A black woman whose husband is repeatedly arrested by authorities is murdered under suspicious circumstances. She is left to raise four children alone. The children grow up with a proud legacy, yet each suffers because of the public spectacle of their father's murder. They argue bitterly over his spiritual heritage. Their mother dies. Then, one of the children dies mysteriously at the age of 51 from heart disease.
Murder. Suffering, Discord. Family breakdown. Health problems. Premature death. It strikes me that this narrative line -- the story of the family raised by Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife Coretta Scott -- is the trope of black America writ large. It is the story of the blues, the enigmatic song form African-Americans invented to express that happy/sad condition of being free yet enslaved, culturally rich yet impoverished, black but not white and therefore not right.
Before the blues became a song form, however, it was a fact of life, and African-Americans had to decide to either live with it or die from it. The King family made their decision publicly. Dr. King used his powerful and melodic voice to reverse America's adversarial stance against blacks from violent segregation to a begrudging integration. Mrs. King turned a sad and difficult loss into a lifelong crusade to honor the principles her husband so eloquently articulated and that she helped to develop. She did it with a different voice -- less powerful but even more graceful. The song they sang together and apart, the anguished lives they lived, the joys they experienced, "ain't nothing but the blues."
When, I wonder, will the rest of us find our own eloquent, loving voices to sing out against the problems destroying the African-American community? When and how will we absorb the profound lessons that Dr. and Mrs. King left us now that they are gone? And when are we likely to stand up and sing the song that might transform our people?
The answer is, only when African-Americans have reconstructed and redefined the meaning of the King family's legacy in our own cultural terms. In so doing, we seek to reconnect with the essential blackness of this extraordinary family, not to deny their broader importance to white America or to the rest of the world -- for deep inside that blackness is the key to a new understanding of our history and perhaps a way out of the present difficulty.
By "blackness" I am referring to the shared cultural experiences of the Kings as a people born barely two generations out of slavery who migrated to the middle class. But Martin, for all of his elegance and commitment to ideals, suffered the fate of far too many other black men: an ignominious death. Coretta Scott King, for all her education and refinement, ended up as a single parent. The children struggled despite their accomplishments and eventually split over many issues.
Some form of this malaise has beset most African-Americans for many generations, even if they're too young or perhaps too fortunate to remember it. The metaphor of the blues can help African-Americans make sense of not only the King family's troubles but their own. Remember, Dr. King was killed in Memphis trying to help the garbage workers make a decent wage. Memphis is one of the homes of the blues, and I have never forgotten this simple but profound connection.
The deeper meaning of the blues is that through the spirit of the larger community that also suffers, redemption is not only possible but also probable, provided we find our voices and raise them both individually and collectively. The blues says, "I am somebody and I call you to witness my suffering, hear my cry, and help me work the ritual that is our common heritage so I can be whole again."
We need, as a people, to come together and be whole again. Understanding this gift of the blues -- a gift we bequeathed ourselves -- can bring us together to hear each other's cries, provide solace and ultimately move forward in new directions. Dr. King's life and death gives us a new opportunity each year to consider the power of the blues, the relevance of his message and the importance of finding solutions to the pressing issues in the black community.
Syl Jones, of Minnetonka, is a journalist, playwright and communications consultant.