In 9th grade we had to do a book report on a historical figure. In my younger years I was very keen on doing things a little different than everyone else. At times that harmless “rebel” mentality has lead to things I would like to change (like deciding not to take Spanish in high school… it would really be nice to know Spanish right now) and at times that mentality has created more far reaching and positive implications in my life.
I chose Gandhi for my book report; I didn’t know very much about him at the time. I had always enjoyed reading fiction books up to that point but if there was one book that I had to pick that has helped to shape who I am the most, this biography would be it. I was already conditioned to believe in nonviolence in my own life but to see it used so practically and on such a grand scale was a game changer for me.
I have read a lot of books in the (almost) 15 years that have followed but the two figures my reading influences have honed in on the most would be Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. The back of my classroom has two posters I have had since college of King and Gandhi and some visitors to my room mistake it for a history classroom because of them.
All of this backstory brings me to the point of my post and the reason for my title to this entry. It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This elicits a lot of reactions from a lot of different people. One of the frustrating things to see is how watered down King and his message seems to have become.
"I Have a Dream". As if that’s all there is to him or to it…
This is a natural human thing. We lionize the humanity out of our heroes.
“More importantly, sainthood is often our mechanism for domesticating prophets and letting ourselves off the hook. We elevate and idealize our heroes, effectively diminishing the challenge of their witness.”
I have a chance in my classroom, with my juniors for American Literature, to cover the Civil Rights Movement. We start by discussing what is represented to them during Black History Month or during lessons on the Civil Rights. Inevitably, it’s the same coverage every year of the same few ideas and the same few people. What’s more, the same coverage of the same people isn’t rich in its depth either. Every year I question if my choice is worthwhile but so far the answer has been yes so I have continued, we then study the “I Have a Dream” speech because I find that they’ve never experienced even that speech for all that it is. They only know the famous 3 minute part (the speech is over 17 minutes). We study other areas of the Civil Rights (PBS has a great documentary on the Freedom Rides) and I make the point that there is so much more that is worth exploring. I also point out that it’s less than a month after the speech that four little girls die in the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing. Things don’t magically get better in the country right after the speech.
I understand that we have to condense and simplify in textbooks but as teachers part of our job is to unpack that. Quality over quantity.
We don’t talk about a lot of things. And some of the things we do talk about aren’t enough to constitute a real conversation.
Poverty is another big one (though it does seem to be creeping more and more into the public conscious -and hopefully conscience for that matter). That’s something King focused on too.
I’ll start to conclude by sharing someone who is far better at expressing what I was about to attempt to. Two minutes into this interview I was on Amazon ordering the book. The book itself was solid (and I suspect if I didn’t already know so much about King I would have gotten even more out of it), and I think this is important work.
Finally, I’ll close with a favorite of mine (this line of thinking is a big part of why I chose teaching).
I hope you all enjoy the day!