Two years ago, just before entering her first year at UCLA, Jocelyn Martinez wrote this essay in response to reading Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” while in my pre-college writing workshop at Kid City. A year later, Jocelyn, together with Maria Alonso taught the pre-college writing workshop. This week, to commemorate the MLK Jr. holiday, I asked one of Jocelyn's students to reflect on the meaning of her essay, two years later. In this way, students continue to be in dialog with Dr. King and with each other.
Monologue/Dialogue, by Jocelyn Martinez
Martin Luther King Jr. famously wrote, in his now renowned letter from Birmingham jail, that the American South of his time tragically lived in “monologue rather than dialogue.” Using such a loaded phrase, King captured an unjust American truth: the story of America is that of the white man; his African-American brothers, and other minorities, are largely ignored. Disgusted by the injustice of segregation and the degrading inferiority thrust upon thousands of African-Americans, Martin Luther King dedicated his time and efforts to making the story of America a story of all. To obtain such results, King first had to induce a shift from monologue to dialogue.
In King’s south, the white, segregationist government was an ultimate power. Although several minority/civil rights organizations, such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, relentlessly advocated for change, they were ignored. For this reason, King wrote that the American south lived in monologue—one single actor was calling the shots in a play comprised of numerous, unique actors. Because negotiations between white business owners and others power and the African-American community resulted in broken promises, King and his supporters turned to non-violent demonstrations. Through these peaceful protests, King sought to create enough tension to capture the attention of his white leaders, to bring about the much delayed discussions of abolishing segregation and to ultimately change his society into one of dialogue. Although King played one of the most prominent roles in bringing justice to all Americans regardless of ethnic origin, he failed to completely turn America into a nation of dialogue.
A mere nine years after the African-American civil rights movement came to an end, Adrienne Rich presented yet another case of monologue; the majority of what students learn in school is “how men have perceived and organized their experience, their history, their ideas of social relationships, etc.” Over half of the human population was still made to feel inferior and was being unjustly ignored. The focus of justice had shifted: America must not only continue to provide equal rights for ethnic minorities, it must do so for the women it has unethically deemed inferior to men. Sadly so, the progress King and Rich made in moving the country towards dialogue and away from monologue seems to have been undone by some of our more recent leaders.
The attempt of the Texas senate to undermine the efforts of Wendy Davis in her fight for women’s rights was a step towards monologue. The Zimmerman verdict was a step towards monologue. The absence of gun regulation and immigration reform is a step towards monologue. In all aforesaid situations, the beliefs of an overwhelming majority have been largely ignored and a handful of ‘actors’ have once more called the shots for their fellow cast members. Fifty years after Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that his beloved south was living in monologue, the entire nation still dwells in monologue. The time for progress is always and now. Like King and Rich, it is our duty as Americans to fight for true justice.
Response from Jocelyn’s student:
While certain progress cannot be denied, the nation continues to foster a monologue rather than a dialogue-- a single actor therefore creates the reality in which the other actors dwell. Such a frame focuses on the reality of some, trivializing the way equally deserving individuals interact with the world. Monologue, for example, persists in the failed indictment of the officer who killed 12-year old Tamir Rice. A monologue fails to encompass the ache of a black mother who has lost a son. Recent ICE raids targeting Central American families also foster a monologue rather than a dialogue. To deny dialogue is to deny the perspective of those affected by incurring injustice--to tell them that they’re plight isn't worth basic consideration. Unfortunately, our nation continues to be captivated by bombastic monologues that take away from stories on the margins.