Words, words, words

31 08 2011

I visited the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial this evening in Washington DC, partially because of an intriguing discussion that NPR played this afternoon (you can see the recap of what I heard here).

Apparently, the memorial is sparking quite the controversy, for a number of reasons. First of all, the likeness of King is quite austere, especially when viewed from the west. But second, and perhaps more relevant to my own curiosity this evening, is how words are used in the memorial.

A number of quotes were chosen to represent King and his work, along with some of the ideals that he stood for. Interestingly, there was almost no mention of race or faith, two things that I would have assumed would be front-and-center. Furthermore, there is one quote in particular, a paraphrase, that says: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”

Here is the more complete version of the speech out of which the paraphrase came, delivered in Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia:

Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. (Amen) And that’s all I want to say.

I can see why, in a comparison between the two, Maya Angelou said that “the quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit.”

We often don’t recognize the importance of words until they are too late. I sit at my computer, and let my fingers do most of the thinking much of the time, wanting to finish a paper or summarize research or complete a project as quickly as possible. But seeing the memorial tonight reminded me that the way that I “translate” my own work, from the original research to what the reader sees, is extremely significant.

It is this act of translation that is something I want to bear in mind as I begin a new school year. The gravity of the responsibility of translating from my mind to the page, from research to discussion, from conversation to presentation, is heavy on my mind. How can I best, and most accurately, portray the world around me in such a way that is productive, and does not become a subversion of the original message?

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