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Rich: It’s not just the words, but how they’re said

POSTED: August 12, 2008 5:00 a.m.

From my hotel room in Knoxville, Tenn., once, I phoned in to check on the girls: Mama and Dixie Dew.

The first answered the phone, a bit weak in voice, and reported that her cough and congestion were noticeably better but she was still weak in body. Again, I reminded her that when recovering from the flu, it is imperative to work at regaining strength.

"How's Dew doing?" I asked, moving on to the latter.

Mama chuckled. "She who sleepeth, doeth well."

When Dixie Dew was at her grandmother's, she'd split her time equally between sleeping and eating.

"That dog sleeps all the time," my sister once complained. "Something must be wrong with her."

"What would you have her do?" I responded. "Read or watch television?"

Interestingly enough, when Dew is with me, she is alert and energetically engaged in life around her. I have concluded that it is the company who puts her to sleep.

"You bore her to sleep," I once told Mama, who shrugged and smiled.

That day when Mama replied, "She who sleepeth, doeth well," it was my turn to smile.

On the occasions that my people - mountain folks that we are - use such poetic slant on things, it is not from Shakespeare cometh such lyrics. No, instead, it has risen up from the pages of the King James Bible.

Mama, I suppose, had heard of the famous bard of Stratford-on-Avon but she'd never read a word of his. Of this, I am quite certain.

I have discovered one thing: those who are truly learned in life - a scholar of any proportion - can always quote from two sources: literature and the Bible, usually the King James version, which was translated during the Shakespearean period. Whether they believeth it or not, they read it, retaineth it, then when the opportunity ariseth, spout forth its beauty.

I consider Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to be one of the greatest orators of the 20th century. I have a seven-CD series of his most famous speeches and sermons. I listen to them over and over again. It reminds me of Homer's hero in "The Odyssey," who had to cover his ears to avoid the alluring call of the sirens.

His words are hypnotic, mesmerizing and soothing. Throughout his speeches, he stepped easily and alluringly between Shakespeare and King James' Bible. The effect is nothing short of stunning.

In preaching the funeral of the four small girls killed in the Birmingham, Ala., church bombing, he quoted Scripture and Hamlet as well as weaving his own prose into the sermon. The beauty is such that you almost lose the meaning.

In one speech he called out to the Freedom Riders to peacefully refuse discrimination and to lay claim to their human rights.

From Othello, he quoted, "He who robbeth me of my freedom enriches not himself but makes me poor indeed."

Through almost 15 years of speeches, he always drew one long, lasting comparison between African-Americans and the biblical story of the children of Israel who were led out of Egypt by Moses to Canaan's Promised Land.

"There is something deep in the soul of man that cries out for Canaan. Man will never be satisfied with Egypt," he declared emphatically in that calming but powerful voice of his.

And that's another thing - Dr. King always preached in that tone and voice of the spirit-called, water-baptized, fire-and-brimstone style of the South's rural preachers.

"Death is not a blind alley that leads the human race into a state of nothingness," he declared at the Birmingham funeral. "It is an open door that leads man to life eternal."

Each time I hear his gentle demands and sweet refrains, I am determined to find my way back to that kind of language. To me, it glosses over harshness better than "Bless her heart" ever could.

Too, when you combine biblical language with Shakespearean phrases, it's always gonna sound distinctly Southern.

Ronda Rich is the Gainesville-based author of "What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should)." Sign up for her newsletter.


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