The Author’s Ideas (Ambiguous)

This is a subsection of the comment “Ambiguous (Thesis and Author’s Ideas).” You may access the comment by clicking on the link.

The Author’s Ideas

After reading a good portion of your paper, a professor will often decide that one of your topic sentences or the support for a topic sentence isn’t as clearly defined as it could be or the topic sentence or support for the topic sentence doesn’t accurately support the ideas the author expresses. When something is “ambiguous” to your professor, this means that your example or the ideas you express implies multiple meanings in contrast to the perspective of the author’s text you are discussing. Let’s develop a topic sentence for the revised thesis to understand our points here.

Revised Thesis

In my paper, I will discuss Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I will apply ten composition principles in order to illustrate the points he makes about segregation and direct action as separate but connected entities.

Topic Sentence

King discusses segregation among the Negroes and the white moderate.

Supporting Evidence

First Piece

“Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?”

Second Piece

“First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ ”

Explanation of the Supporting Evidence

1) Both quotes do not equally represent a discussion of “segregation.” a) The first quote is about segregation and its legal influence and social impact. b) The second quote is about the white moderates’ view of the Negroes’ goal of direct action. In King’s letter, segregation is a cause; direct action is the effect.

2) The use of “among” is not appropriate for the contexts above. The word “among” means of a group, in a group, and between group members. The use of this word suggests that segregation exists among a group, but the Negroes and the white moderates represent two distinct social groups. Segregation affects each group differently.

3) In order for the student to be able to use the quote about the white moderates’ view of the Negro, the student would have to ask these questions to promote further research: a) Does the white moderate believe in segregation? b) If so, then what are the white moderate’s views on this concept? Are they the same as the Ku Klux Klanner? c) In what context has the white moderate directly contributed to the segregation of Negroes?

Explanation of the Topic Sentence

In this case, if the student wants to use the direct quotes as supporting evidence for the topic sentence, the student would have to reconfigure the topic sentence so that it complements the ideas expressed within the direct quotes. The student would have to remove such words as “among” and “between.”

Steps to Revising the Topic Sentence

The student’s topic sentence is this: King discusses segregation among the Negroes and the white moderate.

Ask yourself these questions before revising:

What does King actually write about segregation?

King defines segregation as “unjust.” Here is the direct quote: “An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.”

How does King relate the term to Negroes?

Here is the direct quote: “A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected?  Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered.”

How does King relate the term to the white moderate?

The following quotes represent different places where King refers to the white moderate as a group, but not to the white moderate as a segregated group. Here are two direct quotes.

“First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ ”

***

“I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”

Does King apply the term to both the Negro and the white moderate as one group?

No. The distinctions between the two different social groups are clear.

Revising the Topic Sentence

In the letter, King discusses how segregation affects the Negroes in Birmingham, Alabama and how the white moderates feel about the direct-action program the Negroes have adopted as a response to segregation.

Now the topic sentence serves as an accurate reflection of the ideas within King’s work.

Every student is capable of writing at this level, but most students would not provide this kind of detailed information in their topic sentences. The first topic sentence we began with is typical. However, just because it is typical doesn’t mean that the topic sentence is sufficient for your paper. You must go through the process of verifying if you have developed a specific topic sentence, one that at the same time both supports the thesis and prepares the reader for what you will discuss in each paragraph. With this in mind, endure the process of answering the following just before you compose each topic sentence:

Who? 

King

What?            

King discusses how segregation affects the Negroes in Birmingham, Alabama and how the white moderates feel about the direct-action program.

Where?

King discusses these ideas in the letter.

Why?

The topic sentence we are revising doesn’t state why directly, but by implication we know that King’s purpose for writing the letter is to respond to the clergymen’s criticisms of his work and ideas. In addition, we can also go back to the letter and get the actual quote.

Note:  The implication we have made here matches the ideas expressed within King’s letter.

We imply that King is writing about segregation in the letter as a response to the clergymen’s criticisms. We assume correctly according to King’s words: “Seldom do I pause to answer criticisms of my work and ideas.”

When?

We have not added a time factor to the topic sentence, but we can rectify this easily by adding a few keywords. King defines “just law” and “unjust law” before he defines segregation as representing an unjust law. After King’s discussion of how segregation affects the Negro, he defines the views of the white moderate. Therefore, adding the correct time-specific terminology within your paper will help the reader understand the structure of King’s letter.

How?

King handwrites the letter. This is implied. We can verify this implication by King’s first line: “While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “ ‘unwise and untimely.’ ” We have to assume that King does not have a typewriter in jail.

Figure 47: Sample of a Revised Topic Sentence

 In the letter, King discusses how segregation affects the Negroes in Birmingham, Alabama and subsequently how the white moderates feel about the direct-action program the Negroes have adopted as a response to segregation.

The word “subsequently” is a much more appropriate and efficient word than adding both “before” and “after.” However, within the sentences that follow after the topic sentence, it is very important to make sharper distinctions between what happens first, second, third, and last. In addition, in these sentences, you can account for “why” and “how.”

Summary Steps

Always stay close to the meaning evoked from the immediate text. The immediate text is the book lying on the desk in front of you. Always examine the author’s words.

Develop implications from the immediate text; but don’t project your own implications, meanings that are not related to the author’s work. Your implications will appear as unsupported assumptions.

Whenever you are trying to prove a point by using support and data and evidence, make sure your point corresponds to the evidence as it relates to the meaning of the text. In other words, leave no room for uncertainty.

Make your support and the evidence you provide definite and provable, not probable.

Copyright 2011 Regina Y. Favors. All Rights Reserved.

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