UNL | Martin Luther King Jr. Week Essay Contest (essay)

MLK Day Essay Contest

University of Nebraska-Lincoln - January 2008
"The hero is but welcome on troubled days." - Malian Proverb

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is most widely known and respected for his civil rights work on behalf of African Americans against the violent racism of the United States of America in the1950s and 1960s. The federal Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, stamps, books and documentaries, murals and busts, and streets and various memorial centers around the nation attest to this significance. In spite of the civil rights activist designation, one might best understand Dr. King's legacy in the context of human rights in which civil rights merely serves as a beginning of critical discussions about American culture itself. Central to that discussion is the role of the hero in the form of our ultimate role models and the way all too many of us go about our daily lives.

In short, what are the implications that our heroic culture has on our identity and ethics, and Dr. King's vision of the "beloved community?" Against the Western tradition of idealizing the heroic, a traditional Malian proverb is very significant in this regard: "The hero is but welcome on troubled days."1

For this essay, you should start by meditating on the implications of this proverb for any hero-centric culture, but especially for our modern American one. You should then write a response that considers what this proverb means for you and how it applies in terms of gender and sexuality (in accordance with our focal topic for this year's UNL celebration of Dr. King), the presidential politics of 2008, or both.

  • Who is eligible: Any currently enrolled UNL undergraduate or graduate student.
  • Essay format: The essay must be 1) between 750 and 1,200 words, 2) typed, and 3) doubled-spaced.
  • Guidelines: Provide a separate cover sheet with title, your name, mailing address, e-mail address, and phone number (please include a cell number). The essay itself should have a title, but should not include any other identifying information.
  • Award: First- and second-place prizes will be presented on Wednesday, January 23, 2008 during the MLK Coffee House. The first-place prize will be $300; the runner-up will receive $150.
  • Deadline: Essays are due no later than 5:00 p.m. on Friday, January 11, 2008. Essays may be submitted in person or via e-mail (be sure to keep one copy of the essay for yourself) to Jody Wood (her address and e-mail address immediately follow).

Jody Wood
128 Administration Building
City Campus 0437

1 This proverb specifically addresses Sunjata, the epic hero considered to be the founder of the ancient Malian empire and Mandinka ethnic group. However, one might also rephrase this in various ways appropriate for variations in ethnic, national, and socio-political context. For example, in his Yoruba Proverbs (U of Nebraska P, 2007), Dr. Oyekan Owomoyela included this pithy proverb, no. 1354: "He-who-flees-on-seeing-the-king is no coward" (his translation: "One's safest course is to steer clear of those in authority"). This is significant because heroes, in the traditional narratives such as that of Sunjata, usually become kings in the end. For our modern, democratic American sensibility, perhaps Ken Kesey, the iconoclastic author of the classic novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, articulates a proverb equally compelling. His humorous observation, "The trouble with super heroes is what to do between phone booths," leaves us to ponder the consequences of the super hero's presence, or our own super-heroic orientation, in and on our lives.