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Filtering by Tag: nathaniel hansen

MLK's Masterclass

Nathaniel Hansen


“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”


Twenty years ago, as part of an undergraduate history course my freshman year in college, I read Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s, Where Do We Go From Here? : Chaos or CommunityI remember highlighting many passages, and I read the book twice, as was my habit being a college freshman. While specifics have escaped from my mind over two decades, I remember being awed by it, stirred by it, moved by it at my dorm room desk while the wind swirled snow across the open spaces of the college town on the Minnesota prairie.

A white kid of Scandinavian background, I grew up sixty miles from there in a town of 3,500+ people. In my 13 years of public schooling, there was one African American kid—three years older than I—in the K-12 of 600+ students. All that to say that my knowledge of the Civil Rights’ Movement was rudimentary, and my interactions with African Americans was minimal, if non-existent. *

“Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’”


Ten years later I encountered King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” when I was an adjunct instructor at Clark College in Vancouver, Washington. It was one of the selections in my newly adopted textbook, A World of Ideas, a textbook that contained work from great thinkers and writers. That Christmas break I hunkered down at my in-laws’ Minnesota farmhouse reading through several hundred pages, determining which selections to include in my course. King’s letter was one of my favorite pieces, and I knew I would be a fool not to assign it.

If my math is correct, I taught this piece in a total of twelve courses in colleges and universities in Washington, Oregon, South Dakota, and Texas. When teaching it, I used a variety of writing assignments, but by far my favorite assignment was asking students to write a rhetorical analysis and appreciation of one of the letter’s paragraphs.

Why is the paragraph important to the whole? What rhetorical and stylistic techniques does King employ and to what ends? What makes this passage an example of good writing? What makes this letter a model for argument? In short, I was trying to help my students pay attention to the writerly maneuvers that King makes, the “how.”


“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering that outright rejection.”


Each time I taught "Letter From Birmingham Jail” I was awed by the cohesiveness of the letter, his emotional appeals, his logic, his credibility, his ability to incorporate the ideas of many important thinkers, his style. When I read it yet again, as I did in preparation for writing this piece, I am freshly awed. It’s a masterclass on argument that has as much to teach us about writing as it does about justice, goodness, and love in the face of bitter opposition.


“So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”


When I asked my students each semester which assigned reading was their favorite, King’s letter was always at the top. Each semester I assigned it, I anticipated the class period(s) we would discuss the essay more than any other class session. These are all comments on the craft and technique, but of course those elements are aids to the delivery of his messages, messages which, over sixty years later, still resonate and give us pause. These messages resonated with me, a person who grew up without any injustices, with the exception of the occasional bully, but even that was picayune by comparison.


“Let us hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”

Retreating together

Nathaniel Hansen

image4 Writing is an act I do alone. In my home office before anyone is awake (just as now). In my school office between course prep, grading, and the dozens of other tasks that demanded my attention. Even at one of my local coffee shops, when others are present, I’m still by myself. Solitude is my preferred working method.

Yet one month ago, and for the second consecutive October, I reserved time and money to attend a weekend writing retreat in a three-story house facing Lake Michigan, a retreat with a dozen other writers from various states. For a self-acknowledged introvert, for someone who works alone (preferring it), what is the draw?

The gorgeous fall colors that are absent back home in Central Texas, sure. The temperature thirty degrees cooler than the above-average fall temperature back home, yes. The walk along the Lake Michigan shore, my bare feet chilled in the off-season sand, yes. Still, those aren’t the only reasons.

*                *                *

For much of Saturday, each of us carves out hours of space in the lake home to work on our projects. I sit in a lower bunk in my room, small reading lamp on, windows open to the breeze rushing in off of Lake Michigan, the heater set low enough to offset the brisk air, coffee cup within arm’s reach.

My first project is tightening a forthcoming creative nonfiction publication. I read aloud off the paper copy, marking it up, the task wonderfully slow. Next, I transition to completing those edits in the file itself. By late morning I have finished this first big project, and there is a feeling of success, a feeling of momentum.

I slide in socked feet down the hallway: others are still sleeping. Two rooms over, a friend is reading Dante’s Inferno. I descend the creaky stairs, each step a tree limb snapping, despite my attempts to be stealthy.

In the kitchen, someone has claimed a spot at table, gathering essays for a book-length manuscript. Another person is editing a collection of poems. We chat in snatches, each respecting the need for quiet. I pour the last of the coffee and prepare a new pot.

In the living room, a few people sit on the world’s most uncomfortable couch, each working with words in some way. I sit down, stretch my legs, having already written for several hours, the most my brain can handle in one span. I ask others what they’re working on; I share what I’ve been doing. And then it’s back upstairs.

*                *                *

Back in my room there’s a new sound. I approach the window, glance down. My friend sits on the deck two stories below playing her fiddle. It’s one thing to listen to music when I write (which I often do), another to listen to live music by someone whose written words months earlier moved me to seek help. Instead of being states away, she is in the sunshine bowing melodies that help me sort through images and scenes.

I am ready to work on the next project, a piece about something that has bothered me for decades, something I am not yet ready to disclose, and the revision comes easily. I acquire a new vision for the piece. Although I am alone in this room, I am supported by community around me in this three-story house, and that is enough to move me forward, to brave my way through what is painful to write.

*                *                *

Oh, it’s not all quiet, no. A bunch of writers together?

Over three days I laugh more than I have in months.

Over three days I’m a part of a community of writers, some of whom I know well, some of whom I barely know, some of whom I’ve just met, and somehow something creative, something sacred happens over this quick span.

Over three days there are communal activities: the evening meals preceded by our rendition of the Doxology, the evening jam sessions (my fingers aching from playing an acoustic guitar for hours), the reading at a nearby public library where each of delivers a couple poems, a short prose piece.

Over three days my heart is filled, and when I touch down in Austin on Sunday night, my heart still overflowing with fellowship, I have already been plotting the probable retreat dates for 2016.