Growing up in The South, or, more specifically, in the city of Atlanta, Georgia, I was exposed to plenty of civil rights history. As someone who considers herself a southern expat, much of that history burned a deep hole inside my chest. In 2nd grade, I was taken to the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr. and taught about segregation. It came as quite a shock since all of my friends were black and I previously had no concept of race.
Racial inequality is a deep thought for a six year old and it really shook me. I continued my pondering as I grew older and visited the American Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Walking through the forever tainted air of a cattle car used to shuttle Jewish people to their deaths in Nazi, Germany, the ultimate consequence of racism chilled me to the bone. Picture it: your relatives are dying horrible, tortuous deaths all around you and you are likely next because of what you all believe or the color of your skin. It happened in The South too. It just wasn’t government sanctioned.
Even today, what I know about the history of my family’s small town in south Georgia is a white history. The monochrome shade of it makes me wonder what has been boarded up in so many of the tumble-down, tin-roofed shacks you will pass if you journey there.
As a writer, I work at making everything I write a work of honesty, and what I’ve found is that the best writing always comes from the deepest feelings. Great writing is not about the good times in life. Great writing happens when you feel wronged or hurt or marginalized. Writing is not a pedestrian activity. It is the emotional equivalent of fire-breathing, flames dancing and the residual smoke that permeates for a long, long time.
Thus, I’m celebrating the 50th anniversary of the “I have a dream speech,” written by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a writer who swallowed more than his fair share of flames. Here is a sentence of his that has been on my mind lately:
“…when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”
I first read this sentence in the book that currently tops my Goodreads shelf, “How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One” by Stanley Fish. It’s an example of a sentence built up with dependent clauses. Whatever.
Even without an analysis of its grammatical brilliance, this sentence is a wildfire, and you might think that Dr. King agonized over this sentence at a desk in a nice office as he planned out his next protest, but that is WRONG.
Dr. King wrote this sentence on toilet paper while he was sitting in a jail cell after protesting to end segregation. This is what happens when a brilliant writer and thinker has something to say and manages to get it down on paper in the moment.
While today we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech, the letter Dr. King wrote in a Birmingham jail certainly fanned the flames which led to his march on Washington. Godspeed, sir.