MLK, Obama, and the power of story

Photo by Brett Farmiloe

Photo by Brett Farmiloe

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.

Emmanuel and I in 2010

Emmanuel and I in 2010

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.

Photo by Tom LeGro/PBS NewsHour

Photo by Tom LeGro/PBS NewsHour

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!

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21 Comments

Filed under Writing and Life

21 responses to “MLK, Obama, and the power of story

  1. Joshua McCune

    Terrific, terrific post, Laurie.

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  2. Lori Norman

    Your words, “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.” left me speechless. What more could anyone say? You expressed so beautifully why we write.

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  3. “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.”
    I love that this quote is from an advice column. My take away: Where ever we publish: online, small house, large house, our words influence others. We just don’t always know it.

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  4. Poignant words, Laurie. All the more so after hearing the references to MLK in today’s inaugural speech and the poem that followed.

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  5. Laurie Corrin

    Great post! I’m looking forward to reading your book.

    Like

  6. Why wouldn’t you write that story, indeed.
    Thanks.

    Like

  7. Very well written. I love the quote from King you found and the mention of its original source. You have truly personalized this special day for me.

    I chose to tell part of my story as I wrioe today on the racism that was and still is prevalent among some white Midwesterners. It’s called “Was He Only Dreaming?: Hoosier Perspectives on Martin Luther King”. I’d love for you to check it out and tell me what you think.

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    • Thank you for your comments, indytony. Your post strikes a chord with me as well. I remember my grandparents making rascist remarks when I was a kid growing up in the Midwest, and my parents always being so ashamed and embarrassed by them. I couldn’t understand how my own parents could have such different views from their parents, but I certainly knew whose side I was on. Of course, there are many things I disagree with my parents about now that I’m an adult. I guess that is the nature of progress? 😉

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  8. During the Inauguration speech, I was thinking about how much of Obama’s story echoes the ideas of America, and how Martin Luther King day was such a fitting connection to that story. Yes, stories matter.

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  9. Cynthia Levinson

    Beautiful post, Laurie. And, I love EMUs’ new look!

    Like

  10. Pingback: Kill Your Dragons (Temporarily) | EMU's Debuts

  11. I think that sounds like a fabulous story! And when you write with sincerity, I don’t think you have to obsess over the fact that it’s not your story. I do think it will be inspiring to others. My partner teaches special ed, and when he was in grad school, had a fellow student who was a blind man from Ghana. He lost his sight as a result of disease and early childhood. It was because of his disability that he had the opportunity to come to the US to study. He now works for a school for the blind in Africa. He was a great guy to know.

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    • I guess many would argue that you can’t write with sincerity if you’ve never been in that person’s position, but I think being able to get in touch with the emotion of the situation is the most important thing to being able to write anything well–fiction or nonfiction. I think we can all find common ground by recognizing the universal human feelings we all have, even though they may arise from very different kinds of experiences. Thanks for sharing the story about the man from Ghana. I’ve never met anyone from Ghana who wasn’t happy, no matter what their situation. 🙂

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  12. Pingback: Everyone Has a Story… and We Need Them All | EMU's Debuts

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