MLK and the Dream

I had a dream last night;  I woke up this morning thinking about it. And my train of thought went from there to Martin Luther King’s dream.  Remembering the late civil rights leader led me to contemplate a sort of ironic coincidence: that last Monday – the 16th – the Martin Luther King Holiday – was the very day I made the final revisions to my novel, Alemeth, and began the process of formatting it for the printing company.

Completion of the novel is the fulfillment of a dream.  I could trace its origins back to the early 1960’s, possibly even to the very year of King’s famous 1963 speech.  That was when my grandmother first showed me some of the letters my great uncle Alemeth had written home from the front lines during the Civil War.   Or I could trace its origins to a dinner that Karen and I had with our friends Roger and Lynda ten years ago, when a lively discussion got me thinking about a novel that explored (or even tested) the differences between fiction and non-fiction.  Or I could trace it back seven years, when I chose to write Alemeth’s life story.  No matter how far back I go to date the novel’s origins, it has been many years in the making. Somewhere along the way, a novel based on Alemeth’s life became a dream, and it seemed ironic that the dream had finally been fulfilled on the Martin Luther King Holiday.

But the coincidence seemed ironic for reasons deeper than that my novel has been sort of a dream for me.  It seems ironic because the themes of King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech and the themes of Alemeth are so closely related.

For King’s dream, we need scant reminder.  “[O]ne day… even the state of Mississippi… will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.” “[M]y four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…” My great uncle, Alemeth Byers, the title character of my novel, was the son of a cotton planter in Mississippi.  The family owned sixty slaves when the Civil War began.   In calling Mississippi “a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression,” Martin Luther King had been talking about my family.

Early in my research into Alemeth’s life, I began to confront what, for me, was terribly unsettling.  I knew my grandparents to be among the kindest, most “Christian,” most tolerant people I knew.  But as I grew older, my research into their lives, and into their parents’ lives, revealed more and more evidence of racial bigotry.  In old correspondence, these prejudices pop up often – and most alarming of all – when I looked honestly at the historical record, I saw those prejudices getting passed down, from generation to generation.

In one respect, I felt I was confronting a paradox of the highest order.  My mother was kind and loving, and my sense was that her kindness was in large part because her parents had been kind.  My instincts applied the same presumption to their parents, as if “loving and kind” was a trait carried down in the genes, or at least in the serious study of Christian Scripture.  (My grandmother was a Sunday School teacher; my childhood visits to her house always included Bible study.). Presuming that my great grandparents were as kind and loving as my grandparents, and knowing that they, too, had been devout Christians, I found it paradoxical that all this well-studied and well-practiced Christianity not only tolerated racial bigotry but, in great uncle Alemeth’s day, was used to justify a war to preserve human bondage.  Frankly, it made no sense.  I wondered: How did these people square their Christian beliefs with their ownership of so many slaves?  With their support for a war intended to preserve their “property rights” in these other people?

It was even more unsettling, then, to realize how the “squaring” had occurred.   George Armstrong’s The Christian Doctrine of Slavery (Charles Scribner, New York, 1857) made a fascinating read.  That work expounded, in argument after argument, based on scripture after scripture, how God had created the separate races, given Moses Commandments which made no mention of slavery, instructed the Israelites to make slaves of their heathen enemies (Leviticus 25:44-46), sent a Son to save us who never once condemned slavery though he lived in its midst, and inspired Saint Paul to send the slave Onesimus back to Philemon with instructions to be a good, obedient slave to his master.  Armstrong’s work was perhaps the most impactful, but by no means did it represent an isolated view.  My research uncovered source after source that made plain how the slave owners of the ante-bellum South were able to square their support of slavery with their Christianity: they did so by interpreting Christian Scripture as supporting the institution.  Indeed, in some sermons of the day, the case was made that being a good Christian required a commitment to the defense of slavery, because civilized white people had a Christian duty to care for their “savage” African slaves.  In the end, of course, they were so convinced they were right that they were willing to go to war and fight (and die) for it.  (Their cause being a righteous one, the killing of people in support of it met all the requirements for a “Just War” as traditional Christian doctrine expounded it.)

For me, it was an eye-opener to realize that southern Christians based their support of slavery squarely on Christian scripture.  It was also an eye-opener to see how the beliefs and attitudes of the community were shared, both horizontally and vertically.  By horizontally, I mean how family members, neighbors, newspapers, courts, elected representatives, school teachers and preachers all worked together to homogenize the Southern attitude toward slavery.  (It was rare to find a voice of dissent – the conclusion seems compelling that the few dissenters tended to keep their opinions to themselves, for fear of being run out of town, as those considered “unsound on the slavery question” generally were.)  By vertically, I mean how attitudes and beliefs were passed down from one generation to the next, most strongly within immediate families, but also within whole communities and cultures.  My research extended back in time to the racism of our national heroes, Washington and Jefferson, and forward in time through my grandparents, my parents, and –

Indeed.  What about myself?  Historical research proves again and again how, once accepted in a family or community, “wrong” attitudes and beliefs can be passed down so easily from one generation to the next.  Is it possible I could be exempt from such influences?  Somehow free to form my opinions entirely on reason and logic, safe from any familial or cultural biases? All my historical research has led me to conclude that we are most  prone to be blind to the wrongness within that which is most familiar; if that’s true, what are the ramifications for my own attitudes and beliefs?  How much of the racism inherent in my family history manages to cling to my own way of thinking?  I hope none of it, of course, but how likely is it that some of it persists?

I will repeat a quote from  The Gulag Archipelago, which I already mentioned in a prior WMBW post and which I managed to squeeze into Alemeth as well.  Alexander Solzhenitsyn expressed a wish for an easier world:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who’s willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

I’ll have more to say in later posts about what psychologists call the “bias blind spot.”  For now, suffice it to say that much as I share King’s dream for a day when prejudice will be a thing of the past, I fear that as long as we have families, as long as parents teach their children, as long as such a thing as “culture” exists, we will all have our prejudices.  Many of them, I believe, will have been inherited from our parents and grandparents.  Others from school teachers, preachers, news sources, national heroes, or friends.  A rare few, perhaps, we will have created entirely on our own.  But they will be there.  And others who see this the same way I do have suggested an idea that makes a great deal of sense to me: that to begin the path toward a more just world, we’d do well to begin by trying (as best we can) to identify what our own biases are.

In Alemeth, I have tried to take a step in that direction.  Early in the evolution of the novel, I found myself asking whether it was I who was creating Alemeth, or Alemeth who had created me.  It’s a novel about my family – about the culture that began the process of making me what I am – and it’s not an entirely pretty picture.  But the dream that inspired it, and the research and thought given to the project, is also largely responsible for the existence of something else.  I don’t think I’ll be giving too much away if I give you a hint: the last four words of the novel are “we may be wrong.”

— Joe