Saturday, January 19, 2008

Was MLK an undercover slam poet?

I enjoyed my day spring cleaning and dissecting Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech from both page and stage standpoints--something I always wanted to do but never did. I encourage anyone to Google MLK's "I have a Dream" speech, a wonderful 15 minute stroll down the memory lane of this nation's history.
After studying the written text and watching the speech several times, i have to say, the speech uses about every literary tool we've got and his deliverance of it is absolutely flawless. MLK wasn't just a poet; he was a slam poet.
I'm not going to discuss the political philosophy of his speech, just its craft. The entire speech, (and hopefully some good ones coming up from our Barack Obama) relies on metaphor, simile, alliteration, allusion, litany, chiasma, you name it. But that's a whole other thesis.
I do want to take this space, however, to talk about his genius as a performer, a nobel peace prize winning, Birmingham jail letter writing, slam poet. I'll share some of my observations:
He's reading his speech, but makes frequent eye contact with the audience.
Every syllable is important. King pronouces and lengthens EVERY single syllable, esp. the last syllable in each word. I was surprised by how short the actual speech was on paper considering the speech is 15 minutes long. He takes his time with every word.

In the beginning of the speech, he seldom elevates the volume of his voice, keeping it almost perfectly even heightening it only at calculated times almost as if to make sure you're paying attention, and the crowd responds accordingly.

He employs the We point of view, just like the constitution. A mere representative for his people, he is delivering the Black Gettysburg address. Somewhere in the middle of the speech, some shmuck sticks his hand in front of King's face to lower the four mics pointed at the Reverend's mouth, slightly lessening the volume. (I was annoyed by that.)
The crowd responds most ardently to the use of metaphor; it is perhaps our favorite literary device. King makes an analogy that America wrote the Black race a bad check (of justice), and it came back insufficient funds. The crowd roars and laughs for the first time in the speech. Let's not forget the relevance of the metaphor; insuffient funds are two words the working poor can certainly relate to.
He doesn't smile once during the entire speech, not even during the insufficient funds joke which achieved the only laugh in the entire 15 minutes.
King doesn't stumble or stutter once, and if he did, he played it off like an expert.

The arc, or should I say, the architecture of the "I Have a Dream" speech is like any of the best movies I've seen or books I've read. It builds and builds and builds its way to a climax, which is the I Have a Dream litany, followed by falling action. Suddenly, MLK switches from the "we" point of view he'd been using throughout the entire speech, to the "I", the first person point of view. I have a dream, he says. The crowd immediately starts to respond to this shift.

He lifts his eyes off the page and keeps them lifted for the rest of the "I Have a Dream" litany. This is clearly the part he has practiced most, in fact, memorized. The speech is more personal. He mentions his three daughters. You can relate to the man now, not just the symbol he has become. Perhaps he has done this part of the speech before, several times, in several places. Could it be his signature piece, the one that always earns him a 30 from his audiences?

Just the steadiness of his eyes alone heightens the intensity of his words and his presence. It's true; we should look the world in the eye when we are telling the world our dreams for it; because our dreams are essentially what we stand for in this life. MLK, in another speech asks us to honestly confront our shattered dreams, and by the look on his face, and the by the sound of his voice, his dreams are by no means shattered.

When he weaves allusions to the Constitution in his speech such as "we hold these truths to be self evident, all men are created equal" and "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" the crowd cheers. He is using the beloved language of this nations' founding fathers to imply this nation's hyprocrisy.
Now that he's not glancing down at paper, he elevates his chin and often appears as if looking off into the distance, the future. His volume has significantly heightened but is still controlled, like his anger. Towards the very end, as if to notify you of his soon departure, he lifts his shoulders dramatically, as if preparing for flight. He unglues his hands from the podium and begins to gesticulate, using grandiose gestures, stretching his arms up then out like Jesus on the cross. He ends with a "Free At Last" litany, quoting the Negro Spiritual, followed by a swift exit.
My findings have brought me to this conclusion: MLK Jr. was not just a Reverend "stroking the dark underside of God's wet tongue" as Major Jackson would put it, but an undercover slam poet.Never mind the time penatly. He expertly uses all the literary tools and performance techniques we, in all our greenness, don't take advantage of. Allow our Slam Legend to confront us with the following questions:
How do you speak with your entire voice without yelling at a nation?How do you read from your paper without sounding like you are?
How do you most effectively harness your anger; when is it too much or not enough? Are we defeating our purpose when our anger translates more than our actual message?
Is each repeated line of a litany supposed to represent a nail in the enemy's coffin?
Is listing the blue jeans of slam, never to go out of style?
Though my own political philosophy doesn't exactly match the one that Dr. King embodies, I find the "I Have a Dream" speech simply (and not so simply), dazzling both from a writing and a performance standpoint.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

My Everybody Hates Chris Book is out and selling!

My chapter book Everybody Hates School Presentations, as part of a series of chapter books based on the Everybody Hates Chris television series is out and selling online and in major bookstores across the country.

The timing for this book couldn't be more perfect; the book's topic is Black History Month, right on our doorstep. Here is a short description of the storyline, just a little tease:

"As part of Corleone Jr. High's annual acknowledgment of Black History Month, Chris's history teacher is giving extra credit to anyone who comes to school armed with "Black Facts." Chris is quickly designated the resident expert on all things African American. Then the principal decides that Chris will give a presentation - in front of the whole school - about African-American history. As if this isn't nerve-wracking enough, Chris has to work with his nemesis, Joey Caruso, on the project! Will Chris survive Black History Month?"

The book is geared specifically for middle-grade readers; like any board game, 8 and up. Adults, surely will also get something out of this book. It is ideal for the classroom; in fact, designed for it. In contributing to this chapter book series, my goal was to educate youth on the richness, rawness and depth of the Black struggle, with a few giggle arousing rib pokes in between.

If you purchase the book, I would really like to know what you think. Please leave a review on the Simon and Schuster site, where you can also purchase the book.

I'm really excited that this book is up and out into the world. Thank you for all your support!


Samantha Thornhill