My laboured pulse quickened, weary eyes fully dilated and languishing body re-invigorated as life-giving words poured over me like a soothing balm. I experienced a new energy – a freedom – as an alternative story began to emerge within me, giving my life new definition. Hopelessness was supplanted and purposelessness subdued.
This was set in motion by people who cared to see the best in me, dared to speak of new possibilities and implored me to action.
Pronounced change was slow because the new story was discordant with everything I was previously told and everything I believed about myself. How many of us have been there?
But the power of life-giving words began to prove more powerful.
Words encourage the development of children, nurture the ailing on their death beds and inspire the confidence of the insipid.
A brief look through history also reveals how words have breathed life into the most treacherous situations. Words have been used by:
- Employers like Steve Jobs to furnish the ambition of employees to accomplish tremendous feats of human ingenuity;
- Political leaders like Winston Churchill during WWII to arouse the strength, courage and vigor of citizens and infantry alike, during deathly fearful times;
- Civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King to awaken the empathy and action of hundreds of thousands of people.
With powerful and poetic words Dr King helped to transform a nation, particularly for African American women and men.
Concealed within a song – the final words of Dr King’s I Have a Dream speech – was a spark of hope, the full implications of which would not have been missed by the African American community: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
Written at the height of slavery, the song’s author could only envision freedom for the African American through death. To be free, the author suggested, was to go and be with Jesus. Some of us have felt, or do feel, so hopeless that our earthly departure holds tremendous appeal.
But King sought to overturn this dominant story by daring to believe that freedom for African American women and men could be attained now, in this life. Sure, there were still the manacles of segregation, the chains of discrimination, a lonely island of poverty in the midst of vast wealth, and exile in their own land, but there was also hope.
In this Dream, people of colour would put aside bitterness and wallowing in the valley of despair and gain citizenship rights, equality, freedom from police brutality, mobility beyond migration from one ghetto to another, the ability to vote and a deep sense of sisterhood and brotherhood between all people.
Only then could King’s reference to the great biblical hope be fulfilled where justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Dr King envisioned an alternative and more powerful story and elevated it above the old story, giving definition to what is possible and mobilising the full force of all human ingenuity to create a society free from violence, free from segregation and free from injustice.
African Americans have now enjoyed lucrative business success (Robert Johnson), positions of tremendous social influence (Oprah Winfrey), academic professorships (Cornel West), sporting prowess (Serena Williams), space travel (Mae C. Jemison), and more recently, the heights of political power (Barak Obama).
Where your story began may have been determined by another, but the story that defines your future is yours.
Our ruminations and endless rehearsals of harmful words spoken over us – those unassuming assassins – can be laid waste by the adoption of an alternative story and achieved through our creative, non-violent action.
If you want new words and a new story to transform your life and the lives of people you influence every day, these steps will help:
- Seek healing from the trauma that may have resulted by the harmful words and actions of others.
- Identify what story will define you, your actions and your future. Martin Luther King drew on human rights and the Bible to form the basis for an alternative story. From where will you draw your new story – your dream?
- Take creative and nonviolent action to initiate change. If your actions are violent you’re still being defined by the bitterness and hate created by your previous story.
- Give people in your circle of influence the gift of life-giving words to help them transform their story and be the best they can be.
A peaceful society can be built and the unassuming assassin vanquished, if we consciously choose to endow ourselves, and other people and groups in society, with the gift of positive and life-giving words. Martin Luther King did it, and we can too.
I don’t deny the prolonged and increasingly insecure social environment for the majority of African Americans, including sustained unemployment, less secure home ownership and looming economic inequalities – conditions set to worsen under the current administration. However, King’s dream still stands as a story around which to gather, hope and act on every impulse within us for freedom, justice and peace.