For decades I have admired the celebrated (and sometimes hated) literary critic of The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani. Her father, a mathematician, was Japanese, but she was born in America and majored in English literature at Yale. She is more American than could possibly be imagined from her name. She has managed to infuriate some of the biggest names in American writing and publishing, but she continues to produce superb work. Today’s Times features one of her best pieces, on the front page: a long analysis of Martin Luther King’s “dream” speech, delivered fifty years ago today.
I don’t often speak of “must-reads.” The only other one I have mentioned in recent months is Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion. I’m adding Kakutani’s article to the short list. The civil rights movement is one of my subjects of expertise and I have read numerous accounts of the speech, but none better than this one. Her grasp of the biblical resonances is remarkable by any standard, but particularly so in view of the ignorance of the Scriptures and their meaning for both black and white churches among today’s journalists and literati.
In August 1963, I was a very young wife and mother of a toddler in Richmond, Virginia. I had been raised as a Southside Virginia segregationist, and had experienced only the very smallest and slightest tremors of conscience about the race issue. However, I did have the sense that something important was happening and I called in my underpaid “colored” housecleaner to watch on the little black-and-white TV (the toddler was asleep). All I really knew about Martin Luther King, Jr. was that a lot of people in the South referred to him as “a Communist.”
Dr. King began his speech. It was a bit disappointing and dull at first–professorial, sober, meticulous, Obama-like if you must. Then, as is well known now, Mahalia Jackson called to him, “Martin, do the dream!” or something like that, and suddenly, as the black folk say, “We had church !” That was the instant of my personal conversion and I have never looked back. It is a joy today to read Ms. Kakutani’s analysis and feel it exactly as I felt it that day, addressed as much to Japanese-Americans today as to oppressed African-Americans in 1953.