I was reading Jonathan Tilove’s series, “Along Martin Luther King: Travels on America’s Black Main Street,” as the plane I was on circled Midway Airport in Chicago last Sunday. The airport was completely socked in by clouds, and, in the end, we couldn’t land because some gear had broken. Some gear that would have made the difference between a safe landing and the other kind.
In spite of how much I hate being stuck on a plane in the clouds, I was glued to what I was reading. Truly, I was amazed. How had he done it? How had he laced together such a powerful narrative — a thing so strong — out of such delicate threads? How did the whole thing hold together?
If you read it, you noticed how Tilove drew connections between very distant places joined by their King-ness — an MLK Boulevard at one end of the country is linked to a King Drive thousands of miles away by the experience of the people who live or work along those streets.
That could have felt like a contrivance if it weren’t for one thing: reporting. Without the details that Tilove drew out during interviews or observed himself, it wouldn’t have been possible. A worse reporter would have had to force the pieces into place. Tilove had evidence.
Belle Glade’s MLK is alive like Harlem’s, if not as well-lit.
You can happen upon the tambourine joy of a Jamaican revival meeting along the loading ramp where the migrant workers assemble before dawn, or a flatbed truck of strippers in the lot at Tiny’s liquors, advertising their Miami club.
You can buy skinned rabbits by the tree where the men play dominoes. When the cane fields are burned for harvesting, the breeze flutters with black ash and the rabbits sprint for freedom, where they run into men and boys who chase and beat them. Run rabbits, and football comes easy.
Read that aloud and you can hear the rhythm of the language. To find the poetry, you need the right words, and to find the right words, you need reporting. Otherwise, you’re just bullshi**ing, and it will show.
Tilove’s voice as a writer comes from the place that is authentically his in connection with a place that is authentically American. It rings true because he didn’t take shortcuts. A project like this might be a very hard sell these days in journalism. But the values it reflects are not out of reach.