I Have a Dream Revisited

Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial roughly 53 years ago and delivered the most famous oration in American history. Like most things much lauded, it has become so very respectable and hallowed that its original energy and meaning have been somewhat lost. Realizing that I myself knew the most-quoted passages but not the full speech itself, I decided to re-read it and re-listen to it to see what I could get out of it. Here’s what I got out of it.

Obviously, the speech centers on equality and inequality. Although I don’t plan to harp on that aspect of it at great length, it seems abundantly evident (no matter your particular political stripe) that we’re still reeling from the inherent contradiction in the origin of our nation: the existence of slavery and discrimination and the propositions of “all men are created equal” and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Let this be a lesson to writers and artists in general: if you want posterity to be kind to you, keep yourself grounded in the basic, the classic, the elemental.

A real head-scratcher, as my grandpa used to say. Or, to quote the bemused Brit Samuel Johnson, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?

Now, there are those who are all too eager to turn the page and remain deaf to any mention of racism and inequality—but let’s not forget, as Louis C.K. said, “If you meet a black person and they have gray hair, they remember a time they weren’t allowed to use a certain toilet.” Or, it should be added, they were in danger of being beaten and lynched for asserting their basic legal and/or human rights.

King calls this basic contradiction in the foundation of the United States a “promissory note” which has been defaulted on. It is the only rather weak, dated metaphor in the speech. Elsewhere, King draws on more elemental images: fire, shadows, light, islands, oceans, rocks and sand, storms, mountains, and, of course, dreams.

Let this be a lesson to writers and artists in general: if you want posterity to be kind to you, keep yourself grounded in the basic, the classic, the elemental. Not saying you have to be a total fuddy-duddy and never make reference to anything that existed after the year 1000 AD, but at least don’t be so much of the here-and-now that future generations will have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about.

Which brings me to the Bible. Martin Luther King was a minister, so of course he’s going to quote the Bible. At several points in his “I Have a Dream” speech he makes use of various Bible verses to get his point across. Specifically, he references the Books of Amos, Galatians, and Isaiah—which he quotes at length:

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

Now, I myself have (mostly) lost my Christian faith because I have a hard time swallowing the idea that any all-powerful, all-knowing God would set up so many complicated game-like rules and actually get upset if they were broken and damn someone to eternal torture for not adhering to them.

Nonetheless, I agree with Camille Paglia, an avowed atheist, when she says:

I respect the Bible as one of the world’s greatest books, based on a magnificent body of oral poetry. It is a fundamental text that everyone, atheist or believer, should know. It speaks profoundly to everyone at each stage of life. And of course its hero sagas, from Moses to Christ, have been absorbed into the Western fine arts tradition.   

Some familiarity with the Bible is a must for any educated person—the main reason being that you’re not going to get the full effect or resonance of any Western literature or art created before 1900 if you don’t have some knowledge of it.

Not saying you have to believe it, but familiarize yourself with it, at least. For if you don’t, you alienate yourself from roughly two thousand years of Western history—and by Western, I really mean all of the areas of the world majorly influenced by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam: the Middle East, Russia, Central Asia, North and South America, Europe, and Africa.

King also quotes Shakespeare. Shakespeare is another one of those cultural  institutions, that—whether you love him or loathe him—you’ve just got to be familiar with. Referring to the specific season in which he was giving the speech, King references Richard III: “This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.

The original passage runs thus:

Now is the Winter of our Discontent,
Made glorious Summer by this Son of Yorke:
And all the clouds that lowr’d vpon our house
In the deepe bosome of the Ocean buried.

Is it absolutely necessary that you know that King is sampling from Richard III? No—but references like this carry an extra emotional and intellectual weight that can’t be precisely measured. They also serve as links between thinkers and artists from previous generations—a sense of continuation and tradition that the younger generation seems to lack.

I realize the Bible might be kind of a slog, but there’s no way Shakespeare won’t reap huge rewards for you if you just put in a modicum of time and effort. Now, if you happen to be amongst the sad sacks who say that the Bard’s overrated, to quote the Bard himself: check thyself before thou wreckst thyself.

The last thing that struck me while re-reading and re-listening to King’s speech was his summoning up of geographical features, mostly mountains: “the mighty mountains of New York… the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania… the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado… the curvaceous peaks of California… Stone Mountain of Georgia… Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Two reactions. First of all: what a great road trip that would be to visit all of the mountains mentioned by MLK. Second, somewhere along the line we stopped as a nation identifying with the land we inhabit. I know the U.S. is a relatively huge country, but how many of us are familiar with more than one of the above? Besides the foundational political ideals which make up our nation, what else is our country but the land and its natural beauty?

So, to sum up: black people still have a right to complain, people should bone up on the Bible and Shakespeare, and, as Bob Dylan (who also played at the March on Washington, by the way), once sang:

Go out in your country where the land meets the sun
See the craters and the canyons where the waterfalls run
Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Idaho
Let every state in this union seep down deep in your soul
And you’ll die in your footsteps
Before you go down under the ground

  • January 16, 2017