Friday, January 21, 2011

`In the Words of the Old [...] Spiritual'

The assembly celebrated the Jan. 15, 1929, birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. The librarian read a children’s book devoted to his life, and the choir performed “Down By the Riverside” and “We Shall Overcome.” Students took turns reading passages from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963. The kids were hardly eloquent but their bumbling lent poignancy to King’s words, especially when they voiced his vision of

“…a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.”

The five hundred students, staff and guests in the gymnasium amply embodied King’s dream. The kids closed with the speech’s rousing rhetorical crescendo, which still has the power to move some of us:

“When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old spiritual, `Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”

What’s this? Something missing? Memory frays, but King’s words are too familiar – Greil Marcus calls them “the most powerful and beautiful minutes of oration the country has ever known” -- to be misquoted without notice. They left out the other “n-word” – “Negro,” as in “the old Negro spiritual.” Turn on the radio and you can hear the first “n-word,” and even read it in some editions of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but a nameless arm of the virtue police excised King’s linguistic choice, precise in its musical context. Elsewhere in the speech, as in the passages quoted above, King uses “black” a little ahead of his time. American newspapers wouldn’t move from “Negro” to “black” for another three years or so.

Censorship’s triumph is final when we’re unaware of having been the object of censorship. Kids in the room, born four decades after King’s murder, may never know “Negro” was deemed too indelicate for their ears.

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