Multimodality — and Martin Luther King, Jr.

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On January 15, I attended a celebration of the life and work of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., as I try to do every year. Held in our community center, the event draws a full house of people from the Mendonoma coastal communities, from little ones to oldsters like me, all who want to remember King and to be inspired, again, by his words and deeds.

Local supermarkets and bakeries donate food and drink (including a very large birthday cake) to sample as we listen to local musicians, singers, poets, and speakers. This year I was particularly struck by a poet who read a piece called “Strapless Dresses.” In it, she tells about being a clerk in a department store in the South in the days of segregation and struggles against it. In vivid and terse language, she paints a picture of two African Americans who come in to the store, much to the disapproval and disregard of most of the staff. The poet steps up, though, encouraging them to look at dresses and to try them on. This they refused to do, but they did indeed buy one of the dresses, which the poet saw as an act of true courage, one she still remembers well over fifty years later.

During a brief break, I walked around the room, looking at photos of King and some of his closest associates and reading passages from his speeches, the words ringing in my ears from memory. But I didn’t need to depend on memory for very long, since one of the presenters, Peggy Berryhill, founder of the Native Media Resource Center and General Manager of our local public radio station (KGUA), spoke about her own connection to King and his legacy, as well as her work in support of indigenous people and languages, racial harmony, and cross-cultural understanding. More to the point, she introduced us to drummer, singer, activist, and artist Sheila E. and her August 2017 song/video “Funky National Anthem: Message 2 America,” which was filmed in San Francisco’s Mission District and directed by her brother.

According to Gail Mitchell in Billboard, Sheila E. was granted the right to use King’s likeness and his words in the video, along with those of other past leaders. In Sheila E’s words,

We are living within a web of deceit and lies, but the essence of America still remains… It’s time to take a stand for the freedom we speak of, for all Americans and the world. A time to embrace those ideas and words that have come from great voices of guidance to us in other turbulent times. Voices of our past, which can still lead us to a better future.

Then we watched the video, most of us rising to our feet as the momentum built, as we were carried along by words and images that took us back fifty years to King’s time—and pulled us forward to work that must be done today. It was one of those moments of group solidarity that people experience in communities all the time, but what struck me so powerfully was the thoroughly multimodal nature of the experience: the video with images and music and voices; the room we were in with posters, quotations, flyers, challenges ranging around the walls; and our own voices joining in with those in the video.

So, two points to make here: first, if you haven’t seen "Funky National Anthem," do so right now! But second, think of this performance and think again of why our students want to create such multimodal projects; why they not only want but demand to develop and produce them: because they reach audiences in ways that go so far beyond what a traditional print text can do. Perhaps most important, such multimodal productions can feature real people’s spoken voices, in all their richness and diversity, along with images that remain in viewers’ minds and memories for a very long time, and that can bring events from fifty years ago alive again to instruct, challenge, and inspire us.

Credit: Pixabay Image 516061 by jensjunge, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.