From Martin Luther King Jr.’s “The Other America” speech, Stanford University, April 14, 1967:
And [it’s one thing] … to say to people that you are to lift yourself by your own bootstraps, but it is [a cruel jest] to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And the fact is that millions of Negros, as a result of centuries of denial and neglect, have been left bootless.
The USA Today crossword puzzle is a treasured part of my daily routine. Primarily edited by the brilliant Erik Agard, it unfailingly provides a smooth, amusing solving experience, and, more often than not, I learn a few things along the way. Agard himself was the constructor of last Monday’s puzzle, as well as its editor, but that was not unusual per se. What was unusual was the grid itself. It was almost totally divided diagonally into halves:
Even more unusual (in fact, unprecedented, at least in my experience): the chasm between the solving difficulties of the halves. I had no problem with the northwest half of the puzzle, but as soon as I hit the southeast half, my solving suddenly came to a screeching halt. I was flummoxed.
Merely attempting to solve the SE felt frustrating in the extreme. That part of the puzzle seemed beyond me, as if I was ill-equipped even to have a shot at it. It felt infuriating to be stumped by clue after clue, to not gain any toeholds anywhere, to simply spin my wheels in gut-wrenching futility.
As it turns out, that was exactly what Agard intended.
Published on Monday, January 16th, Martin Luther King day, Agard’s puzzle captured the essence of “The Other America,” but not by merely describing it. Instead, in a clever piece of symbolism, Agard gave the puzzle’s solvers just a taste of the impotence that many Black Americans feel when attempting to solve problems that, through no fault of their own, and not for lack of effort, intelligence or character, they simply cannot solve. The crossword’s halves represent Dr. King’s “two Americas:” the NW “overflowing with the miracle of prosperity and the honey of opportunity,” and the SE “an arena of blasted hopes and shattered dreams.”
The southeast half of Agard’s puzzle is virtually unsolvable by design.
Failing to solve any part of a crossword puzzle is usually frustrating, but failing to solve the southeast half of Erik Agard’s January 16, 2023 USA Today puzzle was enlightening. For, by doing so, I momentarily became Dr. King’s “bootless man,” fruitlessly attempting to lift myself by my nonexistent bootstraps. Agard brought “The Other America” to life, and thus singularly honored Dr. King’s legacy.
The cruel jest was on us. Well done, Mr. Agard.
It was only after reading Sally Hoelscher’s comment on “Diary of a Crossword Fiend,” and her commentary that I fully understood the meaning of Agard’s gem and was moved to write this essay. Thank you Sally!