Martin Luther King Junior was born on January 15, 1929. Last Sunday was his birthday. But while he is widely known in Kenya, he is hardly studied. My experience through our education curriculum from primary, through secondary and university level did not help me focus intentionally on King. My classmates suffered the same misfortune.
Overall, we learnt very little of our connection with the African tribe that journeyed – the African Americans. The curricula offered very little about the Africans of the diaspora, and even less about their connectedness with the African continent. The result is a dimmed appreciation of the high value and relevance of the African-American body of wisdom as a key component of knowledge for East Africans. The widespread Kenyan perception of the African Americans is that they are a different community all together. The sense of oneness and solidarity with them is remote.
African-Americans are a true part of Africa and Africanness. They have the unique and tragic experience of colonisation through abduction, translocation to the Americas in the status of slaves. Their degraded status due to the colour of their skin, their multifaceted response to degradation, their long search for liberation, theoretical conceptualisations of the experience and the continuing evolution of the African-American community remain largely virgin areas of study in Kenya. Subsequently, little has been done in East Africa to study connections and disconnects; and continuities and discontinuities between Africans and African-Americans, between Africanness and African-Americanness.
One severe consequences of this gap is that Rev Dr Martin Luther King Junior is only shallowly known and understood in Kenya – and to an extent – East Africa. This ignorance denies the leadership in our country and region a rich mirror and possible cure to the pandemic of “ideallessness.” Importing King into our curricula would expose the young people to a representative embodiment of the enslavement, liberation and continuing evolution of the African American story. Dr King’s studies would especially be very helpful in our Kenyan experiments towards national cohesion and integration.
The genesis, journey and destination of a community is love. Love is simultaneously real and transcendent. It is this centrality of love that informed Dr King’s vision of the Beloved Community. The Beloved Community presents a love-oriented ideal of a society consistently resisting and triumphing over oppression. It is an Exodus community, consistently shifting people from chains to freedom, from darkness to light. It believes in the salvation of persons and the salvation of systems.
Inclusiveness through Dr King’s eyes is holistic - includes all people and all aspects of life. A nation that excludes some of its people is weaker to the same extent. Even for institutions such as the Church to undermine sections of its constituents - such as young people - is to scale down their possibilities. Dr King was young - he died at the age of 39. He affirmed the centrality and duty of young people in realising the Beloved Community. The faith that transforms hearts is the same force that reforms a community’s life-damaging systems. Young people who are freed by faith become confronters of persons and systems that seek to kill, steal and destroy.
The Beloved Community is not about a mere co-existence made possible by tolerance but is about a neighbourly-existence made possible by love – the specific love as exemplified by Jesus. While Malcom X fronted an ideology of any means necessary, Dr King adopted a specified method of love as the only means necessary. Peaceful resistance is love-centered and consistent with Jesus’ prescription of neighbourly-existence.
Dr King’s intentional choice of peaceful non-violent resistance affirms love as the total law of relationships between the parts for the body. Dr King escalated the truth of many-parts-one-body to a vision for the community. There is no other way to achieve abundance apart from living in love alone. Love alone is the courier of life in fullness. Peace-maker is an essential identity of the Christian that is not meant to be altered by circumstances. Freedom is not by any means necessary. Peace is the only means necessary.
The Beloved Community as described and perpetuated by Dr King has a universal application. It would serve well as a continuing ambition for Kenya’s leaders who lack a harmonised ideal which creates the situation of a country with defined geographical borders but no defined Kenyanism. The theory of the Constitution articulates “We The People” but in practice the nation has no defined peoplehood. This “ideal-lessness” is a faultline that swallows even laudable leadership efforts into an abyss of an event-based society. This event-based orientation denies the country a glue to pin particular positive acts into a traceable and national culture.
Kenya needs to know Dr King beyond his “I have a dream” speech. Learning institutions would do well to embrace Dr King beyond his “spicy” citations. Instead, Dr King should be brought into classrooms at all levels as a subject of rigorous study. His life should be mirrored in communities to allow his spirit breathe life into situations of oppression and fuel imagination in creating practical paths to freedoms.
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There is space for Dr King in the quest for Kenyanism.