August 28, 2013
No, not literally unsung. In fact, the most memorable moments at the microphone, other than Martin Luther King’s “I had a Dream” speech, featured singers: Mahalia Jackson; Marian Anderson; Peter, Paul and Mary; Joan Baez and Bob Dylan; Odetta.
But unsung in sense that there’s no literary tour de force devoted to it, a collective portrait of players celebrated and obscure, their apprehensions and exhilarations, comparable to what Norman Mailer did for the 1967 March on the Pentagon in The Armies of the Night.
James Baldwin was there, of course, made much of by the press, but he wasn’t one of the speakers, and wrote no essay, no story, about it afterwards.
Then there were the notable absences: Ralph Ellison wasn’t there, perhaps not a surprise; Malcolm X boycotted it; Langston Hughes was in France, enjoying his first vacation in many years. Richard Wright had died in 1960. And W. B. E. Du Bois had died just the day before, at the age of 95, in Ghana, his home for the last two years of his life.
I take this as a cautionary tale, cautioning those of us with a reflexive faith in the power of literature, imagining that it could always take in the world, that its circumference would always be adequate to what is consequential.
Not a sustainable claim, it seems. If anything, what’s vital about literature is that it can — and often does — take a back seat, ceding its primacy without any concession about its relevance.