A couple of years ago, I started assigning my students to look at the full version of the speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., the speech we now call the “I Have a Dream” speech. Even though it’s a speech and not really a story, I want my students to learn from the notion of dramatic arc in fiction, how the action rises to a climax, and that makes a really good story. And if anyone can work drama with the word, it’s MLK.
But somehow, the notion of dramatic arc is always lost to them because they can’t get over that there’s so much more to the “I Have a Dream” speech than the thirty seconds they usually see on TV the weekend leading up to the celebration of King’s birthday and then, every hour on that Monday. I say “that Monday” because it very rarely falls on his actual birthday of January 15th.
“Professor Jeffers, what’s the deal with the ‘check’?” they usually ask. “What’s King talking about?”
Then I explain to them that, in fact, this historical speech used to be called “The Bounced Check” speech, because King says, “In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men – yes, black men as well as white men – would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
He goes on to say that, “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”
I tell my students that in his speech King uses a profound code, referring to the issue of social—and perhaps even monetary—reparations for the horrors of African American slavery. In short, King is saying America owes Black folks a debt. This isn’t what most folks want to hear, though, Black or White. They like the part about King’s dream. Heck, even I like that part the most. His voice soars when he talks about his dream. The cadence of his voice—it’s almost a song.
I was only a year old when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, but my mother was a young women almost ten years younger than I am now, and she adored him. She still does. But like many Black people of her generation, she looked to the Kennedys as a completion of a trinity: MLK, JFK and RFK.
Though two were of another race, all three to her were fallen American heroes, and heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. When I was a little girl, she constantly talked about all the Kennedys had done “for us,” meaning Black folk. She even loved Teddy, who had some dicey situations in his youth, which kept him from being president. In Mama’s eyes, the Kennedys could do no wrong, and I don’t have to tell you that Martin Luther King, Jr. is right up underneath Jesus for her. She mentions at least once a year the time she got close enough to King to shake the man’s hand, and that she wanted to go to his funeral, but I was her baby and we lived too far away.
She talks of these three men in intimate terms, as family, and sometimes, when there are news shows about them and the circumstances surrounding their deaths, she will be sad and quiet for days afterward. More than once, she has said, pointing to the television screen, “They just took him”—one of her trinity—“from his children. From his family. Why would they do something like that?”
I was talking to my mother this past Sunday, the day after the attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords and the murder of six others, including a nine-year old child, and she was very upset. Crying, in fact, which, if you knew my mother, you would know is a very significant event.
Up until this year, I’ve only seen my mother cry about five times in over forty years, and one of those times was at my father’s funeral. When we lived in North Carolins, I saw her accidentally slice her hand open with a kitchen knife, and she very calmly picked up a towel, wrapped it around her hand, and then drove her own self to the hospital. My mother is one of those certified Strong Black Woman we depend on so much in this African American community. And so, Mama’s tears shook me to my core, and then when I thought about the assassination attempt on Giffords, I started getting even more upset, to the point where I was put down low all Sunday. I have been sad all week long.
Jared Loughner, the man who allegedly shot Representative Giffords and killed six others acted alone, and sure enough, he was crazy. (I’m not going to try to parse out the psychological terms for what was ailing him. Where I come from, we just call somebody like that “crazy” and reserve a bed for him down to Milledgeville, which is where the state mental institution in Georgia is located.) And his victims were White. Yet Giffords was going against the status quo, taking up the health care banner of those less fortunate than herself, as Teddy Kennedy had.
The current class and racial meanness in this country hasn’t taken over just one man, and the loud hate speech/rhetoric doesn’t come from just one individual, either. But for those of us who are students of history, we know that the ruling classes in this country always used other folks—poorer or less educated or mentally incapacitated—to do their dirty work with keeping other people down, other people who were Black or of a different religion or who wanted to organize unions. Anybody going against the status quo.
In much the same way, Sarah Palin has used violent rhetoric to get her supporters angry—“Commonsense Conservatives and Lovers of America: Don’t retreat; Instead Reload”—then published a map with congressional districts, with each district in the crosshairs of a gun. Sarah Palin’s tactics aren’t new, but they are very effective. And all too familiar, especially to Black folks.
All you have to do is look at one of those photos of a mob lynching a Black man to see who carried out the orders—poor White folks. But those orders came down from somewhere. Many times, the town newspaper (owned by someone rich) would first whip the mob into a frenzy by publishing editorials accusing a Black man of rape or some other crime and then, give directions for how to get to the lynching site. I’m not exaggerating. Read Phillip Dray’s At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America for documentation on these events.
So even when the victims of hateful political rhetoric don’t look like us, still, many Black folks identify with them, and take their pain as personal.
None of us middle-class, educated Black folks talk too loudly or often about monetary reparations for slavery, and when we do, it’s to make a joke, or to say, with a twist of our mouths, that we won’t ever receive that money. But I think many of us hoped that one day we wouldn’t have to keep revisiting the historical trauma of our parents, and taking their ancestral pain on as our pain. We hoped this time the check wouldn’t bounce for us. We hoped King would be proven wrong, eventually, about one part of his speech, and that the part about the dream would be all we would need.
It is only today that I understand that this event with Representative Giffords has affected me—and my mother—beyond the present, and taken us back to past Black community trauma. More than once this week, fighting tears, my mother and I have talked about the promise of Barack Obama, at what we thought would happen when a seemingly nice, soft-spoken, intelligent Black man entered the White House. The healing that would occur because of his presence. We had so much hope for this country.
I had even more hope for my mother, a woman who was born and raised in central Georgia, and remembers when a lynching happened two counties over, when she was a little girl. And years later, who sat with a baby on her lap, in a hopeful time, and thought of the funeral she couldn’t attend.