At my school in Kolkata, far far away from the American civil rights movement and the red hills of Georgia, I Have a Dream was an elocution favourite. Tutored by Belgian priests, Bengali students from resolutely middle class families belted out their renditions of Martin Luther King Jr’s famous speech. Stripped of its historical context, delivered in the prone-to-breaking voices of teenagers, our tremulous interpretation of an African-American preacher’s cadence often landed somewhere in between the thunder of Amitabh Bachchan and the jatra of folk theatre.
While justice rolling down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream sounded like an excellent idea we had little sense of what any of it really meant. Unlike Mississippi, “a state sweltering with the heat of oppression” we were just plain sweltering in a stuffy auditorium in the humid Kolkata summer. We were all for letting freedom ring but we just hoped not to stumble over the “heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.”
I don’t think any of us thought about that speech as anything particularly relevant to our lives. It was a rite of passage in an elocutionist’s resumé – somewhere in between Custard the Cowardly Dragon and Friends, Romans and Countrymen. For Anglicised middle-class boys with neatly side-parted hair, whose only real worry was Bengali grammar and the algebra examination, King’s very specific utterances of American geography and American history, from the “vicious racists” of Alabama to the “hilltops of New Hampshire”, allowed us to blissfully insulate ourselves from the speech’s universality.
I heard that speech many times without thinking whether there were people in our country too who had been given a “bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’.” Or whether we too had children “stripped of their selfhood” or Indians languishing in the corners of society, “an exile in his own land.” Or whether that coloured person in Mississippi who could not vote had a counterpart in our own voting booths.
The only thing we really took away again and again from that speech was that one line:
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by their character.
Since then we have stripped that line of its context, the bone-weary journey Dr King was talking about -of bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel who cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of American cities. We have turned it into a catchphrase for a vanilla vision of equality without the hard work of leveling the playing field.
As schoolchildren in India, we can be forgiven for regurgitating the entire speech without digesting its message. Far more egregious are Indian-American politicians who cherry pick it for their own political expedience and use Dr King’s words to subvert Dr King’s dream.
The success of a Bobby Jindal or a Nikki Haley is directly a fruit of Dr King’s dream. As President Obama points out in his speech marking the 50th anniversary of Dr King’s speech, the civil rights movement made America more free and fair “not just for African Americans but for women and Latinos, Asians and Native Americans; for Catholics, Jews, and Muslims; for gays, for Americans with a disability.”
Indian Americans did not have to do most of the heavy lifting in that movement because their immigration history is largely a post-1965 one. Yet Indian Americans quickly learn to look down on African-Americans while climbing up the ladder even as they are happy to become the faces of diversity in America. That disdain is masked, even legitimised in our minds as being not about the colour of our skins, but the content of our characters.
This willful blindness allows Bobby Jindal to write in an op-ed marking the I Have a Dream speech that it’s “it’s time for the end of race in America.” Then he twists Dr King’s words around to say that content of our character, not the colour of our skin means we should not place “too much emphasis on our ‘separateness’, our heritage, ethnic background, skin color.etc.” He writes, “Here’s an idea: How about just “Americans”? That has a nice ring to it, if you ask me.”
Presumably when Jindal basks at NRI functions as America’s first Indian-American governor or is used by his party as its brown face to rebut Obama’s State of the Union address, it is “just enough emphasis” not “too much.”
There is nothing in Dr King’s speech to imply that to be a hyphenated American is to have divided loyalties. When Jindal says American, the non-hyphenated version, he simply means Judaeo-Christian white - a whiteness that might not be visible in the colour of the skin, but is definitely there in the content of the character.
King’s speech needs to be read again and again – not just commemorated or elocuted – to prevent it from being appropriated by the Jindals for their own ends. And not just in America.
Now in India it is fashionable to blame America for exporting all kinds of ills to our part of the world – from McDonald’s McTikka abominations to kissing in public to skanky fashions. But it is worth remembering that long before liberalisation opened the floodgates, it gave us I Had a Dream. And even if as boys in my school, we didn’t fully grasp its grandeur or depth or relevance, I am grateful we paused for a moment in its shadow.