“Where there is no music, the spirit will not come.”
This statement got to the heart of the very quotable keynote presentation by Rev. Dr. Brad Braxton at the Teach the Speech Teach-In on Tuesday, January 8, where Rev. Braxton discussed how to teach the two versions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” speech by investigating what it means to be ready for the revolution and how we can help our students, and ourselves, stay awake. As you think about your own course this semester, we hope you’ll consider incorporating King’s speeches into your curriculum and engaging your students around this important discussion.
Appropriately, the emphasis on a more personal and authentic mode of teaching was Rev. Braxton’s main point, as he shared, “we have bought into ways of teaching… that do not make room for who we fully are.” His approach to these speeches, and his advice for teaching in general, revolved around the truth that “a sermon is never what is written, but what is heard,” and therefore good pedagogy makes room for the more than textual—the auditory, the affective, and the spiritual. This is the power held in the “marvelous musicality” of King’s speeches. It is also why Braxton emphasized the need to remove the hero worship from King, and to place him and his speeches in the context of the historical and ideological irony that is America and how that shaped King’s own personal experiences and actions. This included a call for us and our students to wrestle not just with the “defanged” dreamer King, but also with the socially progressive “dangerous” King, guided by moral radicalism.
Moreover, we were challenged to nuance notions of radicalism and what it means to be a prophet, secular or religious, by returning back to the notion of spirit. For Braxton, spirit isn’t a term connected to one religion but defined by the connection between people in a community, and individuals to a cause they are willing to fight for. For Braxton, “there is a deep hunger for spirit” which our students possess and seek to engage with, in and out of the classroom; whether as instructors, religious leaders, or staff in one of Georgetown’s various resource centers, it is our imperative to meet our students where their spirit is and to guide them to understanding and acting upon the duties of a moral person in a moral society. Leading by example, Braxton did just that for those of us in the room, and the resounding applause at the end of his presentation only exemplified what the sing-alongs, verbal confirmations, and occasional bouts of laughter throughout his speech proved all along: when you address your listeners spirits and call them into a community of diverse equals, deeper learning can begin.
The panel discussion following Braxton’s speech continued to engage in an authentic and vulnerable dialogue. Each panelist highlighted the importance of centering King and his speeches to empower our students through a call to investigative, communal, and morally guided learning and action. Each of the three speakers—Dr. Chandra Manning (History), Rev. Brandon Harris, and Director of the LGBTQ Resource Center Sivagami (“Shiva”) Subbaraman—discussed the ways they’ve incorporated past speeches into their pedagogical practices or interactions with students, and the ideas they have for King’s two versions of the “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” speech.
Manning discussed the applicability of King’s speeches to any course, referencing her past experiences using King’s speeches as a means to thematically guide the class through their content and to help students understand the relation between what they’re learning and doing in class to Georgetown’s larger goals and initiatives. Harris explained the ways he’s been able to incorporate the themes and questions from King’s speeches into various small group, inter-religious discussions and one-on-ones; in a larger context, Harris discussed the power of King’s speeches to emphasize the need for any community, though specifically here the Georgetown community, to come together around points of lamentation—situations and moments of suffering and inequality—as the first step towards personal and societal healing. Subbaraman, detailing her history with academia and the Rip Van Winkle tale, ended the panel with an alternative approach to thinking about the two “Remaining Awake” speeches with these thought-provoking questions: Was Rip Van Winkle’s sleep strategic? Who has the privilege of sleeping through a revolution? Is it a privilege to be awake for the revolution?
At the end of this open, energized, and inquisitive teach-in, one question from Braxton reverberated within the minds and hearts of all the attendees, both to ask themselves and their students on a daily basis: “How is your soul today?”
As you think about your course and how you might incorporate teaching King’s speech, know that we’re here to help. Reach out to us at any time!