The Continued Erasure of Black Triumph and Joy
Recently, in search for classroom resources, I came across a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. entitled, "What is Your Life's Blueprint" on a school district’s curriculum website. It was a lesser known speech that was both inspirational and rich with metaphors. As many students still think that the only words uttered by Dr. King were, “I have a dream”, it seemed more than worthwhile to share. I decided to download the teacher-created transcript of this speech, and then found a video of Dr. King reciting the speech.
As I listened to the video and read along with the transcript, I quickly realized that what I was reading was not a transcript at all. It was actually an edited version of what he said. Generally, this is not a problem; teachers often curate content to adapt it to suit students’ needs. Yet, this “editing” was of an entirely different kind.
Let me back up.
In his speech, Dr. King utters a series of beautiful and inspiring sentiments that apply to all of us, and are particularly resonant for students. King says,
Whenever a building is constructed, you usually have an architect who draws a blueprint, and that blueprint serves as the pattern, as the guide, as the model for those who are to build the building and a building is not well erected without a good, solid blueprint.
Now each of you is in the process of building the structure of your lives, and the question is whether you have a proper, a solid and a sound blueprint.
I want to suggest some of the things that should be in your life’s blueprint. Number one in your life’s blueprint, should be a deep belief in your own dignity, your own worth and your own somebodiness. Don’t allow anybody to make you feel that you’re nobody. Always feel that you count. Always feel that you have worth, and always feel that your life has ultimate significance.
Yet, when I watched the video of Dr. King, I was shocked to find that this “transcript” had omitted pivotal sentences seemingly with the sole intent of erasing the context of his speech and the audience to whom he was speaking. Here are a few of the lines that were omitted:
Now that means that you should not be ashamed of your color. You know it’s very unfortunate that in so many instances our society has placed a stigma on the Negro’s color. And you know there are some Negros that are ashamed of themselves. Don’t be ashamed of your color. Don’t be ashamed of your biological features. Somehow you must be able to say in your own lives and really believe it, “I am Black, but beautiful,”and believe it in your heart. (resounding applause) And therefore you need not be lured into purchasing cosmetics advertised to make you lighter. Neither do you need to process your hair to make it appear straighter. I have good hair and it’s as good as anyone else’s hair in the world, and we’ve got to believe that. (resounding applause)
I am going to try to quell my outrage by itemizing the problems I see with this omission, and leave it up to you whether you believe my indignation is justified:
1. What are we teaching children if we decide that the only way they can relate to an objectively moving speech if the identity of its audience is omitted? Can’t we find points of connection regardless of our differences? Isn’t our shared humanity more vast and encompassing that what seems to divide us?
2. If we want students to think critically, check multiple sources to ensure accuracy, and then draw their own conclusions, what are we teaching them if in our classrooms we are purposely misleading them?
To me, the “editing” of this speech for classroom purposes is just one in a long line of acts of erasure, injustice, and whitewashing of the triumphs of Black people and their cultural icons and heritage.
Like in 2018, when Ram trucks released a Super Bowl ad voiced over by Dr. King. Beyond the blasphemy and indignity of using a sermon to sell trucks, the great irony is that the context of this particular speech rested on Dr. King’s assertion that we must not succumb to marketers who are trying to sell us products we don’t need or can’t afford. Dr. King says:
. . .we are so often taken by advertisers. You know, those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion. And they have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey. In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car. In order to be lovely to love you must wear this kind of lipstick or this kind of perfume. And you know, before you know it, you’re just buying that stuff.
King’s message in this sermon, “The Drum Major’s Instinct’ (which is completely obliterated by this commercial), is that we should measure ourselves and our lives through our good deeds and acts of service, and not accordingly to what we buy.
We can’t pretend that this erasure of Black triumph and joy is limited to certain geographical areas or people of a certain level of education. There clearly seems to be a widespread misunderstanding of what it really means to honor and celebrate Black social justice crusaders further illustrated by the 2017 Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial .
The editing of this transcript from what I imagine was a well-meaning teacher is a product of a much larger societal problem. Yet even if these omissions and missteps are the result of ignorance, it is way overdue that we name them, own them, and make a commitment to do better.