Week Forty-One: “I Have a Dream” and “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr.

 

“I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King Jr.

 

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.  -Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

Few speeches have been as often quoted or anthologized as Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We would be remiss, in the study of the best short form literature available, if we didn’t include it on our reading list.

Happy Martin Luther King Day! Have you ever read the entire speech? This week we’ll be looking at speeches, letters and essays related to civil rights. Please share your thoughts with our group!

You can find King’s speech HERE.

“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr.

 

arecreationofking'sjailcell

A recreation of King’s Jail Cell

 

If you found King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech meaningful, here is an OPTIONAL second Wednesday piece:

King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

BACKGROUND:
‘The Birmingham campaign began on April 3, 1963, with coordinated marches and sit-ins against racism and racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. The nonviolent campaign was coordinated by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) and King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). On April 10, Circuit Judge W. A. Jenkins issued a blanket injunction against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing.” Leaders of the campaign announced they would disobey the ruling. On April 12, King was roughly arrested with SCLC activist Ralph Abernathy, ACMHR and SCLC official Fred Shuttlesworth and other marchers, while thousands of African Americans dressed for Good Friday looked on.

 

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well ask, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all.”

 

King was met with unusually harsh conditions in the Birmingham jail. An ally smuggled in a newspaper from April 12, which contained “A Call for Unity”: a statement made by eight white Alabama clergymen against King and his methods.

The letter provoked King, and he began to write a response on the newspaper itself. King writes in Why We Can’t Wait:

“Begun on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement appeared while I was in jail, the letter was continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly black trustee, and concluded on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted to leave me.” (Wikipedia)

 

for discussion: what elements of rhetoric does Martin Luther King Jr. use in his writing to persuade and excite the listener?

 

For Further Study . . .

Listen to “The Idea of Ancestry” by the poet Etheridge Knight, written from his jail cell in 1968.

The Idea of Ancestry

 1
Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black
faces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grand-
fathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts,
cousins (1st & 2nd), nieces, and nephews. They stare
across the space at me sprawling on my bunk. I know
their dark eyes, they know mine. I know their style,
they know mine. I am all of them, they are all of me;
they are farmers, I am a thief, I am me, they are thee.
I have at one time or another been in love with my mother,
1 grandmother, 2 sisters, 2 aunts (1 went to the asylum),
and 5 cousins. I am now in love with a 7-yr-old niece
(she sends me letters written in large block print, and
her picture is the only one that smiles at me).
I have the same name as 1 grandfather, 3 cousins, 3 nephews,
and 1 uncle. The uncle disappeared when he was 15, just took
off and caught a freight (they say). He’s discussed each year
when the family has a reunion, he causes uneasiness in
the clan, he is an empty space. My father’s mother, who is 93
and who keeps the Family Bible with everybody’s birth dates
(and death dates) in it, always mentions him. There is no
place in her Bible for “whereabouts unknown.”
      2
Each fall the graves of my grandfathers call me, the brown
hills and red gullies of mississippi send out their electric
messages, galvanizing my genes. Last yr / like a salmon quitting
the cold ocean-leaping and bucking up his birthstream / I
hitchhiked my way from LA with 16 caps in my packet and a
monkey on my back. And I almost kicked it with the kinfolks.
I walked barefooted in my grandmother’s backyard / I smelled the old
land and the woods / I sipped cornwhiskey from fruit jars with the men /
I flirted with the women / I had a ball till the caps ran out
and my habit came down. That night I looked at my grandmother
and split / my guts were screaming for junk / but I was almost
contented / I had almost caught up with me.
(The next day in Memphis I cracked a croaker’s crib for a fix.)
This yr there is a gray stone wall damming my stream, and when
the falling leaves stir my genes, I pace my cell or flop on my bunk
and stare at 47 black faces across the space. I am all of them,
they are all of me, I am me, they are thee, and I have no children
to float in the space between.                          -Etheridge Knight

 

 

 

 

And . . .check out The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.

. . .A bit about Martin Luther King, Jr. . . .

 

mlkpicjpg

 

Martin Luther King Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968) was an American Baptist minister and activist who became the most visible spokesperson and leader in the civil rights movement from 1954 through 1968. He is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights using the tactics of nonviolence and civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs and inspired by the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi.

 

King became a civil rights activist early in his career. He led the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, serving as its first president. With the SCLC, he led an unsuccessful 1962 struggle against segregation in Albany, Georgia, and helped organize the nonviolent 1963 protests in Birmingham, Alabama. He also helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

 

King received the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance. ] In 1965, he helped to organize the Selma to Montgomery marches, and the following year he and the SCLC took the movement north to Chicago to work on segregated housing. In the final years of his life, he expanded his focus to include opposition towards poverty and the Vietnam War, alienating many of his liberal allies with a 1967 speech titled “Beyond Vietnam”.

 

In 1968, King was planning a national occupation of Washington, D.C., to be called the Poor People’s Campaign, when he was assassinated by James Earl Ray on April 4 in Memphis, Tennessee. King’s death was followed by riots in many U.S. cities. Ray, who fled the country, was arrested two months later at London Heathrow Airport. Ray was sentenced to 99 years in prison for King’s murder, and died in 1998 from hepatitis while serving his sentence.

 

King was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established as a holiday in numerous cities and states beginning in 1971, and as a U.S. federal holiday in 1986. Hundreds of streets in the U.S. have been renamed in his honor, and a county in Washington State was also rededicated for him. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., was dedicated in 2011.¹

 

 

¹Source: Wikipedia

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Week Twenty: “Coming Home Again” by Chang-rae Lee and “The Great Eaters of Georgia” by Carson McCullers

 

 

 

 

“Coming Home Again” by Chang-rae Lee

 

What purpose do food and travel writing serve, when an author is grieving?

 

Today’s piece focuses on author Chang-rae Lee’s preparation of traditional Korean family foods when his mother becomes very ill.

Not everyone is a master chef. Some of us hack and chop and frizzle away. The author’s frustration is, in fact, at his at his inability to understand and prepare the great traditional meal. It is an imperfect language, excavating Lee’s frustration and struggle to articulate that as a young son he didn’t appreciate her love, sacrifice and self-effacement in the face of his own hubris. The metaphor is that of food and trying to duplicate the family meal and in part, failing. The agony of that.


“I would enter the kitchen quietly and stand beside her, my chin lodging on the point of her hip.” “The bone fell away, though not completely” Then later, “careful not to dislodge the bones, I asked her why it was important that they remain connected.”


It may be useful to compare Lee’s piece with Momaday’s  “The Way to Rainy Mountain” and Hong Kingston’s “No Name Woman” in terms of the bones in the land; and that the chronology of events shifts back and forth via flashbacks yet all of the times are woven together to create, in the mind’s eye, that thing, that awareness, which had never been seen.
The final spectral image of the parents pulled over in the car and the son (in a different age) driving by and “seeing” them is the culminating image of his mourning. It is a synthesis.
It is not so much a piece about cooking as it is about coming to terms with the unfamiliar, death, (the tenor) in terms of the familiar, traditional Korean cooking (the vehicle).


The shadow-side failure at trying to say to someone, ” I love and respect you” through the preparation of a traditional meal for a mother, a child, who will not eat.

His clumsy, imperfect mourning via cooking to understand his stalwart mother’s impermanence.

Here is “Coming Home Again” by Chang-Rae Lee.

The piece was originally featured in The New Yorker Magazine, October 16, 1995.

Let us know what you think!

 

 

 

. . .A bit about Chang-rae Lee . . .

 

Chang-rae Lee

Chang-rae Lee by photographer Peter Murphy

Chang-rae Lee (born July 29, 1965) is a Korean American novelist and a professor of creative writing at Stanford University,.[1] He was previously Professor of Creative Writing at Princeton and director of Princeton’s Program in Creative Writing.

Lee was born in South Korea in 1965 to Young Yong and Inja Hong Lee. He emigrated to the United States with his family when he was 3 years old.

Lee’s first novel, Native Speaker (1995), won numerous awards including the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award.

Lee explores issues central to the Asian American experience: the legacy of the past; the encounter of diverse cultures; the challenges of racism and discrimination, and exclusion; dreams achieved and dreams deferred. In the process of developing and defining itself, then, Asian American literature speaks to the very heart of what it means to be American. The authors of this literature above all concern themselves with identity, with the question of becoming and being American, of being accepted, not “foreign.” Lee’s writings have addressed these questions of identity, exile and diaspora, assimilation, and alienation.¹

 

 

“The Great Eaters of Georgia” by Carson McCullers

 

barbquestandfortbenninggeorgia1940s

A barbecue shack near Fort Benning, Columbus, Georgia, 1940. Photograph by Marion Post Wolcott (1910–1990) for the Farm Security Administration (Library of Congress)

 

By 1953 Carson McCullers’s dysfunctional marriage was at a breaking point. During a summer in Paris she and her husband were both drinking heavily, and Carson found out that Reeves had (once again) forged Carson’s name on checks. He attempted to kill himself and tried to talk Carson into committing suicide with him. She fled Paris alone and returned to the United States.

Around the same time, Holiday magazine had offered Carson McCullers fifteen hundred dollars to write a piece on Georgia where she returned in November to gather materials and memories.

While staying with friends McCullers learned that her husband had committed suicide in the Hôtel Chateau Frontenac on November 18.

Although her hosts initially urged her to remain at their home to recover from the shock, McCullers insisted on going to visit Hervey Cleckley, a friend who was also a psychiatrist. Cleckley, who was busy at work (with coauthor Corbett H. Thigpen) on his book The Three Faces of Eve, later told Carr that he and McCullers discussed his research in psychopathology and talked at length about Reeves’s suicide. Their conversations helped McCullers understand both her husband and their relationship, as she later described in her unfinished memoir:

 

 

 

 

McCullers (enduring what seems to be a rather uncomfortably close interview) about “The Member of The Wedding.” McCullers states that the basic premise of the play was just “to belong- to be a part of something; a part of life.” Perhaps this is also true of those who write about food and cultural tradition when they are grieving.

 

 

“Hervey Cleckley has written a masterful book called The Mask of Sanity, and in that book I could see Reeves mirrored. Psychopathic people are very often charming. They live on their charm, their good looks and the weaknesses of wives or mothers.”

 

McCullers finally returned to Nyack, NY at the end of November—and the next day The New York Times published her husband’s obituary, which suggested as a possible cause of death injuries suffered from a car accident several weeks before. Yet the actual cause was hardly a secret to the couple’s acquaintances and, amidst the deluge of calls and condolences, there seemed to be a palpable sense of relief among some of McCullers’s friends. Carr reports that the actress Helen Hayes, who also lived in Nyack, dropped by and told Carson’s mother, “I’m not going to say I’m sorry, Bebe, because I don’t think I am.”

 

McCullers soon returned to the task of writing the food article for Holiday, and she completed a version in early 1954. The events of the previous year surely explain the wistful and somewhat melancholy tone, and the essay was rejected because the magazine was “looking for a lighter, more descriptive, less personal piece.”²

 

Here is “The Great Eaters of Georgia” by Carson McCullers

isakdinesenandcarsonmccullers

McCullers at a gathering with Isak Dinesen, author of “Babette’s Feast,” Out of Africa, and many other works including gothic tales which pair nicely with a read of U.S. Southern Gothic.

 

McCullers’ bittersweet narration (recovering from her spouses’ suicide and reeling from a bitter marriage), evokes a longing. She discusses regional foods and all but also gets to the heart of longing; using the communal (or isolated) act of eating; of belonging or not belonging in a household, a family, a community. Of again, not the rosy magazine-slick travelogue her editors were expecting (this piece was ultimately rejected and was not published in Holiday Magazine) a much more meaningful exploration of cooking and dining as it expresses friendship, marriage, widowhood, isolation, etc. Again, the shadow side of the meal.

Consider an old man who has just lost his wife, slumped in a wheelchair, trying to “enjoy” a steak at a family picnic and not wanting to chat but doing his best to make pleasant small talk. The Vietnam Vet at a Christmas party. One is perhaps able to move past the facade of emotionless silence to sense a great chasm of grief which was inarticulate as both Lee and McCullers went through the motions of describing and preparing food. The beauty was not in the eloquence or grammar nor in the perfect execution of a meal (although McCullers seems much more master of that!) but in the simple recounting of how they could NOT function normally.

So often today we have celebrity chefs and Food TV gurus, who “Celebrate Holidays!” and take smiling to another extreme with “Today on our show: Traditional Foods!” . . .it’s all so flouride-whitened. Perhaps these pieces are the yin to that yang. The power in the taking in of nourishment but not the outward power of flawlessly preparing it. The clinging, barely, to the memory of fruit, the children’s treats, the holiday punch, as a rote attempt to return to normalcy and be nourished.

The foods and their memories and preparation become, perhaps, a sort of prayer for healing.

 

. . .A bit about Carson McCullers . . .

 

carspnmccullershenricartierbresson

Carson McCullers by Henri Cartier Bresson

Carson McCullers (February 19, 1917 – September 29, 1967) was an American novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, and poet. Her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, explores the spiritual isolation of misfits and outcasts in a small town of the U.S. South. Her other novels have similar themes and most are set in the deep south.

McCullers’ oeuvre is often described as Southern Gothic and indicative of her southern roots. However, McCullers penned all of her work after leaving the South, and critics also describe her writing and eccentric characters as universal in scope. Her stories have been adapted to stage and film. A stagework of her novel The Member of the Wedding (1946), which captures a young girl’s feelings at her brother’s wedding, made a successful Broadway run in 1950–51.³

 

 

 

 

 

 

¹ Source: Wikipedia

²Summarized from The Library of America

³Wikipedia