It happened more than four decades ago, but each year the arrival of Martin Luther King Jr. Day returns the memory to me.
It is the memory of how the legacy of Dr. King helped me to recognize my own prejudice, and of the courage of a young woman who brought me this understanding.
In the fall of 1972, as I began my senior year at Duquesne University, I took a course called “Oral Interpretation of Literature.” At the time, reading literature aloud seemed a sinfully easy thing to do, but my hopes for an easy “A” hit a brick wall when our class met the instructor … a stocky man in his 50s, with graying hair that contributed to the seriousness of his demeanor.
He sternly advised us that the transformation of literature into the spoken word was the most serious of art forms. In interpreting literature, he said, appropriate patterns of speech were required. A poem of a British writer would require the proper pronunciation of the Queen’s tongue, and he was looking forward to drilling these fine distinctions into us.
It took a while, but as the classes progressed most of the students caught on. However, there was one young African-American woman who clearly was experiencing difficulty in adapting her speech patterns to that of Victorian poetry or prose.
Today, this might be the stuff of lawsuits, but in 1972 our instructor was supreme ruler in this particular 20-seat classroom and, because this young woman could not verbalize Robert Browning per our instructor’s view of what was proper, it seemed obvious to me and other class members as the semester progressed that she was failing the course.
When the final class arrived, each of us was presented with the challenge of presenting his or her favorite selection of poetry or prose. Our performance would count for 50 percent of our grade.
I remember when the young woman came to the podium. I admired her for her courage, but also assumed she would fail again.
I watched her, with this look of determination and focus upon her face. For a few seconds we all watched her in silence. Then, rich and wonderful, it came.
Her voice. The beauty of her voice.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
(She sang with compelling belief)
That saved a wretch like me,
(and that deep, honest voice carried us like a mighty river)
I once was lost, but now I’m found
(and I knew … we all knew)
Was blind, but now I see.
(that this was art.)
Her words told of pain, but of a hope that lay beyond. They told of oppression and the high price of the fight for freedom. They told of an unashamed belief in God’s promise of final judgment and justice.
When she finished, we stood and applauded. The instructor appeared moved as well. All we could do was orally interpret art. She had created art.
To understand prejudice is to understand that we all are affected by racism. It is only by understanding that racism exists that we can become wise enough to put aside rationalizations and recognize it when it affects our lives.
As Dr. King’s life helped so many to confront prejudice, so did this young woman help me to recognize my own. I had so casually misjudged her. I knew, based upon the rules placed upon her, that she would fail.
But she found her way by tapping into herself, her art. She knew what her audience that day did not yet realize. That art constantly creates its own rules, and the beauty of art need not be spoken. It can be sung.
Andrew Leheny is a freelance writer living in Belle Vernon.