Monday, January 17, 2011

King's dream

Yesterday my daughter Lydia (7) asked me why she didn't have to go to school on Monday. I started with the "I Have a Dream Speech," but then found myself tracking back through Birmingham, then Rosa Parks and the bus boycott, then segregation after the Civil War, then the Civil War, then Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, and then I found myself explaining how Europeans sailed to the coasts of Africa, walked into people's homes, dragged them away from their families, and chained them on their backs in the dark sweaty bellies of ships where they writhed for months with little food or water only to be sold into slavery.

It was a depressing conversation, and I caught myself wondering, naively, how it could have happened like that, how many demonic decisions had to be made by so-called Christians to get to King's assassination in Memphis in 1968.

We study the "I Have a Dream" speech often in first-year writing and courses on rhetorical criticism. It's a fantastic speech, and students are unfortunately so acclimated to the acclamation of the speech that conversations about it rarely yield insights beyond the obvious. His histrionic delivery has not lost its savor over the last 60 years. The improv parts at the end are the most justifiably famous. Few of us, if asked, would think first to praise the check-cashing analogy, which cheapens (I think) the power of the Declaration's self-evident truths. The bank of justice does not write checks. It's not the most resonant analogy. (Do you disagree?)

The "dream" section, though, is so powerful. It rings with optimism in the work-in-progress that we call the American soul. King was pragmatic about the consequences of postponing racial justice, but he also had a prophet's foolish hope in the eventual redemption of the nation. We may never live in a post-racial nation, but with each generation we can at least hope we are advancing in recognizing the inalienable divine value of everyone. "No exceptions," as the bumper sticker goes.


  1. Brian, thanks for the regular posting. I am enjoying this stuff!

    I find it refreshing to read someone who can admit that there are parts of the Dream speech that were . . . meh. I can't remember who it was (Edwin Black or someone) who pointed out that the speech is rife with technical and stylistic problems (mixed metaphors etc.) but these problems were appropriate to the moment and audience and detracted not at all from the rhetorical force of the speech. Yet I still can't bring myself to appreciate a bad analogy.

    I was reminded of this issue while watching Obama's speech in Tuscon. I'm sorry, as good as the speech may have been, I just could not bring myself to admire the "puddles in heaven" line. I don't think it was cheap politics. It was cheap rhetoric. I was also struck by the big American family analogy in which each of the victims is compared to a familiar role. "Phyllis is our gradmother," I think he said. Someone in the White House should watch The Office episode in which Michael Scott compares the staff to his family. He says "Phyllis is our grandmother." So, yeah, the Obama line had the wrong impact on me. Anyway, that's a round about way of saying that, yeah, it's alright to point out that good speeches don't have to be treated as sacred texts.

  2. Hey Ben, it's pretty daring to take critical pot shots at the Am. rhetorical canon, eh? What I think can be said is that we revere these kinds of speeches for a (probably) incalculable cumulative magic they cast on us rather than any single line.

    I wonder if pointing out the logical fallacies of a historical speech is beside the point when a speech gets canonized. Another thought your thoughtful comment provokes: If audiences don't really detect or care about such infelicities as mixed metaphors or weak analogies, then as rhetorical critics are we simply "conjuring up the specter of hidden tropes and Aristotelian moments," as Steve Fuller writes, that fly under the radar of audiences caught up in something bigger than the sum of a speech's rhetorical tactics?

    Hilarious cognitive interference, by the way, with Obama inadvertently channeling Michael Scott! I thought the speech was fantastic, tho: realist, reverent, forward-looking. He served as speaker for the dead and adviser to the living.

    But yes: jumping over puddles in heaven + hand over heart during the national anthem = maudlin!

  3. You're writing checks your body can't cash. I often use that metaphor as a gateway drug when I discuss poetry. We draw it, play with the "your/you're," talk about finances and capitalism, and verbal/written analogies. It rarely fails. Perhaps MLK knew that there were some metaphors that, as trite as they are, make sense to a collective imagination.

  4. Hey James, I've always said that there is no better movie than Top Gun to introduce students to poetry!

    I forget that our collective imagination includes an interest in money analogies. (See? "An interest." Geez.) MLK's imitating Jesus when he dips into exchange topos: growing talents, lost coins, wise stewards, Caesar's fair share. Perhaps I've missed the point.