On a recent flight from Atlanta to Montgomery, I sat in front of an elegantly dressed African American woman. She was probably in her mid-sixties and wore what appeared to be a lady’s Brooks Brother’s navy blue suit with gold buttons and a bright green and red silk scarf. Her hair was straightened, short and dyed brown. At first glance she struck me to be an executive, perhaps a senior government official or airline manager. Everything about her was deliberate, as though she had been in a hurry her entire life.
She was one of those people that speak into a cell phone on a plane until the last possible minute, a few moments after the airline attendant asks us for the third and last time to turn off our devices. These self-important folks seem irritated that they are flying coach.
I could not resist eavesdropping on her conversation. I instantly realized that she was in fact in an important conversation. She was instructing a young person, probably her grandchild: “You must focus on analysis, you hear? Analysis is important.” I thought to myself: “Analyze what?” She went on: “You must do analysis for every section. Analysis! Do you hear?” Her tone was commanding, stern, and encouraging.
She went on and amidst a flurry of choppy sentences and deliberate words that I did not fully catch, she blurted out the substance of her encouragement: “Macbeth.” Her grandchild was a high school student who was wrestling with Shakespeare on a Sunday night. The parents probably handed her (or him?) the phone to say hello to grandma, perhaps to pass along the hectoring mom was certainly administering to them. The grandmother’s voice indicated that mastering Shakespeare and the English language was a life and death matter.
Many thoughts swirled at the word “Macbeth.” I shuddered remembering the first competent English essay that I ever wrote in the tenth grade. For it I had written a sentence outline. I remember not liking Shakespeare but realizing that it was somehow important, that I would need to figure him out. I felt kinship with her grandchild. When I was a child, my mother spoke sternly to me in Spanish about the importance of hard work and school; that without it I too would wind up with the type of bad work that she and my father had toiled at to care for their six children. If she had had serious schooling, she too would have helped me with my homework. She relied on other incentives.
But what struck me most was the grandmother’s accent. There was poverty in the deliberate, enunciated, short sentences that struggled to hide an impoverished background that she had overcome. This was a hard-working educated lady, but her accent revealed that she had pulled herself up by the bootstraps. She had seen Jim Crow, segregation and the Civil Rights movement. These things could be heard in her steely, proud, determined accent. This was a woman who did not spare the rod when she raised her children. She made sure that they stayed on the steep and thorny path and finished college. I heard my own mother’s fiery voice. They could swap stories together and brag with pride about their children.
Martin Luther King manifestly loved Shakespeare and probably smiled as he watched the same spectacle I listened to. He had said that if a man was called to be streetsweeper that he should sweep streets as Shakespeare wrote poetry. After the Birmingham church was bombed, he drew on Hamlet in his eulogy. This grandmother was the manifestation of his revolution that I had the trick to listen to.