From www.writerssecrets.com Famous People Series
In Celebration of Black History Month
Author’s program note. To understand the point of this article, the point of Maya Angelou’s complaint about paraphrasing the great words of one of history’s most influential speakers on his very monument, you must love both language and precision. And above all you must love the truth.
At age 83, Angelou is an honest woman. She is a truth-telling woman. And is a woman who understands and can wield with effect the right words in the right order. Most people will call her a writer, and a writer she is. But I prefer to call her a poet, for she is that, too.
A poet is a person who strives to deliver maximum impact with minimum words… who labors with the demons of truth, the difficulties of language and who works obsessively (for every poet is obsessive) with delivering just the right meaning… and this is difficult.
To such a person, gifted with the scourge of outrage, the loutish behavior of the officials in charge of the new national memorial to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. is deeply painful… and thoroughly outrageous. Not least because in true loutish fashion, they did not have a clue that their seemingly innocent action would produce justifiable rage.
But before we dig into that, I want you to hear Maya Angelou, poet, read from her acclaimed works, for few poets have won so much recognition as she… listening to the woman as she reads her words will make it clear why. Go to any search engine. Listen to the cadence, feel the way she caresses the language, loving each word tenderly before she delivers it to an expectant world. She is in love with language and the mighty power of language… and she is at war with the unenlightened who by killing language, obliterate meaning and leave us the poorer.
On February 4, 1968, Martin Luther King gave a haunting sermon at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. In it he discussed the eulogy he might and should be given in the event of his death. Death and prophesy were in the air that day; tensions were high on both sides of the Civil Rights question, those who embraced it and its leader and those whose every word bespoke an adamantine opposition. The people, and not just those in the congregation, were unsettled, anxious, and needed the balm of comfort…
… and so the mahatma of the movement, moved to the pulpit none could grace as he, and he spoke, as he always spoke, from a heart, this time burdened with thoughts of eternity and of frail humanity. He wished to admonish, enlighten, and above all prepare them for a reckoning with a destiny he felt was his — and theirs.
This is what he said…
“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.”
And the people knew their revered leader was talking about his legacy and about what they must do to ensure his right and proper recognition and that his message of justice and of peace endure when he was not present.
Two months later, this prophet of equality and righteousness, was gunned down … and so entered History.
His words and his monument.
In due course the nation chose to honor the man and, above all else, to honor his message, in a great civic temple in the nation’s capital. On the soaring walls of this edifice designed for the ages, key passages from his world-changing thoughts would be etched, thereby indicating to even the most casual of visitors what was important and what they must strive to recall and even cherish. The words of his sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church were selected… then mangled, insulted, diminished by the very folk charged with revering and protecting the great man’s legacy. These by eviscerating his words became the killers of his message. Little men, they took it upon themselves to rethink, rewrite, and paraphrase what was already perfect and needed no help from them to ring out resolutely for the ages.
The culprits of this drama, the monument’s organizers, decided to paraphrase the original, searing words from a man sensing the culmination of his life and work… and so rendered in stone the crucial words from his last Atlanta sermon thus:
“I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”
Thus they outraged the man, his message, his meaning. For what they chose to engrave in the stone was profoundly different from King’s remarks and purpose. These people, thinking of the good they were doing, instead were transgressing on matters high and mighty, matters they should have left alone.
Why did they do it?
They could not fit the famous passage in the space provided by the architect… they did not wish to leave it out… and so they decided upon the expedient of paraphrase. In so doing they rewrote the passage, gave it quotation marks so readers would wrongly assume the words were accurate, and so they slaughtered what they were charged with preserving. To read the dictionary definition of paraphrase is to see how greatly they erred:
“a restatement of a text, passage, or work giving the meaning in another form.”
But these words, from this man, spoken at such a time and place needed tender care… never to be altered or tampered with.
Imagine if you will what would have happened if the organizers of the Lincoln Memorial, hard by Dr. King’s, had paraphrased the Gettysburg Address, so…
“87 years ago, our ancestors created a great nation of liberty where all men are created equal..
Now we’re in a civil war to test whether this great nation with its great ideas can continue to exist…”
Simply paraphrasing great Lincoln’s great words makes it instantly apparent what an outrage paraphrasing can be… and demonstrates why the diminished words and their diminished meaning must instantly be removed. If space can be found for them, so much the better, but, if not, the right thing must be to take them down at once.
The organizers will of course complain about the extra work, the inconvenience, and especially the cost. They will also tell you that they ran their ludicrous and insulting plan to paraphrase before the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which was overseeing the design. They, Philistines all, had no problem with the proposal, thereby indicating their unfitness for their work.
Here the honesty and rage of the poet enter. For Maya Angelou knows that “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the word was God.” (John 1-1). This is known by every poet, and is surely Angelou’s abiding creed. It is also Our Saviour’s whose words “Noli me tangere” (John 20-17), so disregarded by the monument’s organizers, are so very apt and must constitute the last word on the matter.
By Dr. Jeffrey Lant
* * * * *
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