REPETITION IS POLITICAL: ON WALKING ALONE, “I HAVE A DREAM,” AND MORGAN PARKER by Ruth Joffre, June 20, 2019
In 2016, I attended a weeknight concert at the Showbox in Downtown Seattle that got me thinking about walking as a political act. The headliner that night was riot grrrl Kathleen Hanna’s new band The Julie Ruin, which had just released its second full-length album, Hit Reset. One of the opening acts was the Vancouver-based band Mecca Normal, a two-person indie band formed by lead singer Jean Smith and guitarist David Lester. One of the songs Mecca Normal performed that night was “I Walk Alone.” It stood out to me because, partway through the song, Smith put down the microphone, stomped off stage, and continued singing (shouting), repeating “And I walk and I walk and I walk and I walk and I walk” over and over as she marched through the crowd.
This went on for a minute, maybe two. As she sang, I understood how dangerous it was for me to have come down to the theatre alone, how vulnerable I was—how vulnerable we both were as women in a crowd. I understood, too, how important it was to reclaim my right to walk around, to proclaim defiantly (despite the danger) that I existed and that I deserved to be able to move safely in the world. This lesson stuck with me long after Mecca Normal left the stage and the show floor. Though the highlight of the night was of course seeing Kathleen Hanna perform “Rebel Girl” live, I’ll never forget Jean Smith’s performance.
I repeated her lyrics in my head as I walked home alone that night.
In high school, I learned that repetition is one of the most effective rhetorical devices. We use it in music to create catchy jingles, in commercials to enhance brand recognition, in speeches political and otherwise to sway our audiences to our side. Consider Mark Antony’s speech in the play Julius Caesar: how through repetition the statement “Brutus is an honorable man” becomes a question that undercuts his authority and turns the Roman people against him. How in the 1953 film adaptation Marlon Brando’s Mark Antony turns from the Roman mob, pausing, calculating, his expression one of manipulative ambition as he waits for the exact moment to turn around and capture the audience again.
This, my teachers said, is the power of repetition. It’s the same device that Martin Luther King, Jr., uses in the oft-taught “I Have a Dream” speech, wherein he repeats the famous phrase eight times in a row not to call into question the meaning of the word “dream” (as Mark Antony does with “honorable”) but to emphasize the grandeur and the beauty of that dream, as well as the monumental work required to achieve it. In King’s speech, the “dream” becomes a kind of cathedral in which the audience prays for a better, more equitable, more just future.
But there is something else Martin Luther King, Jr., does with repetition: he shows us the reality from which his dream has sprung. When he tells us of his dream that one day his children will “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” he illuminates a painful reality for African Americans and other people of color in the United States: that, in the eyes of white people and for all levels of government, what you look like is more important than who you are or what you do. This is still the case now, over fifty years since Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.
Today, African American poets and writers such as Claudia Rankine and Morgan Parker use repetition in similar ways to shine a light on their (and, by extension, our) political reality. In “Now More than Ever,” Morgan Parker talks about how “the most politically liberal but socially comfortable of Whites” repeat the title phrase as if there is something particularly dire about this moment, as if there has been a drastic change requiring White attention; Parker then systemically dismantles this lie, illustrating how this diminishes African Americans, reducing all the richness of their experience to the singular, flattened “life of the Negro,” which they seem doomed to live “now, and ever and ever and ever and ever” into eternity.
When I saw Parker perform “Now More than Ever” at the Hugo House in Seattle this past April, the repetition of “and ever” continued for several minutes. Finally, Parker, done explaining things for the predominantly white Seattle audience, stood up, left the stage, and walked out of the theatre, still repeating that phrase (“and ever and ever”), even as the door clicked shut behind her. We sat for a long moment, wondering if she would return, and then the lights switched on and the reading was over. Unlike Jean Smith, Parker did not return to the microphone to perform one last piece or say goodbye or break down the equipment. She had made her point, and as I gathered my things the words echoing in my head made the point for her again and again and again.