what i watched last week
#28: fires on the plain (kon ichikawa, 1959)

i have a memory

I had my students read two speeches by Martin Luther King, one of which was the inevitable “I Have a Dream” (the other was “Where Do We Go from Here?”). Their assignment was to write a five-page essay analyzing why “I Have a Dream” is so much more a part of American culture. Everyone knows it, it gets trotted out every year on his birthday, and it gets taught in classes beginning at a very young age. Meanwhile, you have speeches like “Where Do We Go from Here?”, which demands a guaranteed annual income and, ultimately, a restructuring of American society.

I hoped the students would point out the ways the ubiquitous presence of “Dream” tends to sanitize our view of King, eliminating his more radical side. And a few students picked up on that. But most of them pointed to more obvious reasons, and they were right to do so; many of those reasons were right on target.

And so, many essays noted that “I Have a Dream” was given before a crowd of hundreds of thousands, and was broadcast live on television and radio, while “Where Do We Go from Here?” was given at the meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, resulting in an audience far smaller than its more famous counterpart.

I found myself walking down memory lane. As much as I hate nostalgia, I’ve come to mistrust memories in general even more. Mistrust … that’s the right word, memories can’t be trusted. Which means I’m not sure how close this memory is from when I was 10 years old, but …

I remember watching “I Have a Dream” on television.

The memories are vague. The black-and-white TV was in the corner of the living room … my mom was watching as well (in my memory, she is ironing clothes, but I have no idea why that’s part of the scenario) … no one else was there. The latter doesn’t make complete sense. My dad would have been at work. It was summertime, so none of the kids would have been at school, which explains why I was home on a Wednesday. But where were my siblings? My older brother was 16, and the younger ones were 6, 5, and 3. Most, if not all, of them should have been home. Still, in my memory, it’s just me and my mom and the black-and-white TV.

Funny thing is, I don’t remember a bit of what King said. I feel like I knew it was important, or why were we watching it? But that’s about it. In subsequent years, I filled in the blanks. I know what he said now, I can hear his voice, I know some of it by heart, just like so many Americans do.

But that’s how memory works. It starts with a kernel, which is then influenced by outside forces, until you start remembering things that didn’t actually happen.

As is often the case when you have written a blog for almost nine years, I am repeating myself to some extent. Here is what I wrote back on August 18, 2009:

Look at this picture:

david bell

This is David Bell scoring the winning run in the game that put the Giants in the 2002 World Series. I was at that game, and I can remember it as if it were the proverbial yesterday. In my mind’s eye, I can see Bell sliding across home plate on his belly, as we in the stands shared the joy you can see on the players in this picture. That memory looks exactly like the picture, in fact, which is one reason I love the picture so much.

Except … my seats were just to the left of home plate, so the angle from which I saw Bell was … well, I’m not good at describing spatial stuff, but whereas the picture is taken from someone who experiences Bell sliding towards them, my vantage point was such that Rich Aurilia (#35) was leaping in my general direction. In other words, my memories of this moment, which match the picture, are not really my memories of Bell’s slide, but rather of the picture of Bell’s slide. And that’s one reason why memory is a funny thing.