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“Get up and shout!” Amber Ruffin musically breaks down Martin Luther King Day

Illustration for article titled “Get up and shout!” Amber Ruffin musically breaks down Martin Luther King Day
Photo: Lloyd Bishop (NBC)

If there’s one person on late-night TV who can break down the barriers between depressing, dauntingly stupid, and pig-headedly evil reality and chipper, hilarious optimism, it’s Late Night With Seth Meyers’ writer, performer, and human cat in a sunbeam, Amber Ruffin. Even though she works daily in the satirical news salt mines, trying to find some light and sweetness amidst the soul-crushing grind, the ever-ebullient Ruffin traditionally finds new ways to squeeze a little sunshine into even the most ominous current events. So it’s no surprise that Amber came up from her toil on Monday’s show with a song in her heart—after all it’s Martin Luther King Day!

“Get up and shout! It’s Martin Luther King Day!,” Ruffin emerged, beaming in celebratory glee over the national holiday honoring the murdered civil rights leader whose hard work and sacrifice in trying to get white America to recognize and overcome its ingrained racial animosities now daily runs up against the predatory, spiteful bigotry of a president/reality show con-man who’s discovered that the deepest vein of white American racism will erupt in hateful hypocrisy at even the least subtle prodding. Man, that’s bleak. Well, at least Amber’s upbeat anthem praising the holiday as “the best day of the year” remained undaunted. Except that her mid-song spoken-word interlude saw the preternaturally prankish Ruffin staring off into the rafters as she had to confront the fact that white supremacy isn’t just a fading historical fact. “It lasted for-fucking-ever, and it’s still kind of going on,” she cried in frustration, noting that the very people who were legislating, voting, and enacting horrific violence to prevent black Americans from attaining equal rights in this country “didn’t go away—they’re still alive and voting.”


Still, Ruffin gathered herself for the second verse, gamely singing her song’s celebratory chorus about Martin Luther King’s legacy challenging us to “understand how great we all can be.” You know, except that some states still refuse to honor Dr. King’s federal holiday, with places like Texas thumbing its collective nose at the very concept of civil rights by spitefully celebrating “Confederate Heroes Day” (just coincidentally) on the same day. Or, you know, a mob of heavily armed white people with a serious white supremacist problem choosing that same day to storm a state capitol building to intimidate lawmakers on (coincidentally, again) the exact same day. As Ruffin ruminated, “Calling out injustice all the time can really get a person down. Like, you could literally be pointing it out all day, every day, and you wouldn’t get it all.”

Perhaps thinking about a White House propagandist appropriating Dr. King’s name to shamelessly prop up her racist boss’ crumbling, corrupt presidency, or the very man Dr. King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, publicly and famously decried as too racist even for government similarly stealing King’s name to tweet out a coded racist scolding to anyone daring to protest injustice, or the FB-freaking-I unironically sending out condolences to the man it infamously sent a blackmail letter telling him to kill himself, Ruffin’s third verse went no better at first. Casting a deep, soul-weary sigh to the heavens, Ruffin—with the Late Night band noodling patiently in the background—could only console herself (and us) with the thought, “But, you know, Martin Luther King was always hopeful, so, like, I choose to be hopeful, too.” Cue happy, hopeful Amber, singing her heart out in the perhaps foolish hope that white America might finally, somehow, improbably, emerge from its self-imposed exile in the savage, reactionary wilderness and find a little of Dr. King’s spirit.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.