Jun 19, 2012
As a child, I once had to attend the funeral of one of my stepfather's close friends. Having known the man in question as my stepfather's frequent drinking buddy, I was under no illusion. To suggest that this man was an unmitigated asshole would be especially generous. I had already learned in spite of my young age that funerals were a time when sinners became saints, at least rhetorically. The eulogies given at funerals were reserved for highlighting the positive aspects of one's life, at the expense of ignoring the negative. My stepfather's friend was such a universally regarded asshole however that there was nothing positive to say on his behalf that wouldn't have prompted someone in the audience to yell out "you lie" in objection. Few would have cared if Louis Armstrong's version of "(I'll Be Glad When You're Dead) You Rascal You" had been played that day.
The resident jack leg preacher who spoke at the funeral, without much to work with, simply stated in reference to my stepfather's friend that "all the harm he did, he did to himself." For a bullshit preacher who could "hoop and holla" his way through an instruction manual and make it sound remotely entertaining, this cliched line was the best he could muster. The man lying in rest before us was such an abject asshole of a human being that even this snake oil salesman couldn't disguise the fact. While the asshole in question certainly did harm to others beyond himself, the essence of his non-existent character and lack of humanity had been appropriately addressed in such a telling comment.
The especially personal nature of funerals has been transformed in the age of social media. Eulogies of public figures take on added complexity now. While the visibility of one's social media self allows for public declarations of admiration and sympathy when a celebrated figure dies, it also opens up the larger discussion about that figure in question in ways that go against the generally positive tones of remembrance offered upon the unfortunate occasion of death. In other words, what was once a private affair has become especially public, thus creating new forms of mourning along with unearthing extended debates over the individual's legacy.
Though fans of celebrities like Micheal Jackson and Whitney Houston have used these occasions as public memorials to celebrate the artists and their respective careers in recent times, those same fans have wanted to cast a judgement of shame on others who choose not to engage in the public love fest. What these judgmental fans have missed though is the fact that these are public figures in question, not their own friends or family members. Discussion of a public figure in death should not be bound by the same standards that one would apply to a private citizen within the intimate confines of a funeral or memorial service.
Neither Micheal nor Whitney were members of my family. My connection to them was through their persona and as a cultural critic who writes about popular figures their death served as an opportunity to engage in a larger debate taking place in the public arena about their overall status and legacy. I am not heartless, I just don't want people imposing rules of personal decorum on public debate. The imposition of such misplaced manners works to stifle intelligent conversation, but considering that such anti-intellectual sentiments tend to emanate from that relic of an institution known as the black church, one shouldn't be surprised.
Rodney King, though far from an entertainer, was thrust into the spotlight against his own wishes. His public racially charged beating at the hands of the LAPD exposed the practice of police brutality that so many living in various black and Latino communities had known about for a long time. When his torturers were acquitted by a jury of their peers, King's beating and the ridiculous verdict unleashed the pent-up fury of those citizens who had suffered under the imposing shadow of this abuse for far too long. In the midst of the riots, an inarticulate King stood before a nation and nervously stumbled through five words that would come to define his very existence going forward, "Can we call get along?"
It was not long after these words had exited King's mouth before people immediately began mocking him. How could the man whose unjust beating along with the ensuing kangaroo-court verdict that prompted the riots "fix his mouth," as it were, to say something so amazingly naive at such an inopportune moment? Many assumed that King's words had been written for him, but King himself revealed later that he was the author of his own words. The sentiments belonged to him.
In the years that followed King was a fixture in the news. His addictions and general struggles with life where on full display. He was not the innocent looking, non threatening southern black seamstress Rosa Parks, who had ignited the Birmingham bus boycotts in the 1950s. Nor was he a child simply trying to go to school like the Little Rock Nine or Ruby Bridges had been during battles over school desegregation in earlier times. King was a young black man in America who had lived his life with his flaws fully exposed for the world to see. When pulled over that night in March 1991, King, as we've been told numerous times, was drunk. Though this doesn't justify his treatment, it did bring comfort to those who wanted to suggest that King was not innocent when being pulled over by the cops. For those inclined to argue that King was culpable in his own mistreatment, repeated examples of bad judgment in his messy personal life gave these haters fodder over and over, again and again.
Rodney King didn't ask for the spotlight. It was thrust upon him. King was already a defeated man when the cops pulled him over that night. He never asked nor was he qualified to lead a movement. What he represented was not triumphant, nor celebratory. Rodney King symbolized something especially depressing. He was one of the masses of black men in this country who have never been able to fully get their shit together. Much of this is due to the often arduous circumstances that have historically defined the intersection of blackness and masculinity in this nation, though some of it falls squarely in King's own lap. King represents the way in which many black men in America have been systematically made irrelevant in the post-Civil Rights era. Repeated run ins with the law, extended financial struggles, addictions, abusive relationships, and other examples of emotional and psychological self mutilation have devastated the ranks of black men in America as the post industrial came to define the conditions of urban struggle since the 1960s. Though some have been able to scale the rickety ladder of social Darwinism that often defines life for black men in America, King, like so many others, was simply unable to do so.
Unlike the activities of Rosa Parks and others who became the public faces linked with the Civil Rights Movement, there is nothing to be proud of in the case of Rodney King. It is difficult to see King as a martyr. He was a victim, not a martyr. Victims lack power and agency. Victims are passive as opposed to being active participants in their own survival, and possible triumph. Ultimately, all the harm King did, he did to himself. His death is unfortunate, but the utter weakness that he represented is especially difficult to digest. King was dead long before being discovered drowned in his own pool. His spirit died a long time ago. At the end of the day, Rodney King's death is the sad end to an especially depressing chapter about the realities of American life for those unable to dodge the social, political, racial, and economic landmines that dot the urban landscape. R.I.P.