Fate has not been kind to Martin Luther King’s birthday. First, the creation of a national holiday on that date met with persistent and perverse resistance from a wide variety of reactionaries (some of whom now try to swim in the mainstream). But with most of those battles far in the past, who would have thought that his monument in Washington (once it was finally authorized) would prove controversial? And that this controversy would come to a head on the eve of the next celebration of that holiday?
First, as a result of the summer earthquake, the dedication was postponed from August until October. And, as soon as the monument was revealed to the public, criticism poured in. For me, the first problem was aesthetic: It was not that the image of Rev. King emerging from the rock was too gray, stern or forbidding, as some critics said. (That’s just philistinism.) Rather: the whole thing just seemed too cautious and tame. First, it just isn’t very well done. Second, and more important: Is there really a point to a conventional, representational portrait sculpture in an age in which the most powerful (and eventually popular) monuments: the Vietnam Memorial, the new 9-11 memorial site, and the Berlin Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe draw upon a more modern language of abstraction? The King monument, its very real appeals notwithstanding, could fit perfectly well in a neo-Stalinist sculpture garden or political cemetery. (Philosopher Cornel West went even further, though in a very different direction, declaring that King would have wanted a “revolution,” not a monument.)
To be fair, however, the monument does make more sense if one understands and sees it in context. Although still photos tend to depict only the controversial portrait sculpture itself, it is in fact part of a much larger complex, truly “monumental” in proportion and with a logic and even narrative or movement of its own.
At the entry portal, two stones are parted and a single stone wedge is pushed forward toward the horizon; the missing piece of what was once a single boulder. The smooth insides of the portal contrast the rough outer surfaces of the boulder. Beyond this portal, the stone appears to have been thrust into the plaza, wrested from the boulder and pushed forward – it bears signs of a great monolithic struggle.
On the visible side of the stone, the theme of hope is presented, with the text from King's famed 1963 speech cut sharply into the stone: "Out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope." On the other side are inscribed these words: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness”, a statement suggested by Dr. King himself when describing how he would like to be remembered.
The boulder is the Mountain of Despair, through which every visitor will enter, moving through the struggle as Dr. King did during his life, and then be released into the open freedom of the plaza. The solitary stone is the Stone of Hope, from which Dr. King’s image emerges, gazing over the Tidal Basin toward the horizon, seeing a future society of justice and equality for which he encouraged all citizens to strive
It turns out that the greatest controversy focuses on that “drum major” quotation. I should clarify: there are in fact many quotations in the memorial. In order to reach the portal, visitors pass along a whole wall of quotations (“Inscription Wall”), derived from Rev. King’s entire career: from the Montgomery bus boycotts of 1955 to the last sermon he delivered in 1968, just days before his death. As the designers further explain: (1) the quotations are not in chronological order, so that readers may begin wherever they choose, rather than being forced to proceed in linear fashion. (2) anticipating the most obvious question: they omit the “I have a dream” speech because it is well known (to the point of trivialization), but also because the whole monument—being placed on the mall where that speech was delivered—in a sense commemorates it and its message.
The “drum major” quotation is perhaps not an ideal choice, but the real problem is that this is not even a statement that Rev. King actually made in so many words.
The explanation is about the lamest thing one can imagine. As outraged critics soon figured out, “suggested” is a very vague and subjective term and takes a hell of a lot of liberties with the facts. Poet Maya Angelou did not mince any words: the quotation made him sound like an “arrogant twit.”
The Washington Post’s Rachel Manteuffel explained the issue first and more clearly than anyone by doing what anyone with a brain should have done. First she applied her critical reasoning to the text itself. To begin with, it made King look stupid and verbally clumsy. Both the subject and the tone stood in jarring contrast to his famous biblically inspired sermons and speeches: “To me, silly hats and King just did not compute.” Worse still, it made him look shallow and self-centered: “akin to memorializing Mahatma Gandhi with the quote, ‘Don’t you know who I am?’” She was puzzled and taken aback.
Second, then, she went to the source. The quote came from a sermon entitled, “The Drum Major Instinct,” in which he criticized the natural but immature and selfish desire--on the part of individuals, groups, and entire nations-- “to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade.” (As in many other cases, the image was not original; he borrowed it from a liberal white minister.) It was early in 1968, but (though he did not know it) late in his life, and he spoke of how he would like to be remembered: as someone who helped others, who fought for justice and against war. So:
Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. (Amen) Say that I was a drum major for peace. (Yes) I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. (Yes) 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.As Manteuffel put it,
An “if” clause is an extraordinarily bad thing to leave out of a quote. If I had to be a type of cheese, being Swiss is best.
What makes this tragic is that King had the ability to say precisely what he meant, with enormous impact.The culprit? Not, as she notes, the scholars consulting on the project, who employed the full quotation. She had no answer at the time, and simply called for correction: “I say, let’s undo the mistake. Let’s get the chisels back out.”
The architects at first stonewalled (so to speak), refusing to make changes.
It turned out that the architects and designers had shortened the quotation on their own initiative, simply because the whole text would not easily fit. (This raises a host of issues regarding accuracy, authority, aesthetics, and public history and memory, which I merely mention and would not presume to address here.)
The complaints refused to subside and, predictably, rose again as the holiday approached. On Friday, for example, the Boston Herald demanded: “Carve MLK’s words in stone—accurately.” Out of their mouth into God’s ear, as the saying goes. Sure enough, early in the evening, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar demanded that the Park Service come up with a fix within thirty days. The lead architect replied that the full text still would not fit, but that a compromise abridgement was possible. (Again, one can only wonder: what in the world were they thinking?)
And so, the embarrassing episode will at last come to a close.
I have to say: First, I thought even the full quotation not a good choice: It is not among King’s greatest remarks (others of which likewise are not absolutely original). Above all, though, unlike many others, it does not stand well on its own and really loses a great deal without the context of the sermon.
In the second place, though, and more positively, I fully understood Rev. King’s use of the drum major image because it reminded me of something from my own field of study and one of my favorite authors, Heinrich Heine (1797-1856).
At first sight, the two men could not appear more dissimilar: the one, a modern Black Protestant minister and civil rights leader from the American south, the other, a nineteenth-century German-Jewish poet and journalist known for speaking frankly—and cynically—about sex, religion, and politics (the three subjects one was famously told to avoid in polite conversation).
And yet there are some surprising connections or parallels.
Both, growing up in eras of discrimination, fought with their pens for the emancipation of their own people, which they moreover saw as inextricably linked with the emancipation of all people and nations. Both were masters of their respective languages and drew naturally and freely upon the imagery of the Bible that underlay the educated vernacular of the times. Both were controversial in their day, rejected by chauvinists and racists, but eventually lionized by the majority of the population, who perhaps valued their achievement but underestimated their radicalism. (Heine has the unusual distinction of having managed to become an icon for both the nineteenth-century liberal German middle class and Marxist East Germany.) In both cases, attempts to memorialize their careers in the public sphere proved controversial: for Rev. King, making his birthday into a national holiday; for Heine, attempts to name spaces as diverse as the Düsseldorf University and a street in Tel-Aviv in his honor.
And the drum motif?
Heine, as a Jew born in the German Rhineland, grew up under the equivalent of segregation, experienced a brief period of emancipation under French Rule during the Napoleonic era, and saw the return of discrimination with the restoration of monarchy: similar to, though of course much milder than, the transition from slavery to Reconstruction and Jim Crow. (Indeed, most Jews in Central Europe received full civil rights only between 1867 and 1871, in other words, at roughly the same time as African-Americans.) One of his minor prose masterpieces (today known mainly to specialists) is Ideas—Book Le Grand. Like other of his early, highly subjective, and unclassifiable works, it ranges freely over a host of topics, from autobiography and food, to romantic love and suicide, and revolution and censorship. The central figure, after whom the work is named, is a French drummer—“who looked a devil and yet had the good heart of an angel”—quartered in the Heine household during the period of Napoleonic rule. The drummer did not create the Revolution, but he embodies it, he is the bearer of its message.
As Heine portrays him, Le Grand is a simple man and knows only a handful of words in German, and yet he speaks through his drum more clearly and eloquently than all the politicians and subsequent generations of professors. For example, he explains the French word for “stupidity” by drumming an old German military march. He explains the complicated concept of “equality” by drumming the revolutionary tune, “Ça ira”: things will go better when we hang the aristocrats from the lampposts. The narrator later acquires the habit of unconsciously tapping his feet to revolutionary tunes, signaling his dissent during boring conservative university lectures; he reaps the appropriate rewards.
The relevant section of the slim book closes when the narrator, years later, identifies Le Grand as one of the miserable French soldiers returning from captivity in Russia, long after the Revolution has been defeated and Napoleon has died in exile. The two recognize each other. The drummer plays the old tunes, conjuring up images of a vanished revolutionary past, only now sorrowfully and mournfully, and then dies, collapsing upon his drum. Heine, the former boy, now a man, knows what to do: the drum “was not to serve any enemy of freedom for their servile roll call; I had understood the last beseeching glance of Le Grand very well and immediately drew the rapier from my cane and pierced the drum.”
It is an interesting variation on the drummer theme. Again, at first, contrast seems to prevail over similarity. Whereas Rev. King referred to the problematic role of the showy and perhaps self-promoting drum major in a parade, Heine chose to speak of the humble drummer in an actual military unit. And yet they are, certainly in this context, closely related. Both are, de facto, the visible and audible embodiment of the cause. Both, by marching at the head of the troops, become natural targets for the enemy.
In the short poem, “Doctrine,” Heine echoed the themes of Le Grand when he portrayed himself as the drummer—pointedly using the French term—on behalf of the new radical Hegelian philosophy. At the same time, he here ironizes rather than romanticizes that role, calling attention (like King) to an element of self-satisfaction and self-aggrandizement. Heine rarely makes it simple for the perceptive reader.
There are exceptions, though. He on several occasions directly addressed the plight of African-Americans and slavery, and here all hint of ambiguity or frivolity is gone. In the late poem, “The Slave Ship," he depicted the cynical cruelty of the Middle Passage. Even earlier, and long before it was fashionable, he had spoken out against slavery and remarked bitterly upon the hypocrisy of the United States, which he called “that monstrous prison of freedom where [ . . . ] all men are equal—equal dolts . . . with the exception, naturally, of a few million, who have black or brown skins and are treated like dogs!”
However, I always find I am equally moved by a minor incident in one of his earliest published works, the “Letters From Berlin” (1822). There, in a seemingly trivial piece of reportage, he describes the excitement of the masked ball at which members of all social groups interact on the basis of anonymity and thus equality. In his enthusiasm, he happens to express himself in fashionable French, which earns him the predictable rebuke of a young chauvinist. He replies:
O German youth, how I find you and your words sinful and foolish in such moments where my entire soul encompasses the entire world with love, where I joyously wish to embrace the Russians and the Turks, and where I wish to collapse, crying, upon the fraternal breast of the enchained African! I love Germany and the Germans; but I love no less the inhabitants of the other portions of the world, whose numbers are forty times as great as those of the Germans. Love gives the human being his value. Praise God! I am therefore worth forty times as much as those who cannot raise themselves out of the swamp of national egoism and love only Germany and the Germans.King was a Protestant minister, and that vocation defined his career and identity. Heine was a poet and an essayist who said a good many sarcastic things about Christianity, Judaism, credulousness, and religion in general. He converted to Protestantism out of opportunism and always reproached himself for it, but at the end of his life, as he seemed to become more religious, claimed that he had never “returned” to Judaism because he had never in fact left it. Like King, he found both personal and social meaning in the religious tradition.
If there were a world to come in which both men ended up sharing the same space, I could imagine the two of them having a very engaging conversation about the state of the world on this holiday: the one perhaps with a bit more charity, the other perhaps with a slightly malicious wit, but both with an equal and unwavering commitment to justice and the power of the word to bring it about.
Most of the translations come from these two volumes of Heine's writings, edited by one of my former teachers, Jost Hermand, and one of his former graduate students: Robert Holub, currently Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst:
The folllowing are found in Heinrich Heine, Poetry and Prose, ed. Jost Hermand and Robert Holub, The German Library, 32 (NY: Continuum, 1982):
- Ideas—Book Le Grand, translated by Charles Godfrey Leland and adapted by Robert C. Holub and Martha Humphreys, pp. 174-228 (relevant section: 190-204)
- the poem, "Doctrine," translated by Felix Pollak, pp. 44-45
- the poem, "The Slave Ship," translated by Aaron Kramer, pp. 84-93
- the excerpt regarding American slavery and hypocrisy is found in Ludwig Börne: A Memorial (Second Book), translated by Frederic Ewen and Robert C. Holub, pp. 261-83; here, 263.
Tthe translation from "Letters from Berlin" is my own.