John Warner Smith

American Portrait

(On the Occasion of the 50th Anniversary
of the Assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.)

Unlike my parents and grandparents,
I haven’t hung a portrait of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
on my living room wall.
My only portrait of King is on an old hand fan
that I keep as a collector of vintage Black Americana.
But unlike the hideous, rudely cast
and painted Mammy and Coon figures
that line my kitchen cabinets and counters,
the hand fan is not on display.
I keep it tucked away
with other bric-a-brac and keepsakes
in a small treasure chest
on a shelf in my bedroom closet.

My parents and grandparents hung King’s portrait
beside a tanned, blue-eyed, bearded Jesus
with long, parting hair that draped his shoulders.
King was not a deity to them,
nor was the image of him a collectible symbol
of what many today would call
a bygone era in American history.
But to them, King was a savior
who gave his life to make them free
and delivered them from hell
on earth -- in real time, in modern America.

My portrait of King looks much like theirs.
A finely fitting black suit and tie.
A stiffly ironed white shirt
accentuating the piercing whiteness in his eyes.
Cocoa smoothness of his face gleaming
against the backdrop of a royal blue canvas.
As I gaze into his brown marbled eyes,
King’s dream and mountain top vision
still ring loud, and, I dare say,
are still much larger than the America I see.