On the last fifth of July, as we left the theater after seeing Summer of Soul, I was thinking about Martin Luther King. Summer of Soul is a hybrid documentary/concert film Ahmir Khalib “Questlove” Thompson fashioned from found footage first filmed in 1969 during the Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of free concerts in what was then Mount Morris (now Marcus Garvey) Park. The original fifty-plus reels of film sat fallow for fifty-plus years because no film financier at the time would fund a film featuring Black performers entertaining Black audiences in a Black community. Its original producer, Hal Tulchin, tried to market it as a “Black Woodstock.” No dice.
As a stand-alone concert film, Summer of Soul is solidly entertaining, presenting now-legendary musicians, singers, and dancers in their primes, but Summer of Soul is also about racism, sexism, poverty, and freedom, which is why as we left the theater I was thinking about Martin Luther King: because one can’t think about racism, sexism, poverty, and freedom without thinking about Martin Luther King. Specifically, I was thinking, "Here’s one of the most-important figures in American history. Why isn’t his face on a mountain? George Washington’s, Thomas Jefferson’s, Theodore Roosevelt’s, and Abraham Lincoln’s faces are on a mountain (Mount Rushmore, South Dakota). Robert E. Lee’s, Stonewall Jackson’s, and Jefferson Davis’s faces are on a mountain (Stone Mountain, Georgia). Even Crazy Horse’s face is on a mountain (Thunderhead Mountain, South Dakota). How is Martin Luther King not being counted among the likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, and Crazy Horse? How is he not deserving of a similar tribute? So, as we walked out of Summer of Soul, I was thinking, Shouldn’t Martin Luther King should have his face on a mountain too?
We saw Summer of Soul with our friends Eileen and Steve. It was their first post-pandemic, in-theater movie. After the movie, we drove in separate (but equal) cars to their house for dinner. On the way, I was thinking, Is one enough? Meaning one face. Certainly Martin Luther King deserves to be on a mountaintop, but he's not the only Black hero to have monumentally influenced American history and culture. What about Frederick Douglass? W. E. B. Du Bois? Marcus Garvey? And it's well past time we got beyond the only-men’s-faces-on-mountains thing. What about Sojourner Truth? Harriet Tubman? Rosa Parks?
I decided—admittedly arbitrarily—that there should be four faces on the mountain: Martin Luther King, Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, and either Sojourner Truth or Harriet Tubman. Why not both Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman? Because four just felt like the right number, and to my mind, because she happened in my lifetime, so in a way happened to me, one of those had to be Rosa Parks; and one of the four had to be Martin Luther King, and another had to be Frederick Douglas, so that left a space for either Sojourner Truth or Harriet Tubman. And I found myself leaning—I don’t know why—toward Harriet Tubman.
At dinner, I asked the others what they thought about putting important Black faces on a mountain. Their first reactions were, sure, but that would be expensive. True. But, ignoring that obstacle (because once a decision has been made, the rest is logistics) I listed the names I was considering. I then asked what they thought of those choices and asked whose faces they thought should be on a mountain. Karen and Eileen agreed with my four, but Steve, who is an actual Black person, had a note: While he went along with Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Martin Luther King, he questioned Rosa Parks, wondering whether her contributions were on par with the others.
Fair question. Because: Rosa Parks, though that one act—refusing to give up her seat on a public bus—was small, her sheer, I’ve-had-it exasperation at that moment was the culmination of thousands of similar moments in her life, each of them a small, burning cinder of humiliation, all those cinders of humiliation building over her life and merging with similar cinders over hundreds of years of billions of humiliations over millions of Black lives, those cinders were instantly transmuted, alchemized, compressed into a black hole of outrage, a dense, seething, obdurate, inescapable, black hole of outrage that transcended the shell of that bus and consumed the universe; became an event horizon that, once exceeded, allowed no turning back. For anyone. Ever. On that bus, at that moment, individuals, America, the world, the universe was altered. Irrevocably. Minus the space suit but with considerably heavier gravity, it was a Neil Armstrong moment: One small seat for a woman, one giant leap for humankind.
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Steve conceded. Rosa Parks. Then he said, “Malcolm X.” I'd considered Malcolm X. I think him mountain-worthy, but there was room only for four, and who was I going to drop?(Remember, it’s my list.) One of the four had to be Martin Luther King, and one had to be Frederick Douglass, and two had to be women (and one of those women had to be Rosa Parks). In my mind Malcolm X, significant as he was, could not displace Frederick Douglass.
And then Steve said, "John Lewis." And I said, “Yes. Okay, five: Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and John Lewis.” And actually, I realized, five is better than four because it's, well, more.
A funny segment on the “Late Show with David Letterman” was “Stupid Pet Tricks.” Racism is a not-so-funny stupid-human-trick—perhaps the stupidest human-trick of all. It is the ultimate human folly. I have no doubt that racism is deeply grounded in survival instincts—a basic reaction to fear of the stranger, an impulse to identify and isolate potential threats to the self and the family, but over the millennia it metastasized into a far-more-complex and malignant set of laws, rules, behaviors often misguidedly hallowed as tradition or “heritage,” many explained pseudo-historically (“Humans have always behaved this way”), pseudo-pragmatically (“Slaves were "well taken care of" by their owners and so were better off), pseudo-religiously (‘Slavery is sanctioned in the bible”), and pseudo-scientifically (Eugenics) by those whom it benefitted. Over time the human genius for baroque over-complication has endlessly fueled creative but -specious rationalizations for this most insane of human barbarities, allowing racism to be recast as beneficial, necessary, or inevitable in order to assuage the troubled consciences and cognitive dissonance of those who deep down know how fundamentally stupid, how moronic, how evil it is but who continue to behave badly nevertheless.
"Lot of money," said Steve. I got on my phone and asked Dr. Google how much Mount Rushmore cost. Dr. Google says that sculpting the faces of four presidents on Mount Rushmore cost $989,992.32. (Look it up.) That would be about twenty-five million in today's dollars. Quickly factoring for a fifth face and inflation I said, "Thirty-five million." Steve, who knows exactly as much as I do about the costing out of, organizing, planning, and completing a gigantic mountain-sculpting project, said, "More." So I said, “Fifty.” Then he asked, “Where are you going to put it?” I shrugged: “The Black Hills of South Dakota? The Black Mountains of North Carolina?” Then he asked, “Where are you going to get fifty million dollars?” and I said, “GoFundMe.“ So that was settled.
Eileen emailed me the next day. Steve had asked her to relay that he thought Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali should be on the mountain too. I responded, “Tell him he’s free to arrange his own mountain.”
He’s right, though. There are so many heroic Black faces that should be on mountains: Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Baumfree), Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little), Marcus Mosiah Garvey Sr., William Edward Burghard Du Bois, James Mercer Langston Hughes, James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens, Jack “Jackie” Roosevelt Robinson, Matthew MacKenzie “Mack” Robinson—an older brother of Jackie and who won a silver medal behind Jesse Owens’s gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (so screw you, Adolf), Muhammed Ali (born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr.), Maya Angelou (born Marguerite Annie Johnson), James Arthur Baldwin, Nina Simone (born Eunice Kathleen Waymon), Robert Parris “Bob” Moses, Barack Hussein Obama II, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama, James Joseph Brown, Jane Eleanor "Nellie" Datcher, George Washington Carver, George Perry Floyd Jr., Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan), Philando Castile, Moses Fleetwood “Fleet” Walker, Colin Rand Kaepernick, Colin Luther Powell, Paul Leroy Robeson, James Nathaniel “Jim” Brown, William Felton “Bill” Russell, Condoleezza Rice, Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor), Aretha Louise Franklin, Arthur Robert Ashe Jr., Althea Neale Gibson, Richard Nathaniel Wright, Shirley Anita Chisholm, Richard Claxton “Dick” Gregory, Amiri Baraka (born Everett LeRoi Jones), Lorraine Vivian Hansberry—I can't stop—August Wilson, Chloe Ardelia Wofford “Toni” Morrison, Tommie C. Smith, John Wesley Carlos, Leroy Eldridge Cleaver, Stacey Yvonne Abrams, Oprah Gail Winfrey, Kwame Ture (born Stokely Standiford Churchill Carmichael), Sidney Poitier, Angela Yvonne Davis, Vernon Eulion Jordan Jr., Harry Belafonte (born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr.), Andrew Jackson Young Jr., Lena Mary Calhoun Horne, Robert George “Bobby” Seale, Huey Percy Newton, Elaine Brown, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors (born Patrisse Marie Cullors-Brignac), Opal Tometi. The Tuskegee Airmen (all of them), every Black soldier who fought for the United States in our many, many wars, very Black father and every Black mother and every Black grandparent, aunt, and uncle who endured and who still endure daily racism and humiliation both macro and micro so Black children have a chance at good lives and bright futures. We need a bigger mountain.
These and many more are deserving, but five is my limit: Frederick Douglass (born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey), Harriet Tubman (born Araminta Ross), Rosa Louise McCauley Parks, the Reverend Martin Luther King (born Michael King) Jr., and John Robert Lewis. If you want different faces, get own mountain (and your own fifty million dollars).