In his “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. used a plethora of enriching metaphors. His use of them set the tone for one of the most inspirational and memorable pieces of oration of the 20th century. King’s words motivated a generation to come to terms with—and peacefully work to resolve–a great American injustice. In what follows, I examine and evaluate King’s choice of metaphors, as well as their function and significance.
From my perusal of the metaphors in King’s work, I have discovered that most of the metaphors cited contain the principal tenor element as well as the vehicle or secondary subject; however, there is an intriguing exception used at the beginning of the speech—the phrase “symbolic shadow.” This particular tenor refers to that shadow cast by Lincoln—but the symbolic aspect suggests or implies the long history of American (in)equality that has occurred since the great man’s death—there is no actual, stated tenor.
In order to further explicate King’s metaphoric proficiency, I have divided the vehicle-segments into five defining genres, which are: Those vehicles that allude to terrain or geography—such as mountains, hills, land, etc; those that are evocative of containment, imprisonment; those that are weather or nature-oriented; those that implicitly refer to a monetary or fiscal theme; and finally, those that speak of spirituality—specifically, of Christianity.
Firstly, those vehicles that are of a geographical orientation include: island (of poverty); ocean (of prosperity); valley (of segregation and later, of despair); sunlit path (of racial justice); quick sands (of racial injustice); rock (of brotherhood); waters (justice); a mighty stream (righteousness); an oasis (of freedom and justice); mountain (despair); stone (of hope). The sense of these metaphors taken collectively is that of the rugged individualism of America—the independent spirit of a nation of people who have traversed harsh, unfriendly terrain and conquered hostile environmental forces in order to complete the picture of a new, progressive yet durable nation. Of course, more specifically, terms such as (especially) mountains and hills carry the desired implication of the elevation of the status of the black community to that which is equal with the white community; and the idea that the implied journey to that metaphoric mountaintop will be a difficult—even treacherous–one.
Secondly, the metaphoric imagery associated with containment and compliance includes the following: manacles (of segregation); chains (of discrimination) and even tranquilizing drug (of gradualism). These tenors, naturally, bespeak of the black historical experience—of physical slavery and subjugation; yet they also serve to reflect the ongoing cultural and social imprisonment of persecution and racial bigotry.
Thirdly, King utilizes words allied with weather conditions, climate and other natural elements. Some of these, such as the light (of hope); joyous daybreak (a lone vehicle qualifying the aforementioned subject of the Emancipation Proclamation); autumn (of freedom); whirlwinds (of revolt); bright day (of justice) are positive terms or phrases emblematic of a hopeful change through the natural processes of cultural evolution. Others of this group– like flames (of withering injustice); heat (of injustice, also of oppression) are indicative of the destructive forces of discrimination and inequality, expressed as the various destructive forces found in nature. Interestingly, one of the forces, the “sweltering summer of the negro’s legitimate discontent” requires further evaluation. The phrase is evocative of its origin—that of Shakespeare’s Richard III (Act I, Scene I) (“Now is the winter of our discontent”)—and its protagonist (whose tyranny is not unlike that practiced by some elements of contemporary white America) which may have been King’s intent; however, Steinbeck’s The Winter of our Discontent (1961) had been published a mere two years prior to this speech—therefore it would have been a familiar reference to modern audiences. Further, John Steinbeck was a well-known voice of ‘the voiceless’—the oppressed, the maltreated and the disenfranchised—a connection surely not lost on King.
Fourthly, are the vehicles associated with money or finance, which include: a promissory note ( the tenor was the aforementioned Declaration of Independence); heir (every American); a ‘bad check’ (again, to the Declaration of Independence tenor); vaults (of opportunity); bank (of justice); riches (of freedom); security (of justice); palace (of justice); insufficient funds (the implied tenor of inequality regarding the Declaration of Independence). With these monetary metaphors, King was speaking to all Americans in a distinctly American voice—that of the lone, struggling, but earnest capitalist. The financial pioneer pulling himself up ‘by the bootstraps’ is both–intrinsically and historically—an American icon. How better to relate the struggles of black America to white America than with images that are archetypes within the collective psyches of all Americans?
Further, there remain a few metaphors that are markedly illustrative of the common American mythology of Christianity. These include the table (of brotherhood) and cup (of bitterness and hatred); and the musical/spiritual vehicles of symphony (of brotherhood) and discord (of our nation). The vehicles of table and cup have connotations of Christ’s Last Supper—where a symphony of brotherhood shared a table, passed a cup and was ultimately destroyed by discord and bitterness (on the part of Judas). King utilizes these metaphors and images to symbolize the betrayal of the black race (according to the precepts of the Declaration of Independence)—which is, ultimately, the betrayal of Christ’s teachings and Christian doctrine.
Further still, I believe that the context and intent of King’s persuasive speech can be discovered or defined through his choice and use of metaphors. King spoke and endeavored to inspire a black audience of every educational and financial status, every age and gender. He used a variety of images and references that touched both the intellect (i.e. “summer of the negro’s legitimate discontent”) as well as the emotions (“whirlwind of revolt”) of his audience. Further, King aimed his message at the more responsible, sympathetic portions of white America—by reminding them of their intellectual obligations as rendered by both the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation—as well as their emotional obligations as (mostly) Christians (the cup, table, discord and symphony metaphors)—and as descendants of Abraham Lincoln (“a great American’s symbolic shadow”)—a enduring source of sympathy and passion for most Americans.
Finally, King’s “I Have a Dream” speech represents exactly that– the American Dream. Within all of its metaphoric themes– geography/terrain, containment, natural phenomena, monetary and Christianity—there is a message of both the desire and struggle common to all Americans, of every race–to achieve that which was promised long ago: The right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. King’s words are a beautifully written and effectively delivered reminder that the American Dream of equality and freedom are either inherently applicable to all Americans—or they’re applicable to none.