Martin Luther King Jr. and Gretel Ehrlich: A Critical Illumination of Otherness and Self-Identity

Updated on January 7, 2018

“Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea.”

Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Gretel Ehrlich’s “About Men” critically illuminate the problems of self-identification and otherness. Both King Jr. and Ehrlich grapple with images that produce self-identity, persuasive forces that bolster those identities, and the implications of such spectacles. Essentially, King Jr. and Ehrlich object to these relationally created identities because they are false and degrading; becoming the other. King Jr. challenges otherness in racial identity in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” whereas Ehrlich confronts otherness in rural identity in her “About Men”. Both authors attempt to demolish their respective spectacle they are reduced to. Using a variety of psychoanalytic models of identity formation can shed insight into the relationships that King Jr. and Ehrlich struggled with, and what techniques they used to sever the prejudice chains that weigh them down.

Jacques Lacan’s “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience” (1949) can explain the ideas and concerns of both King Jr. and Ehrlich’s spectacle. Lacan’s ‘Mirror Stage’ is characteristic of specular identification through imitation; our ego or self is influenced by our surrounding environment. Our surrounding environment displays ideal images that act as a mirror, by which individuals rely on to change their appearance to blend in. However, for King Jr. and Ehrlich, the ideal image that they struggle with is a distortion of the truth.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s racial identity issue is rooted in his statement that Blacks “are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when we are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’” (Barnet, Burto, Cain, 2013, p. 1305). King Jr. demonstrates that self-identity is established at a young age when he says

You seek to explain to your six year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people (King Jr., 2013, p. 1305).

What King Jr. is describing is the effects outlined in Lacan’s ‘Mirror Stage’ in which the ideal body image is White, and Black individuals are excluded. As philosopher Frantiz Fanon once said, “There is a fact: White men consider themselves superior to Black men,” and for the Black man, there is only one destiny and it is White (Buckingham et al, 2011, pp. 300-301). Essentially Fanon is saying that in a culture where Blacks are minorities they must abandon ‘Blackness’ or Black culture and imitate White culture to become somebody.

Ehrlich’s rural identity issue is rooted in the portrayal of the stereotypical, yet false presentation of the American cowboy in popular images in urban settings. She exhibits this when she says “In our hellbent earnestness to romanticize the cowboy we’ve ironically disesteemed his true character” (Ehrlich, 1985/2013, p. 743) Ehrlich hints that the surrounding environment is a contributing factor in the creation of this distorted identity when she says:

What I’m aching to see is horseflesh, the glint of a spur, a line of distant mountains, brimming creeks, and a reminder of the ranchers and cowboys I’ve ridden with for the last eight years. But the men I see in those posters with their stern, humorless looks remind me of one I know here. (Ehrlich, 1985/2013, p. 743).

For individuals foreign to the rural life, the romanticizing of the cowboy image reflects not the actual nature of the cowboy, but of the values surrounding urban American heroism. In other words, the image of the ideal cowboy was created by the urban speculation, and continues to form that stereotype in culturally ignorant people. Further on in her story, Ehrlich shows how the idealized cowboy is a misleading spectacle that undermines the cowboy’s true, rural identity.

Susan Stewart’s “On Longing” (1993), offers another rational model of identity formation can help shed light into the formation of otherness and self-identity in King and Ehrlich’s situations. Stewart’s model is based on the idea that identity is produced through barriers, material or imaginary, through the creation of otherness. There are three aspects of her model: the subject, object, and pitch. The subject produces their self-identity by visually bracketing the object as an ‘other’ by emphasizing differences. The pitch is the persuasive verbal reinforcement of the object as an ‘other’; “I’m not that, I’m this!” Oftentimes, the ‘other’ becomes the embodiment of a terrible freakishness, and in so doing provides security for the subject’s self-identity. However, the integrity of this structure of the spectacle is upheld in the separation and detachment of the ‘others’ from the subject; if the barrier between them falls, the security of self-identification of subject is jeopardized (Stewart, 1993, pp. 104-110).

King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” exhibits Stewart’s model of self-identification through differentiation and detachment several times; King Jr. challenges the nature of segregation, which is grounded in the idea of the separation of races. This serves as self-identity security for the subject in Stewart’s model – to keep White males superior and Blacks inferior. King Jr. shows his frustration having been casted aside as an ‘other’ when he says “I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against outsiders coming in,” and “Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea” (King Jr., 1963/2013, p. 1302). In these excerpts, King Jr. essentially says that mankind cannot live freely by creating barriers between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Furthermore, King Jr. addresses the ‘pitch,’ or persuasive language used in order to bolster the spectacle of the other when he says:

In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants – for example, to remove the stores’ humiliating racial signs… When you are humiliated by signs reading ‘white’ and ‘colored’… When your first name becomes ‘nigger,’ your middle name becomes ‘boy’ (however old you are) and your last name becomes ‘John,’ and your wife and mother are never given the respected title ‘Mrs.’ (King Jr., 1963/2013, p. 1305).

Characteristic of Stewart’s model, language is seen as a persuasive device that reinforces the distinct differences between the subject and the other by separating the normal or admirable from the freakish or inferior in these excerpts.

Ehrlich’s issue over the portrayal of the stereotypical cowboy also resonates in Stewart’s model of self-identification through differentiation. The ‘other’ is glorified rather than humiliated in this case. Even so, the image created is not normal and detached from urban life. Ehrlich highlights this when she says:

If he’s ‘a rugged individualist’ he’s also a part of a team: ranch work is teamwork and even the glorified open-range cowboys of the 1880s rode up and down the Chisholm Trail in the company of twenty or thirty riders. Instead of the macho, trigger-happy man our culture has perversely wanted him to be, the cowboy is more apt to be convivial, quirky, and softhearted” (Ehrlich, 1985/2013, p. 743).

Thus, Ehrlich implies the normal urban man finds the admirable traits he placed into the stereotypical cowboy. In other words, the cowboy reflects the adventurousness, manly, and powerful qualities urban men idealize in their communities and embody them into a distant, detached hero. The separation is important because the urban man would feel threatened if his idealized character was too close to his reality because the fear of becoming outcast as an inferior ‘other’. In addition, Ehrlich addresses the ‘pitch’ or language as a persuasive device characterized in Stewart’s model when she says “But the men I see in those posters with their stern, humorless looks” (Ehrlich, 1985/2013, p. 743). Essentially, the posters support the image of the stereotypical cowboy; however in the movies language is used as a persuasive device that reinforces the structure of the spectacle; the dialogue carried between cowboys and the actions they perform accumulate to the false depiction of the cowboy’s true character.

Both King Jr. and Ehrlich attempt to critically illuminate the injustices and otherness created through such methods outlined in Lacan’s ‘Mirror Stage’ and Stewart’s “On Longing”. King Jr. and Ehrlich are working off Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological approach to epistemology, ‘in order to see the world, we must break our familiar acceptance of it’ (Buckingham et al, 2011, 274-275). It is unknown whether they did this intentionally or unintentionally, nevertheless their approach to “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and “About Men” accomplish both Merleau-Ponty’s criteria’s for seeing the world anew – putting aside everyday assumptions, and relearning to analyze experiences (Buckingham et al, 2011, 274-275).

King Jr.’s strongest technique that allows him to critically illuminate injustices and otherness in his letter is metaphor. King Jr. uses metaphors strategically to help open the eyes of the clergymen from Alabama by forcing them to view him as an ally instead of an intruder. He accomplishes finding mutual bonds when he says “and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town,” “Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators,’” and “I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother” (King Jr., 1963/2013, pp. 1302, 1310, 1312) In these excerpts, King Jr. is drawing on the church as a common bond that can break down the barriers that bracket Blacks as others and mend Whites and Blacks in peaceful equality. The technique is effective because he focuses on what is shared between the races, rather than the differences. By doing so, he constructs a democratic space of agreement; ‘I’m Christian just like you, we are brothers and sisters despite the differences in our skin.’

Ehrlich strongest technique that allows her to critically illuminate false stereotypes and otherness in her story is imagery. Ehrlich’s personal experiences growing up in the vast mountainous regions of the American west and living a rural lifestyle allows her easily to identify cowboy’s true character from the stereotypical cowboy plastered on city posters and showcased in theaters (Barnet, Burto, Cain, 2013, p. 743). She uses imagery in a special way by showing us the true nature of the cowboy, then summarizing that experience with a characteristic, which usually contradicts the stereotypical conception of the cowboy. This is evident when she says:

One friend, whose favorite horse was trying to swim a lake with hobbles on, dove under water and cut her legs loose with a knife, then swam her to shore, his arm around her neck life guard-style, and saved her from drowning. Because these incidents are usually linked to someone or something outside himself, the westerner’s courage is selfless, a form of compassion (Ehrlich, 1985/2013, p. 744).

Ehrlich contrasts her true depiction of the cowboy with the “macho, trigger-happy” whom only relies on his “resilience” and “survival instincts” shown in popular media (Ehrlich, 1985/2013, p. 743). Her use of imagery is effective because she is drawing on her vivid personal memories in conjunction with her remarkable ability to summarize the characteristics she describes. It is very convincing because she makes readers think twice about the true nature of the characters we are exposed to in the movies. She is ultimately saying the ideal image of the cowboy formed from Lacan’s ‘Mirror Stage’ is a distorted image of the truth; through her own imagery she battles against the false portrayal of the cowboy by producing the right images.

The concept of otherness is a powerful theme that resonates throughout many genres and styles; however, non-fiction is the most moving form because readers sense reality as it happened. Readers are immersed directly into Martin Luther King Jr.’s jail cell in the 1960s segregated Alabama, and into the bustling streets of New York City that Gretel Ehrlich walked along; readers hear their thoughts as they react to an ignorant letter from the clergymen of Alabama, and the falsely idealized posters depicting the rural cowboy. Readers are forced to expand their imaginative capacities to understand the challenges posed by King Jr. and Ehrlich; to grasp their concerns and see what they see, to immerse themselves into the author’s shoes, vicariously to experience what King Jr. and Ehrlich experienced. Non-fiction is, after all, the engagement of oneself into another’s true experiences or thoughts.

This is no easy feat for authors of non-fiction to accomplish. Even so, King Jr. and Ehrlich excel at critically illuminating and opening the eyes and minds of their readers to genuine issues over self-identification and otherness because they are apt at using specific literary techniques to break down restricting barriers. As previously discussed, King Jr.’s use of metaphor is remarkable and Ehrlich’s imagery is admirable and convincing; these techniques exemplify the imaginative capacity required to write influential non-fiction capable of moving an audience to think differently about everyday assumptions.

The concept of otherness is an important theme for discussion in non-fiction literature because its potential to crack prejudices, stereotypes, and racist, or sexist ideologies; grappling with stories in which the concept of otherness exploits, dehumanizes, and falsely portrays individuals or groups of people can promote a new awareness of the world. Without confronting otherness head on, the majority groups that create these false forms of self-identity will force people to live a life of comfortable illusions. Non-fiction literature can battle against popular misconceptions and ignorance, such as how King Jr. highlights injustices against racial identity and Ehrlich sheds light into the stereotypical delusion of the cowboy.

References

Barnet, S., Burto, W., & Cain, W. E. (2013). About men; Letter from birmingham jail. In Literature for composition: An introduction to literature (10 ed., pp. 743-745, 1300-1313). New York, NY: Longman.

Buckingham, W., Burnham, D., Hill, C., King, P., Marenbon, J., Weeks, M. (2011). Maurice merleua-ponty; Frantz fanon. In The philosophy book: Big ideas simply explained (1 ed., pp. 274-275, 300-301). New York, NY: DK Publishing

Ehrlich, G. (2013) About men. In Literature for composition: An introduction to literature 10 ed., pp. 743-745). New York, NY: Longman (originally published in 1985)

King Jr, M. (2013). Letter from birmingham jail. In Literature for composition: An introduction to literature (10 ed., pp. 1300-1313). New York, NY: Longman (originally published in 1963)

Lacan, J. (1949). The mirror stage as formative of the function of the i as revealed in psychoanalytic experience. Retrieved from http://www.hu.mtu.edu/~rlstrick/rsvtxt/lacan.htm

Stewart, S. (1993). On longing: Narratives of the miniature, the gigantic, the souvenir, the collection . (pp. pp. 104-110). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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