Today happens to be both Martin Luther King Day and Obama’s second inauguration address. It has also been 150 years since Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and almost 50 years since King’s famous “I have a dream” speech. A poignant coincidence of timing, to be sure.
While perusing Facebook yesterday, I came across this insightful Martin Luther King, Jr. quote:
“People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”
It was posted by LitWorld.org, along with the following status: “Stories matter so much. They connect us, and bind us together, and give us strength. In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. let’s fight – today, tomorrow, and every day – for the power of story, and every child’s right to read, write, and share their story.”
That really resonated with me. One of our jobs as writers is to facilitate that kind of communication, whether we write fiction that pulls the reader into someone else’s shoes and lets them experience another life or nonfiction that teaches the reader about some aspect of the world we all share. Sharing our stories, as well as the inevitable pieces of ourselves that spill out onto those pages, helps our readers know and understand another person’s point of view.
At one point while I was writing my upcoming picture book biography about Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, a young man from Ghana who changed the way his country viewed disabled people, my husband asked me something to the effect of, “What can an able-bodied white American girl possibly have to say about this? Why would YOU write THIS story, one that has nothing at all to do with your personal experience?” It left me speechless. Why wouldn’t I write this story? To me, it’s not about being disabled, or African, or male. It’s a story about feeling ignored when you think you have something to offer; about pursuing and achieving a dream; about the personal rewards of working for the good of others. It’s about how every one of us has value and can make a difference in the world. It’s a story about being human. Those are all things I have personally experienced.
Emmanuel’s story touched me, and I want it to touch young readers, too. I hope it will make them value other people despite their obvious differences. And I hope it will empower readers as individuals ready to make their own marks on the world.
At the official dedication of King memorial on the National Mall in 2011, Obama said, “It is precisely because Dr. King was a man of flesh and blood and not a figure of stone that he inspires us so. His life, his story, tells us that change can come if you don’t give up.”
So, whatever you’re working on… don’t give up. It might be just the thing the world needs.
Incidentally, powerful words are all around us. That King quote above? Being a nonfiction author, I didn’t want to quote it without knowing its original source. It turns out it’s from an advice column MLK did for Ebony in 1953, in which he advises a woman not to divorce her second husband just because he and her daughter do not get along. It wasn’t the lofty origin I was expecting, but I guess it just goes to show that greatness can be found in the unlikeliest places!