During my Fulbright experience, I found myself unwittingly immersed in Dr. King's "dream." My first realization came when I went to hand deliver my Austrian residence permit to the Austrian Embassy in Washington, DC. After the all-important drop off, my mother and I decided to take advantage of our historical amusement park for the day. As we retraced the epic walk to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, we affectionately coined it our “March on Washington." At the top of the steps we took in the vantage point where Dr. King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech and recalled the quarter of a million people that filled the area. It struck me in that moment, that being a Fulbrighter--a "cultural and academic ambassador" with the mission of mutual understanding between cultures--is tied directly to Dr. King's message and I would be the messenger of that dream. "I am living his dream," I said to my mother as we gazed upon the reflecting pool.
Before traveling for Austria, I knew very little about the cultural/racial diaspora since WW II. At the time, I packed it away in favor of an open mind, heart, and spirit. After all, this would be a new experience and I would certainly learn along the way--with the hope that others would too. I discovered, however, that like America, Austria is a country with its own political and social attitudes regarding race, minorities, immigration, and acceptance. Shortly into my Fulbright year, while visiting the Mozarthaus in Vienna, I learned about a contemporary of Mozart, Angelo Soliman. Two weeks later, I was invited back to Vienna to join my Fulbright colleagues for the Soliman exhibit at the Wien Museum. This incredible figure’s life illuminates the slave trade in Europe, cultural assimilation, and The Enlightenment Period in history. Soliman rose to great esteem and accomplishment from his life as a slave who could not read, to becoming an academic, noted Statesman, freemason, and aristocratic confidant. Yet, upon his (mysterious) death, his body was desecrated, stuffed and displayed naked wearing tribal skirt and headdress in a jungle scene among exotic animals. I was so taken by the entire exhibit at the Wien Museum that I went back again two days later. This time I was there so long, they literally locked the doors behind me.
In addition to my Fulbright research studying historical music and dance pedagogy, I had the privilege of working very closely with young Austrians as a part-time English Teaching Assistant. I enjoyed some wonderful lessons with students, each with one objective to plan lessons where each student is encouraged to speak and to express themselves...in English. I enjoyed celebrating holidays in the classroom with my students as we discuss the traditions, customs, and their cultural context in America. In honor of the National Day of Service to honor the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Black History Month in February, I taught a series of lessons honoring the legacy Dr. King. The topic was simple, "I Have a Dream." The words of this speech have formed the very fabric of my identity as an American citizen (and African-American). The speech is a national treasure, a symbol of America's founding principles of liberty and equality. Knowing the historical context, the images and hopes this speech conjures up, I cannot help but to see myself in those honored words. I began this lesson with the curiosity to find out what Austrian students knew about Dr. King. Did his legacy reach the rest of the world and in what context? I asked students to tell me, “What well-known US leader is being honored as a US holiday today?” I waited anxiously to see if I'd hear a wide range of answers, or the most common guesses. Most everyone answered, "Obama!" Then came other responses: "George Washington, Kennedy, Lincoln, Ben Franklin...!” I gave them a clue that this person is often celebrated during Black History Month in February. “Ach so! ... are you sure it's not Obama?!" Eventually someone said, "Martin Luther King!" I asked more questions, “What words come to mind when you think of Dr. King?" They had such fascinating answers, “…equality, racism, non-violence, protest, Rosa Parks, bus boycott, freedom, humanity, etc....”
This set the tone for the next part of the lesson. I handed out a two-page excerpt of the "I Have a Dream" speech, considered by some scholars to be the best American speech of the 20th century. Any apprehension I had about the level of grammar and vocabulary, was quickly calmed, as we discussed their unfamiliar words within the context of Dr. King's brilliant use of metaphors and imagery. Of course! This speech is accessible and coherent on multiple levels, yet another reason it is so brilliant! Still, we had to "chew on" some words like: prodigious, curvaceous, persecution, sweltering, interposition & nullification, hew, and wallow, but the meaning was always right there in the text, in vivid, colorful, black & white. As they read, I encouraged them to use their best "speech voices." As a native English speaker, I know this is important, but not always easy to do. Communication intended to motivate others or express yourself requires a deeper comprehension of the message you are delivering, not to mention the confidence to project your voice. They experienced this for themselves, as they used commanding voices and spoke with a purpose. Some were quite impressive speakers and took great pride in demonstrating this. The final paragraph of the speech was the climax--the part we all know and remember. For this, I asked everyone to stand and coached them a little on reading as a group, in a collective voice-- not too slow, not too fast and to listen across the entire group (from my chamber music training). Out of the 500 or so students I taught this lesson to, only 6 or 7 had ever heard Dr. King actually speak. This is hard to imagine, but makes this all the more important. Besides the poignant message and beautifully written prose, Dr. King's delivery is a work of oratorical art!
As they huddled together around my laptop, watching the grainy, black & white footage, I had to step back for a moment--history can sometimes repeat itself in the most beautiful, subtle ways. It struck me that this was how many Americans watched this footage live in 1963. They stopped everything they were doing on their jobs and in their homes and huddled together around TV sets and radios to witness this historic moment. Here it was again, being recreated in a classroom in Salzburg, Austria in the year 2012...HISTORIC BREAKING NEWS...and it was! This was one of the most successful lessons and the most personal for me. They became familiar with the civil rights movement and the legacy that Dr. King stood for (which they now were beginning to realize, applies to themselves here in Austria) in the context of English language and communication.
In terms of mutual understanding, nothing has come closer for me than the moment at the end of the speech when I had them all stand up and read the final paragraph together. Hearing those resounding words, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!" in an Austrian accent, from a group of teenagers was truly unforgettable! At the very end of the lesson, I shared with them that, as an African-American woman, in a classroom of Austrian students, and the beautiful view of the mountainside through the rear window, sharing this message was an absolute privilege. This is an experience that fits Dr. Kings "dream" perfectly. I’ll never forget one student’s response as she acknowledged this by saying, "'Let Freedom Ring' from the mountains of Salzburg!"
Adrienne Harding is a graduate of the University of Delaware (MA in Music Performance) and studied at the University of Salzburg as a US Fulbright Student and US Teaching Assistant in 2011-12. Photo courtesy of Luigi Caputo, University of Salzburg.