Cicero’s Tongue: Beyond “I Have a Dream”

January 21, 2013   •   By Vorris L. Nunley

APPARENTLY, IMMEDIATELY AFTER DELIVERING one of the most rhetorically brilliant, oratorically moving, politically significant speeches in American history — the “I Have a Dream” speech — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., effectively died. Died in August 1963, that is, not in April 1968; in celebrations, commemorations, and ceremonies, commercials, speeches, and public gatherings, the “I Have a Dream” King is frozen in time — his later politics dulled of its edginess, stripped of its demand for introspection on the part of both the oppressor and the oppressed. A more progressive Dr. King, the rhetorically and politically more prickly, complicated, beyond “I Have a Dream” King, the Dr. King who from 1963 through 1968 would discomfort Americans — even African Americans — has been disappeared. Erased. Allowed to dissipate in the winds of historical nostalgia for a more domesticated, compliant, more easily consumable Dr. King. A dreaming King. A Dr. King more comfortable for the American imagination.

“I Have a Dream” deserves its iconic status. The trope of the dream evokes the rhetorical energy of potential, possibility, and progress, infusing the idea of America (indeed America is less a place than an idea) that continues to animate political and cultural activism. It is not by accident then, that a policy to enable thousands of the children of immigrants to obtain residency status is called “the Dream Act.” It was not a rhetorically random choice that then presidential candidate Barack Obama juiced the engine of his first campaign for president on the nectar of American hope and change. Dreaming is one of the bases that constitute the American DNA, that enables the hope and change that Dr. King clearly embodied.

But the other Dr. King requires us to embrace two bases of the American DNA many Americans deny and overlook: struggle and discomfort. American revolution? Struggle and discomfort. Industrial revolution? Struggle and discomfort. The Civil War, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 apologizing for imprisoning Japanese Americans in internment camps, and the American Civil Rights Movement of which Dr. King was such a part? Again, struggle and discomfort. As with Walt Whitman and Audre Lorde, the beyond “I Have a Dream” Dr. King struggled not only for a change in policy and behavior, but also, more importantly, for a change in imagination — in the American imaginary. For example, the Dr. King of “Beyond Vietnam — A Time to Break Silence” given at the Riverside Church in New York, on April 4, 1967 is a politically acidic and rhetorically edgy King, a Dr. King who accuses the United States of being the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” Dr. King made legible the links between international conflict and domestic poverty, the nightmares that American dreaming sometimes deflects. The President of the United States, the NAACP, and countless other Americans heavily criticized Dr. King, but he continued with his structural critique. This is the Dr. King that still makes us uncomfortable. For unlike the struggle for civil rights — where the racism of Whites in the South can be scapegoated as anomalous, as an unfortunate divergence from the American dream — his “Beyond Vietnam” speech declares American genocide and imperialism to be structural components of our American dreaming, empowered by what two of my colleagues, poet-scholar Traise Yamamoto and indigenous activist-scholar Michelle Raheja refer to as “recalcitrant ignorance.”

The beyond “I Have a Dream” Dr. King I am awakening is the one who not only resisted virulent White supremacy and institutional racism, but also wanted to dislodge Black complicity. For example, he argued for a more socially responsible Black church, a church as a “headlight rather than a taillight” in the struggle for spiritual clarity and social equality. Despite his 1956 Montgomery Boycott success, Dr. King was kicked out of the National Black Baptist Convention in the aftermath of a 1961 attempt to have its delegates adopt his more progressive politics. This Dr. King discomforts his Black followers, as significant elements of the contemporary Black church shift away from his prophetic gospel of social justice and equal access activism to a prosperity gospel, a gospel that risks inviting money changers into the temple, a gospel described by Jonathan Walton as privileging “equal access to wealth,” inadvertently providing solace for Black neoliberalism. A gospel where Blackness becomes less political, less inclusive and communal, and more about individual choice, desire, and consumption.

Do not get me wrong. As we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birth, I do not in any way want to diminish the iconic status or brilliance of “I Have a Dream.” To do so would be to purposely misrepresent and misunderstand his significance to the American imagination. But as King knew, that imagination too often takes residence in denial. Denial allows us to chase the American dream while remaining inured to the nightmares of others, including the ones that are that dream’s collateral damage. Denial allows us to dis-remember Dr. King’s climb to the mountaintop — a climb that requires struggle and discomfort. A discomfort that, if we are to take Dr. King seriously, requires that those of us who slumber before the leviathan of oligarchy, oppression, and lethargy wake up and wipe the sleep of ignorance and comfort from our eyes, to go beyond the “I Have a Dream” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and get back to the struggle and discomfort of re-thinking America anew. To reach, as he did, for the apex of democratic possibility, despite a political culture intoxicated by fear and reactionary revisionism.

Rethinking America anew is not for the timid or the feckless. As Dr. King himself reminded us, the soft-minded person always fears change, “feels security in the status quo, and has an almost morbid fear of the new. For them, the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea.” Novelist Richard Wright had already sounded the alarm for us all in Native Son: Wake-Up!

This is exactly what the awakened, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” King would demand of us. Before and after we finish dreaming.


image: MLK cc Chris Tank, Some rights reserved