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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Finding our voice

To understand Martin Luther King’s achievement, we must regard him in the context of the Southern Black Church. And to understand the Southern Black Church, we must appreciate the centrality of the human voice.

King’s speeches are effective as printed texts, but not in all the ways they were when he delivered them. As texts they communicate his thoughts in clear and eloquent language. As delivered they communicated the entire person — his own intellect and feelings, yes, but in and beyond him the sufferings and strengths and yearnings of an entire people.

In Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” (1947), Rev. Homer A. Barbee delivers the Founder’s Day speech at the Negro college the narrator attends. Ellison places in the audience an old woman named Miss Susie. “Ha! To the grey-haired matron in the final row,” Ellison riffs. “Hey, old connoisseur of voice sounds, of voices without messages, of newsless winds, listen to the vowel sounds and the crackling dentals, to the low harsh gutturals of empty anguish, now riding the curve of a preacher’s rhythm I heard long ago in a Baptist church, stripped now of its imagery.” Miss Susie is a listener “who’ll never be fooled with the mere content of words.”

Growing up I listened to black church services on the radio. The minister would begin his sermon with long sentences in an uninflected voice. Early on he would elicit scattered “amens.” Gradually his sentences would shorten and his emotion heighten and the responses would build in number and volume. As speaker and audience drew ever closer, he would start singing his phrases. Finally, his words became music, the choir would break out, and everyone would join the hymn. I now worship with Quakers. I discovered that in the gathered silence I’m more likely to catch an authentic voice than in the segregated words and music of white churches.

King’s was an oral culture. Ours is a culture of the visual image. A voice emanates from the interior and reveals the person. Portraitists may succeed in revealing something of their subjects’ interiors, but they work against their medium, whether film or paint. Andy Warhol grasped the position of the artist in our culture. His work portrays the quintessence of the visual image itself — depthless and endlessly repeated.

In the Renaissance, at the dawn of modernity, when most people lived in orality, self-fashioning became part of literate court culture. Conduct books were published, the most famous of them Castiglione’s “The Book of the Courtier.” In it a group of people at the Montefeltro court in Urbino fashion a courtier. In regard to his dress, the discussion concludes this way: “[H]e ought to consider what appearance he wishes to have and what manner of man he wishes to be taken for, and dress accordingly; and see to it that his attire aid him to be so regarded even by those who do not hear him speak.”

What our fashion business fashions is images, images of glamorous people and glamorous things, indistinguishable from each other, to prompt our fantasies and drive us into the marketplace in pursuit of them.

How can MLK still summon our best selves and point us toward the Promised Land? I suggest we stop talking about the Dream, whatever content we may try to give it now. I suggest we cultivate a collective voice that rings with the authenticity of his. Such a voice can arise only from a community that embraces its proud and guilt-ridden past.

Herb Rothschild's column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.