Letters: Some observations about the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech

Friday January 18, 2013

On January 21, our nation will celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., while it will also host President Barack Obama’s Second Inauguration. Dr. King’s real birthday. Every year on Dr. King’s real birthday, January 15, as a gift to myself because that is also my birthday, I re-read Dr. King’s "I Have a Dream" speech, which he delivered in Washington, DC, in August 1963. I offer here four A’s, or reasons, why I think that speech is excellent: allusion, analogy, antithesis, and anaphora, figures of thought and figures of speech that you may want to look for and listen to in President Obama’s inaugural address.

Dr. King employs: (1) allusion-a reference to persons, places, and events of note in history. (For example, Dr. King alludes to Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln authored one hundred years earlier as well as to the arbiters of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence who guaranteed all Americans the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness); (2) analogy-an extended comparison of two dissimilar things so as to make a point more effectively. (In the beginning of the speech, for example, Dr. King makes a comparison between African Americans who have marched to Washington in search of civil rights they have not been able to claim and those same African Americans trying to cash a check with insufficient funds. Dr. King goes on to say that people’s presence in Washington in August 1963 shows that they do not want to believe the vault of justice is bankrupt and that they do believe there will be an opportunity for ALL people to prosper economically, socially, artistically, etc.); (3) antithesis-a figure of speech in which a statement’s syntax takes us from what is or was, usually something unpleasant, to what could be, usually something pleasant. (For example, Dr. King says, "Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. . . . This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality."); and (4) anaphora-another figure of speech in which the same words are repeated in the same order in successive phrases, clauses, sentences. (For example, Dr. King repeats these clauses and phrases in several key parts throughout the speech: "I have a dream today. . ."; "Now is the time. . ."; "With this faith . . ."; and "Let freedom ring. . .").

I hope that the above has some meaning for all of you and that you see some of what I have pointed out on Monday when President Obama addresses us. Finally, as the 19th is the birthday of Edgar Allan Poe, I’d like to remember Poe, too, and try to link him to the great leaders mentioned above. In "The Poetic Principle," Poe says the poet "recognizes the ambrosia which nourishes [the] soul in the bright orbs that shine in Heaven."

I think that great leaders--Lincoln and King and Obama--are like Poe’s poet.



The writer is the provost at Southern Vermont College


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