Why was a tribute to MLK so lacking in black voices?
According to the travel industry and junk science, the third Monday of every January is the most depressing day of the year. Sit at a desk in any office in the Western world, and no less than three co-workers will remind you about Blue Monday before the first smoke break. The third Monday of January also happens to be Martin Luther King Day, which your Canadian co-workers will only know about if they happen to be black, or if they catch you scrolling through TheRoot.com homepage. It may be a complete coincidence that these two events happen to fall on the same day, but for black folk, it can often seem like white people have formed a secret pact to make the day as difficult, depressing, and uncomfortable as possible.
Take, for example, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau's impromptu musical number during a tribute to MLK at Ottawa City Hall. Some in the Canadian news media fawned over Grégoire-Trudeau's "singing chops," (including another of Power & Politics' infamous all-white panels), and no one thought to ask whether a rich white lady singing a song written for her daughter was appropriate for remembrance of a black civil rights leader. A black civil rights leader who was surveilled by a white government, accosted by white mobs, imprisoned by white police officers, and murdered in anger by a white assassin. But as it turns out, Grégoire-Trudeau's off-the-cuff warbling turned out to be the least problematic aspect of that day's events.
For twelve years, an Ottawa organization called the DreamKEEPERS has held the Martin Luther King Day celebration at Ottawa City Hall. Marketing for this year's event consisted of a digital poster shopped around Facebook and Twitter, prominently announcing the presentation of this year's lifetime achievement award to former prime minister and Progressive Conservative Party leader, Joe Clark. It also prominently announced an appearance by special guest speaker Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, spouse to the current Canadian prime minister. The poster did not prominently announce the presence of any black civil rights advocates. As you can see below, pictures of Clark and Grégoire-Trudeau adorned the poster. Not a single black face adorned the poster. Not even that of Martin Luther King himself.
Perplexed, I contacted Daniel Stringer, one of the DreamKEEPERS co-founders and nomination committee co-chair. Stringer, a former aide to Ontario Liberal MPP Richard Patten, and short-lived Ottawa City Council candidate, was less than happy to hear from me. I asked about the optics of advertising the event with solely the faces of Joe Clark and Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau, and handing the award to a man whose myth-inflated work on Brian Mulroney's apartheid file is over two decades old. His answer was that the DreamKEEPERS committee made the best possible choice of candidate, and while I, being a Torontonian and living in the "Centre of the Universe" may not agree with the poster, no one in Ottawa's black community voiced any concerns. I also asked whether the DreamKEEPERS shortlisted young, black civil rights activists who have forcefully raised awareness of systemic racism in Canada, and if so, how many. Stringer repeated his answer: The DreamKEEPERS committee made the best possible choice of candidate.
I then asked Stringer about Grégoire-Trudeau's song. Stringer answered that other guests also performed songs, and that Grégoire-Trudeau received a standing ovation for her performance. I asked him what relevance the lyrics "When you smile, when you smile, when you smile, I love you my child," have to black struggle and liberation. Stringer answered my question with a few questions of his own: Why hadn't I made the trip to the DreamKEEPERS event to see it for myself? Why was this event of such sudden importance, yet no one paid this much attention when awards were handed to Pinball Clemons and Michaëlle Jean in previous years. And why, above all, was I so offended?
He did have me there. I was indeed offended. I was also perplexed and disappointed, but yes, it does offend me that the wife of our prime minister kept her vocals under wraps for last year's Remembrance Day ceremonies, yet believed Martin Luther King Day was the right time and place to drop her a capella mixtape. It does offend me that organizations like DreamKEEPERS would much rather hand out awards to the rich, the respectable, and the politically connected than black activists who march in the streets and sue for our humanity. And yes, it does offend me that when I spoke with three advocates from Ottawa's black community, none were invited to this event, much less honoured. One of them, Erica Ifill, marveled at the lost opportunity to facilitate a conversation between front-line activists, black Canadians in business and political circles, and Ottawa politicians. "In this country, whenever they talk about race, it's somebody else's problem," she told me. "It's this low-expectations bigotry that I can't understand. It's the way this country works."
But it was the third Monday of January, and as I think on Martin Luther King Jr's prescient warning about white moderates, I remember that it's supposed to be depressing.
Follow Andray Domise on Twitter.