Martin (Luther King Jr.) and I go way back. In December of 1987 my English class wraps up the session on American History. We are required to learn by heart the I Have a Dream speech. As an inspiration, we are given to hear the original recording of Dr. King’s address. Still today I can remember the emotional shock of taking in for the first time the deep tenor voice and the powerful, calmly possessed delivery punctuated by the cheering of a seemingly infinite crowd. Outside the classroom window that day, a thick layer of snow levels the intricate landscape of slate rooftops in my small town in the South of France. Everything is quiet here. Far from quiet, the man heard on tape is battling the sound and fury of inequality and racial bias in a very distant world beyond our sleepy clock tower. That’s how I met Martin.
June 1988. Six months later, on a hot summer day, I am sweating through the oral part of my English exam for the all-important Baccalaureate. In order to test my proficiency in English and my knowledge of the American culture, the State examiner asked me to comment on the uncaptioned picture of a 12-year old skinny black boy. He can be seen balancing a wooden box on top of his head. He is just looking into the camera, neither smiling nor frowning. To me, he looks sad though, or a bit tired maybe. The brick wall behind him is chalked with a familiar four-word sentence: I have a dream. Easy enough, I remember thinking. As per the instructions, I describe, I comment, and I finally remark that this might be about the challenges still facing the African-American community in the United States.
The State examiner doesn’t agree. She points to the pair of jeans and the sneakers that the boy is wearing. In the late 1980s’ France, jeans and sneakers are still imported, exotic and therefore expensive consumer products. The examiner infers from these that the boy is rich. According to her, the picture illustrates the fact that the Black Americans are much better off today as a result of the civil rights movement. In spite of her complete misreading of the document, she is in fact correct. But that kid still looks sad to me. The picture doesn’t speak of dreams come true once and for all. It still speaks of a journey, and of a struggle.
August 1998. Ten years later, I am on my first visit to Washington, DC. I just immigrated to the U.S. that summer. In front of the Reflecting Pool, I don’t think of Abraham Lincoln, I don’t think of the March against the Vietnam War, I think of Martin and his dream. I am being told that the city of Washington still bears the scars of the April 1968 five days of race riots that followed Dr. King’s assassination. I am being told that some wounds never heal.
Later, in 2005, I will still think of Martin when I see the French social unrest on American TV. The children of the North-African immigrants to France are rioting too.
Four years later, the Americans will elect a Black man as their President. Are we there yet? I can’t tell. I am no one to judge. All I can say is that most African-Americans I see around me are wearing jeans and sneakers. It’s surely a good sign.
So, what a white kid – particularly a French white kid – is authorized to say about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on his eighty-third birthday? Well, probably not much. Except for: Happy Birthday Monsieur Martin.
Excerpts from chapter 2 – Us, Them and the Others in How to Make it Big in the USA, Jean-Pierre Ledauphin, 2012. Translation by Wallace B. Thompson