all over Twitter, all over Instagram, all over Facebook about the fact that this thing does not look like a hug. It might look like a whole bunch of other things, but it does not look like a hug. And it is a um a failure of public art, says some folks. In fact, I saw a post on Twitter by Melinda D. Anderson, who says Art is in the eye of the beholder. But if you commission and install a piece of public art and you need to see an original photo next to the sculpture to understand what you’re looking at, otherwise is justifiably ridicul– ridiculed for looking phallic, then the art has failed, in my humble opinion. And so [clears throat] there’s a lot of controversy around this thing. And, you know, when I picked this news last week, I thought, here’s a lovely little tribute to Martin Luther King that we can talk about and whatnot. Uh. But as is the case, I think there’s controversy around everything. So I, for one, can’t wait to get to Boston to see it for myself in person, to see, you know, how it moves my spirit or not, or whether I end up agreeing and thinking that it just looks phallic. Um. But that’s my news for this week. 


DeRay Mckesson: I want to see it Kaya. I will. You know, when I first saw, Hank has done a lot of incredible public installations, and this one was a challenge. It was. You know, I thought. I, like, saw the reference photo. I was like, okay, that makes sense. And then I’m like, I see what other people are saying, that it looks like sex. It looks like it looks like a lot of things and black Twitter, you know. Black Twitter was quick. It was like, oh, no. Um. [laughter] So we will we’ll see. But yikes.


De’Ara Balenger: I will say. That Hank Willis Thomas is a gift to my generation. Thank Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth for him and his work [laughter] and what he has done for decades now. 


DeRay Mckesson: Oh my god De’Ara. [laughing]


De’Ara Balenger: The man’s my age. But for decades, Hank has been challenging this institution and opening up doors for folks of color, particularly Black artists, Black curators. His work has always pushed the envelope. It’s always been about Black representation in media as commodity. What happens to Black bodies? So one. Black Twitter. Please, just first, before you get out here talking and giving all kinds of art critiques. Look at this man’s body of work. Because it is it is prolific. 


DeRay Mckesson: And it you know people love–


De’Ara Balenger: 100%. 


DeRay Mckesson: People love some of his other public installations. The fist. The the Pick the they don’t even know it’s him. 


De’Ara Balenger: All of it. He– 


DeRay Mckesson: Yeah. 


De’Ara Balenger: He. Listen. He. Come on, now. 


Kaya Henderson: I love it. I love it.


De’Ara Balenger: Come on, people. 


Kaya Henderson: I love it. 


De’Ara Balenger: And I think and I think if there is any deep meaning around sexuality and around love and around passion, it’s because he is married to one of the most beautiful, brilliant, incredible also gems of my generation, Rujecko Hockley, who is amazing and is a curator at the Whitney who has also opened up doors and and pulled people through those doors with her, has made sure that artists that look like us and believe in us and are looking at Black bodies beyond Black identity are in institutions and beyond. So these two, Ru and Hank. If there was a word for Black excellence, y’all would be at the top of the list. Y’all would be at the top of the list. So if anyone has any issue, you can find me at @dearabalenger [laughter] on Instagram. 


Kaya Henderson: I love it. I love it. I love it. This is why– 


DeRay Mckesson: She said–


Kaya Henderson: This is–


DeRay Mckesson: She said come to me. 


Kaya Henderson: Come, so she said come for me cause I got something for you. This is why I love the pod. Because you always learn something new and there’s always a challenge there’s always. This it’s the rowdy King spirit. I like it. [laughing] Exactly. [laughing]


DeRay Mckesson: I love it. She said– 


Kaya Henderson: Exactly. 


DeRay Mckesson: –Come to me. [laugher] If you got something to say. 


De’Ara Balenger: Oh, my goodness. Well, my news is also in the vein of Black art. Okay. So my company, Maestra has had the great insane pleasure and honor of being able to support a film called Saint Omer. And so Saint Omer is a French film. Blackity, blackity French film though. The director, Alice Diop, is Senegalese but French, Parisian. Um. And she’s been a documentarian for quite some time and has done really incredible, groundbreaking um uh and provocative documentaries around Black and African identity and in in France, in Paris. Um. But here comes this movie, which is actually based on a true story about a woman named Laurence Coly, who was a student, an immigrant, an isolated woman, didn’t have family and friends um in France and ends up getting pregnant and ultimately gets a train ticket, goes to um a place called Saint Omer in France, where there is a beach. She takes her baby out to the beach and lets the baby be washed away by the waves. She leaves, the baby kind of comes back up on the tides, obviously, um with without life. And she is found and tried for the murder of her child. But what comes up in Alice’s interpretation of this film, is is is an interrogation of motherhood, but it’s also an understanding, a navigation of motherhood as a Black mother. Um. And so it it kind of takes you to a place where, you know, like in slavery times when, you know, and even the the the story that Beloved is based off of, it’s like, you know, do I want this baby growing up in this life, under this oppressive um system? Or is it better for this child not to be here? So it examines that. It examines expectations for Black women, and it is just visually gorgeous. So she was inspired a lot by paintings and portraiture. And so, you know, it’s it’s it is just such a joy and a blessing to me, like when I see film and I see photography or art, whatever the artistic medium is, when there is when there is play in innovation to really explore Blackness, like in ways beyond that, in ways beyond how we even understand ourselves. And this is what this film is. And y’all, please go see it because it is a work of art. Now, Alice is also the first Black woman to be nominated as a represente– representative of France for Best Foreign film for the Oscars. Which makes perfect sense. I mean, I we we didn’t we cover last year just they’re finally putting Josephine Baker to rest in a place where she should be. So it’s no surprise Alice is the first one. So just wanted to bring this to the pod, because it is it is happening now. It is timely, it is beautiful. It is about us. It is how we can, how we can explore ourselves beyond being in opposition to whiteness and explore the quietness and the creative creativity that is within us. So. Please check it out. 


DeRay Mckesson: We ain’t seen it, but we will. 


Kaya Henderson: Thanks for bringing it to the pod. Is it in theaters? 


De’Ara Balenger: It is. It is. It’s in theaters now. It’s in theaters right now. 


Kaya Henderson: I mean, I think this is really interesting um for a couple of reasons. First of all, um in my most recent trips to to France, specifically to Paris, the African presence is so front and center. And nothing that you see in French cinema really portrays that at all. Um. You cannot walk through the streets of Paris without seeing Black people, without hearing Black music, without hearing. And not not when I say Black, I don’t just mean Black American. I mean African. I mean Caribbean. I mean the whole gamut. And so and, you know, I think um we are just starting to see what’s the the thing that was on Netflix that I was sucked into about the gentleman robber, um the French guy, you know. 


De’Ara Balenger: Lupine. Lupine. Lupine.


Kaya Henderson: Yes, Lupine. Lupine. Yes. Uh. Which is an amazing series on Netflix. Um. I think it’s exciting that we’re starting to see and learn the stories of of Afri– Black people who live in in France, who are French, who are I mean, so one, I’m sort of interested in it for that perspective. Two, um examining and unpacking motherhood is just I mean, we could do a whole show about that on so many um accounts. And while we’re on that, let me shout out the men’s basketball team at Howard University for their MLK Day act– uh volunteerism. They have taken on the issue of Black maternal health and are doing a bunch of activities around that. So I think Black motherhood is a topic that’s on everybody’s minds. And then thirdly, it’s award season, right? And so shout out to Saint Omer for uh for being nominated uh by the Oscar committee. That is big. I think, you know, we’re on some whiplash after #OscarsSoWhite and Golden Globes canceled last year and all of this stuff. Did you see the Golden Globes this year where literally every second person on the stage or giving an award was a person of color? I mean, at some point I look, we are the bomb for sure. But I was like, wow, this is a lot. Um. [laughing]


DeRay Mckesson: They said, y’all not going to get us again. 


Kaya Henderson: That’s it. [laughing]. 


DeRay Mckesson: [?] got us out of here one time. No thanks. 


Kaya Henderson: And so I am excited that during this awards season, there seems to be more access for films with people of color in them, or directed by them and whatnot and um and so, yeah, let’s get in here and win it all. I’m rooting for everybody Black said my girl Issa Rae and I cosign on that. 


DeRay Mckesson: Yeah, I’m excited to see it. I you know, uh I think these retellings are always really fascinating. So I couldn’t make the premiere that you invited me to, but I’m a go see it boo and I’m a bring it back. I’m holding it down for the news that makes you want to burn something down. And mine is about the Pittsburgh Police Department. In 2021, they passed an ordinance that said the police could no longer enforce minor traffic violations, like an expired registration sticker or a poorly secured license plate. If that was the only infraction, like they couldn’t like pull people for something like that if that was the only thing. And again, the idea is to minimize contact between the police and and drivers. And like do you really need uh somebody with a gun to tell you that the license plate is not screwed on right. Uh. And what’s the news that the police have completely disregarded the law and are pulling over whoever they want to. And they are saying that it is because there is a, quote, “change in state law”. What is the change? Who knows? They don’t say. But this is such a good example of the police not being accountable even to mayors, city council. And according to their own data, Black residents only make up about 22% of the city population, but account for 42% of the population. And let me tell you. The police chief even acknowledged when pressed, that one of the reasons for the reversal was to boost morale among the city’s police ranks. That uh that the ordinance that says they can’t just pull over anybody for a random minor traffic inviol– Traffic infractions actually is hurting their morale. Mind you, this is nothing about public safety. They ain’t got no data that says that this makes the street safer. Let’s say nothing. This is about power. And when I think about King, it was a reminder that we got to fight to make sure that there is a power balance and that these institutions, until we get rid of them, that they actually do have some accountability. And this blew my mind. Like it’s just so brazen. I haven’t seen any of the mayor say anything or the council come out with something new. But, you know, when people joke about defund, it’s like what happens when there is a police department, everybody does everything right. They pass the ordinance. They and the police are like, we’ll do whatever we want. Then what? 


DeRay Mckesson: The mayor did say, he wanted to meet with the police chief, the acting police chief, um to understand why they had reversed the policy. And so, you know, I mean, to me, there is no I want to, there’s I pick up the phone and call and I’m like, what’s going on? Um.


DeRay Mckesson: You’re the mayor. 


Kaya Henderson: Yeah. 


DeRay Mckesson: You’re the mayor. 


Kaya Henderson: Listne, listen, I mean, it seems like I was just trying to read between the lines and read some of the linked things. It seems like before, you know, how on the bottom of a lot of state license plates, it says like in D.C., it says no taxation without representation. In in Pennsylvania, apparently it says visit P.A or something, some tourism slogan. And if you had a custom license plate frame and your frame is blocking the the little slogan, that was enough for a police to pull people over. Well, they’ve now gone back and said, no, it is only you can only pull people over or it’s only a problem if it’s blocking identifying information like the license plate number. Right. Which makes sense. So that seems like you’re trying to make sure that people are not just pulling people over for specious, you know, instances. And here the Pittsburgh police are doubling down saying, yep, we’re going right back to pulling people over. And it’s just it really um the whole like boost police morale like come on bruh are you reading the paper are you understanding where the temperature is in this country on policing like this just seems completely out of control and you know while the mayor has a response, it feels like too little and not timely and whatnot. And this is why people I mean, this where people ultimately are like, bump this, right? Because this is just on its face. It’s ridiculous. And we’re like, oh, well. 


De’Ara Balenger: I’m just wondering, like legally. Okay, so if they’re doing this. Well, if there’s if there’s a if there’s legislation passed making it illegal for them to do this or barring them from doing this and they’re still doing it. Doesn’t that mean that like immunity protections wouldn’t apply to these practices and that potentially you could have a class action suit against the Pittsburgh Police Department. 


Kaya Henderson: Yeah. What happens? What happens when the police violate the city ordinance? Like, is there not a–


De’Ara Balenger: Right, right because you’re not because of, you know, usual protections you would have. You do not. So I don’t know. That’s just if I had, wish I had some extra time on my hands because I’d be in Pittsburgh trying to figure out how to sue the police. [laughter]


DeRay Mckesson: And also it’s just such a like when they’re like, it’s not about public safety. Instead, they don’t even pretend. Morale it’s wow–


De’Ara Balenger: It’s also like it’s to boost it’s like to boost morale. So what is that you so y’all can go do what you want and beat people up and stop them because that’s going to make y’all feel like that’s going to make y’all feel better? Like, that’s wild. 


Kaya Henderson: And my guess is this is not just happening. It’s not just happening in Pittsburgh, right? This is happening in other places. 


De’Ara Balenger: Right. 


Kaya Henderson: And we need to be vigilant. 


De’Ara Balenger: Right. [music break]


DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning into Pod Save the People this week. Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure to rate it wherever you get your podcasts, whether it’s Apple Podcasts or somewhere else. And we will see you next week. Pod Save the People was a production of Crooked Media. It’s produced by AJ Moultrié and mixed by Veronica Simonetti and executive produced by me. Special thanks to our weekly contributors Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger, and Myles Johnson.