Monday, January 17, 2011

A Riff for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Odyssey begins not with Odysseus, its eponymous hero, but instead with his son, Telemachus, whose journey to manhood occupies the first four books of the poem and is brought to fruition in the final books.

After some years of teaching this epic, I was startled to realize something obvious: that most of Telemachus' maturing, especially in the first four books of the Odyssey, is accomplished through public speaking: his address to the assembly of Ithaca, his public accusation of the suitors, his conversations with great kings like Nestor and Menelaus. As he faces these difficult rhetorical situations, the prince gains confidence and experience.

Odysseus also faces challenging rhetorical situations. The most memorable may be when he has to beg for help from the virginal princess Nausicaa on the beaches of Phaeacia. He has to win her sympathy after he's crawled out of some bushes, naked and filthy, with only an olive branch to cover his privates. Yet throughout his rhetorical trials, Odysseus performs brilliantly. In contrast to his fledgling son, he is a full-fledged master.

Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is another story of a boy becoming a man—and its narrator's trajectory is also mapped out along a series of speeches: the Booker T. Washington-esque one he naively delivers at the end of the bloody battle royal; the one he gives on a Harlem sidewalk as an old couple is getting evicted from their apartment; a speech at a Brotherhood rally in a large auditorium; and another at the funeral of his fellow organizer Tod Clifton.

Except for the first one, each of these speeches—like those of Telemachus and Odysseus—is extemporaneous, jazz-like, born of intense moments when the speaker feels out his audience and adapts his message to fit their needs and the needs of the occasion, discovering his own identity along the way.

Today, on Martin Luther King Day, as we recall, among other highlights in this modern hero's life, his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, it struck me how King's speech at the March on Washington fits into this rhetorical tradition of momentous change brought about by a well-made and at least partly improvised speech.

In Parting the Waters Taylor Branch explains how on August 28, 1963, King recited his formal speech as written until near the end, after he said the line, "We will not be satisfied until justice runs down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream":

The crowd responded to the pulsating emotions transmitted from the prophet Amos, and King could not bring himself to deliver the next line of his prepared text, which by contrast opened its lamest and most pretentious section....

There was no alternative but to preach. Knowing that he had wandered completely off his text, some of those behind him on the platform urgd him on, and Mahalia Jackson piped up as though in church, "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin." Whether her words reached him is not known. Later, King said only that he forgot the rest of his speech and took up the first run of oratory that "came to me."

Like the speeches given by Telemachus and Ellison's narrator, this improvised speech—delivered as part of what was essentially another of the mass meetings so common during the Civil Rights Era, but this time on a gigantic scale and broadcast to the nation—catapulted King into a new stage of his life. Like those given by Odysseus, the speech exemplified the work of a master who had been honing his craft for years, sharpening his oratory in preparation for a hugely challenging situation such as this. As Branch notes:

What quickly swept the press of both races was the "Dream" sequence, which stamped King's public identity.... More than his words, the timbre of his voice projected him across the racial divide and planted him as a new founding father. It was a fitting joke on the races that he achieved such statesmanship by setting aside his lofty text to let loose and jam, as he did regularly from two hundred podiums a year.


aintstudyingyou said...

Hello, CF/FK --

I enjoyed this column. It put me in mind of an excellent book on the significance of prepared text and inspired speech for racial and religious authority in early America. You might enjoy Sandra Gustafson's Eloquence is Power.

I'm also reminded of the Marxist jazz historian Sidney Finkelstein, who once wrote that the best jazz solos (at least of the swing era) were elaborations on pre-composed melodies. It's debatable, but interesting.


framiko said...

Thanks for the comment and the rec's!