The inescapable network of mutuality

Today was the fortieth anniversary of the day on which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, and the memorial events sparked a desire in me to reread his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." I first encountered the letter in eighth grade, a year which was devoted to African and African-American studies in my middle school, and I remembered being profoundly moved - thinking that its indictment of moderate passivity was one of the most persuasive pieces of rhetoric (although I might not have expressed it in those primly academic terms at age twelve) that I had ever read.

It still is a profoundly moving piece, a piece that recalibrated my moral compass. Where are the Kings of our era? Where are the leaders capable of speaking directly, persuasively, intelligently, and imperatively about injustice in such a way that faith and morality become a means to unify rather than divide, to fight for freedom rather than institutionalize discrimination? Why aren't I someone like that? Are you? Could we be? Can I be the sort of teacher who inspires the profound respect and active defense of human dignity?

Writing to his fellow clergymen, who had publicly rebuked Dr. King for, among other things, being impatient for change, intervening from the outside in Alabaman events, and the lawbreaking at the core of his civil disobedience strategies, he addresses each of these points with an urgent but nuanced moral argument, but first he argues to the second point:

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
-Dr. King, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"
In this case, Dr. King is speaking largely within national bounds, of the sort of mutual identity we should have with our fellow citizens that was so badly forgotten after the crisis of Katrina. But implicit in this inescapable network of mutuality that binds us together is a fundamental human commonality, the ties of empathy with those we don't know that is so easily elided in the hurlyburly of everyday life. Why am I so obsessed with my own piddling problems when injustice is no less rampant in today's world than in the world of forty years ago? I am not sure how to answer these questions, but greater consciousness of them is surely the necessary first step.

Although until today I hadn't returned to the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" for many years, there is one passage that has often been at the forefront of my mind, particularly during discussions in which people told me that this was "not the right time" for the Democratic Party to work for gay rights or immigrant rights:
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
-Dr. King
Filled with the delight of this prose, I rushed out to order a copy of Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, the first volume of Taylor Branch's much acclaimed history of the civil rights era. I was brought up short, however, when I tried to find a reputable collection of King's writings, speeches, and sermons that is still in print. Does any one know why this (surely a rather necessary volume, not to mention a potentially quite profitable one from the publisher's point of view) is so hard to find?

Ok, now a few more notes on various subjects.

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Philip Hensher, writing in Prospect Magazine, suggests that the current popularity of "state of the nation" novels among British writers has its roots in their lack of a national epic. But is this true? The definition of a "national epic" keeps shifting: is it a long work that defines how a nation conceives of itself or an account of origins? If the latter, how many nations or cultures (besides Rome) can really claim to have one? And wouldn't most attempts at this sort of national epic play a dangerous game with the boundaries of propaganda (as The Aeneid does)? The first option seems more plausible as a definition, since it accounts for works like Don Quixote and the epics of Homer that aren't explicitly accounts of national origins. So does Britain have a national epic in this first sense? Sadly, the marvelous Faerie Queene is hardly central to any widespread conception of what it means to be English (although it conceives of itself in those terms). Could one argue for The Canterbury Tales or Shakespeare's plays as a collected work as a national epic? What would America's national epic be? I would love to hear opinions.

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This has been all over the litblog world: is a difference in literary taste, no matter how extreme, a viable reason to ditch a relationship? Can reading habits kill love? Not in my experience. The only literary difference that I could conceive of as a deal-breaker is one that revealed a fundamental difference of politics or morality (and it would have to be a fairly insurmountable difference - like adoring Ann Coulter as a civic visionary and master prose stylist). D doesn't have the daily habit of reading that I do, so I sometimes cajole him into a date that just involves us reading together. The problem is this: once he starts a book, he is incapable of concentrating on anything else until he is finished it. I, by contrast, am so filled with delight at the avidity of his reading that I continually interrupt to ask about what he is reading, attempt to engage him in conversations about it, and generally demand attention. Ah well.

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In a truly bizarre bureaucratic turn of events, the Arts Council of the UK is now demanding that arts organizations report the sexuality of their board members when applying for state funding. The intention, warped though it may be, may very well have been to foster greater inclusivity or diversity, but effect is one of unadulterated claustrophobia under the governmental gaze. Can you imagine the kind of work environment that would be created if your colleagues began speculating about or demanding to know your sexual orientation to report it to the government? Why, Arts Council, why???

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The shortlist for the Impac Dublin Prize has been released, and I have eagerly added the books to my BookMooch list:
  1. The Speed of Light by Javier Cercas (Spain)
  2. The Sweet and Simple King by Yasmine Gooneratne (Sri Lanka)
  3. De Niro's Game by Rawi Hage (Lebanon)
  4. Dreams of Speaking by Gail Jones (Australia)
  5. Let it Be Morning by Sayed Kashua (Israel)
  6. The Attack by Yasmina Khadra (Algeria)
  7. The Woman who Waited by Andrei Makine (Russia)
  8. Winterwood by Patrick McCabe (Ireland)
I particularly love this prize for the number of totally new titles it presented me with.

Described as the largest literary award in the world both for its size (100,000 euros) and its scope (it is open to books published or translated into English in the year before the longlist is put together), the Impac also has a delightful longlisting process that involves polling a huge list of international libraries.

2 Responses so far.

  1. Melanie says:

    GREAT collection of information here! I'm making notes galore.

    It's true, the excerpt from "Letter" still gives me shivers. It is still, sadly, so exactly true in so many cases.

    UK Arts Council -- what??!!??

    And the IMPAC always points out such intriguing titles. Rawi Hage actually lives in Montreal now, and "De Niro's Game" was shortlisted for the 2 big Canadian lit awards (didn't win either though). Here's wishing him better luck with the IMPAC!

  2. Thanks, Melanie! Have you read "De Niro's Game" yet? I would love to hear more about it. I am ashamed to say I hadn't heard of any of these books before the prize list came out. But that is what prizes should do, at their best, right? Draw the attention of ignorant people like me to works beyond the bestseller list? :)

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