The 14th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Writing Awards are sponsored by the Carnegie Mellon University English Department, the Division of Student Affairs and President Jared L. Cohon's office -- drew 178 entries from high school and college students. In observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, two of the winning entries are reprinted here.
'He Had a Nightmare'
By Nathaniel Brodsky, Junior, Winchester Thurston School, Shadyside
Third place, high school prose
I am upset, perturbed, agitated, dismayed, cut up, discomfited, by guilt, self-delusion, self-righteousness, pretension and moralizing. You know what? Martin would be, too.
Martin wouldn't like you considering your personal vote for Barack Obama as an apology by the entire Caucasian race for the entire era of oppression that it imposed on blacks. Nor would Martin like overly earnest Northern liberals feeling so awful for something that someone-in-Alabama's ancestors did. You didn't own slaves, you didn't keep blacks from using good schools and drinking fountains, and your ancestors probably didn't either. So stop being unproductive. Martin would not approve. Martin would want you to address problems, not wax wide-eyed about addressing the problems of 1964.
I don't know this, of course. I never met the man. My interpretation of his beliefs comes solely from my own biases. And yours do, too.
Secretly thinking something even remotely derogatory when reading about urban crime? It's OK, Martin knows that you really do adore African-Americans, which, by the way, was a term he never used, opting for the now-panned "Negro." Enjoy a racially tinged joke on "Family Guy"? It's OK, because as long as you sit down your child for a profound, mind-altering discussion on a Monday in January, say five Hail Rosa Parkses, and roll your eyes whenever South Carolina comes up in conversation, our Martin who art in Heaven will forgive you. After all, you're so mind-blowingly tolerant, how couldn't he?
But Martin wouldn't care about your sanctimoniousness. He'd look at your comfortable lifestyle in your racially segregated region, where fewer whites have lived on integrated blocks than in Atlanta, Birmingham or Memphis, and just shake his head. Maybe he'd pronounce a majestic metaphor in his booming baritone, if he were especially livid. The big problem with our epidemic of Martin-veneration is that we don't understand him and what he wanted and believed. He wasn't just passionate about racial equality, he cared about economic equality, and most of his most vocal idolaters among the white, college-graduate clique would probably be horrified by that idea, if they got into the nitty-gritty details of it. He doesn't want a memorial, certainly not one reminiscent of Maoist China. He doesn't want a holiday, he doesn't even want inner-city boulevards and junior highs. He just wants you to do something. Anything.
You won't though, and he knows that. Do you know why you won't? Because we, as a culture, haven't arrived at Martin. We have been born to him.
Martin looks at our adoration, arrived at not through soul-searching and philosophy but through rote instruction in school and constant reminders throughout life to feel guilty, and he laughs at it. Because he knows, dear reader, that we are not worthy of him. We don't fight for causes anymore; heck, we don't have causes anymore, and if we do, we are maligned as tree-huggers and some names for gays that don't belong in a family essay. We are not brave enough as a society to embrace anyone or anything, let alone someone as, let's face it, radical as Martin was.
We may not be as evil as Bull Connor and the others who turned fire hoses on innocent adolescents, but I don't think it's right to flatter ourselves into believing that we'd be right there singing "We Shall Overcome," because we simply wouldn't. Most of us would be the white moderates that he so virulently lambasted in the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" for preferring order to justice and providing "lukewarm acceptance," which he viewed as worse than "outright rejection." If there is a Martin out there today, we, as a nation, are probably criticizing him for the same reasons that our wishy-washy forefathers did in the 1960s.
I wish to say, though, that just because he was too militant for our current bland culture does not mean that you should dislike him or disrespect him. There's been hardly a more likable or respectable figure in our nation's history. Just give the man his due. He was not a stained-glass window; he was a real, living being, with a real personality. He liked Tolstoy novels. He sang in a choir as a teenager. He won a Grammy posthumously.
He's not a polysyllabic name on the top of a page in your household Bible, he's a real martyr. And he probably would not appreciate those who only know about bus boycotts and "I Have a Dream" using him as a password to try and gain access to the sociopolitical equivalent of the cool table. These individuals have no appreciation for other things he was especially proud of late in his life, namely, his opposition to the Vietnam War and his desire to "feed the hungry [and] clothe the naked."
When he was killed, he was not trying to desegregate something or inspire white liberals; he was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers, the type of unionized public-sector workers who are loathed by most of contemporary America for their pensions and collective-bargaining agreements. In his last speeches, foremost among them "I've Been to the Mountaintop" and "Where Do We Go From Here," equality between the races took a back seat to the concept of equality in the classes.
In fact, Bobby Kennedy ordered the FBI to wiretap him because he was suspected of having communistic leanings. Any society in which even the relatively tame ideology of socialism has turned into a curse word is clearly not one in which he would thrive.
The same goes for warfare. During his last few years, Martin saw his credibility among white Democrats and other groups plummet due to his avowed opposition to what he perceived as a classist and racist war. He and President Lyndon B. Johnson, the great lion of the Civil Rights Movement, parted ways over Martin's pacifist unorthodoxy. In a world where nuclear war seems less like a nightmare and more like a real-life tragedy, and respectable politicians encourage having every option on the table against Iran, I really find it hard to believe that Martin would be listened to, unless it was as a conservative propaganda piece to paint liberals as soft on terrorism.
This MLK Day, we should try a novel approach. Instead of having elementary schoolers re-enact the arrest of Rosa Parks or posting clips of "I Have a Dream" on Facebook, we should actually talk about what he thought. And if that means his vehement opposition to the aspects of inequality that we like, along with those aspects that make us feel guilty, so be it.
Who knows, if everything works out, we might become so comfortable with the blessed feeling of ambivalence that we'll be able to say the name "Malcolm X" by this time next year.
And wouldn't that be something?
By Laura Condon, Ninth grade, Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, Downtown
Third place, high school poetry
The Chinese girl,
Whose parents owned a restaurant,
Brought duck feet on a field trip,
And dared us each to eat one.
Cringed and shook her head.
Said, "God, that's disgusting!"
Nearly threw up.
Squared her shoulders and choked it down.
She actually liked it despite how awful it looked.
Scoffed and rolled her eyes at us,
Like she always did.
When our teacher came over
And told us to quiet down,
Because the squealing was a bit much,
His eyes trailed from one to the next.
From one difference to another.
First to Jenny's smaller eyes,
As she held another duck foot out to Nelly
And Anna's thicker hair,
Falling down to hide her embarrassed blush.
And Teresa's olive skin,
Slowly turning red under his scrutinizing gaze.
And Maria's angular face,
Uncaring, arrogant, and contemptuous as always.
And Nelly and I,
Trying not to laugh.
We knew each other though.
We didn't see our differences.
To each other,
We weren't Chinese
And later, when we were sitting there on the school bus,
Arranging our fingers into a star
So Jenny could take a picture,
We didn't notice that Jenny's fingers
Were so pale,
Or that Anna's, Maria's and Teresa's
Or that mine and Nelly's
Were red from being in the sun.