Monday, January 20, 2014

On Awakening and Martin Luther King Day

Today was Martin Luther King Day.  I didn't want my children, especially my older son who is five, to think they just had a day off from school. I wanted them to know who we were honoring.  And why.

Last year my then four-year-old son and I read a grade school biography on Dr. King.  It had both illustrations and photographs. We read about where Dr. King grew up and where he studied.  We learned where he met his wife, Coretta Scott King.  We read about his preaching, and Rosa Parks, and early events in what would come to be known as the Civil Rights Movement.  

Mr. R, stared in morbid horror at the photograph of Dr. King behind bars in the cell where he wrote "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." He kept wanting to go back to that page.  I stopped at the photographs of the white mobs, their faces twisted with hatred, the fire hoses, and the dogs.  

It was too much.  

I tried to keep my voice as clear and objective as I could, discussing the separate drinking fountains, and the separate schools and waiting rooms, hospitals, train cars, and how a little dark-skinned child could not swim in the same pool with white children. I left out so much. 

He didn't seem to understand -- which a four year old shouldn't.  That will come later.

I remember the awakening I had as a child.  When afterwards the world was different. I saw with new eyes.  I remember a man in my apartment building who never said hello to us.  "He's prejudiced," my mother told me. She then explained it in kid-friendly terms -- that he thought black people were dirty and stupid.  "But we're not!" I thought, indignant and horrified.  

When I was five, Roots aired.  Although my mother wouldn't let me watch it, I did happen to catch a glimpse now and again.  I first heard the word "nigger," and I knew instantly who it was directed at, what it meant, and felt its cruelty.  Months later at day camp when I was 5, two white boys would direct that word at me and a friend. We told on them and they got in trouble.  

Through books and movies and events in real life I started to get that being black wasn't just about having dark skin.  It was how you were treated.  It was if people were nice and fair to you or were mean for no reason.   It was your parents and relatives buying you black dolls because they prayed to God you wouldn't identify with Cinderella or Snow White or Barbie and want to look like them.  It was your hair being a curiosity for some white people and too dark-skinned or light or big-lipped or nappy headed for other black people. It was proving yourself and making sure you were exemplary. It was your dad spitting if a white person ever spat after seeing him. It was not wanting to believe that the reason was because of his or her skin color.  Or yours. It was knowing a history full of injustice and triumph, learning about the greats and the firsts, and knowing they were especially transcendent because white people wouldn't let them vote, perform, play or live like human beings.  

It was being proud because your people had succeeded in spite of.  Knowing how horrible the in spite of was. Is. Knowing it was all so stupid and cruel but so real. 

But along with that ever developing awakening, I had tons of friends of all religions, colors and ethnicities who liked or loved me, for who I was inside.  We liked each other because of what we had in common, and we could talk about what made us different. And if something happened -- when we couldn't talk honestly and openly about race when the subject arose, the relationship almost always died, sooner or later.

Today my kids are lucky enough to live in a neighborhood that though imperfect, is in many ways a model American community. It's a college town that attracts people from all over the globe.  It is extremely racially diverse.  Residents range from élites like the Obamas to people in Section 8 housing.  As a mixed race family, we know more families like us than we can count, in addition to single mom and double mom households.  I often wonder what it will be like if we ever leave here, and my kids realize that Hyde Park is special, far from the norm.

       *     *     *     

Yesterday I looked for that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. biography and I couldn't find it.  I guess we'd borrowed it from school or from the library. 

Instead, I tried to initiate a conversation with Mr. R on fairness. I mentioned that people were not treated fairly based on the color of their skin.  That brown and black people couldn't do the things that white people could do.  Knowing we've discussed the different skin tones in our home, I wondered if he'd make the leap to Daddy being able to do things that Mommy wouldn't be allowed to do.  

He didn't. He was silent.  Maybe he didn't want to talk about it.  Maybe it sounded too absurd.  Maybe he just wanted to go play Brave - Temple Run.

Whatever the case we have our job cut out for us - to instill in our son and daughter a sense of pride in their black and white heritage, while teaching them what people of color need to know.  To help them grow into intelligent, strong, curious, confident, responsible, tenacious individuals. To help them become their best selves who are prepared to meet what confronts them when they wake up.  

Thankfully Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and countless others before and after him have made the morning easier.  


  1. Oh Keesha, this is is so insightful and well written. You kiddos will grow into intelligent, strong, curious, confident, responsible, tenacious individuals. Without a doubt in my mind.

    1. Thank you so much, Val. I know we can make it happen, although sometimes it seems that the world wants everything but.

  2. A lesson, not just important for your family, but for every family. You're doing such a fantastic job with your children as a mother, a role model, and educator. If every household had those kinds of discussions, can you imagine how different the world would be?

    1. What a world indeed. Now that's a dream. . .

  3. Wow! Sharing this post tomorrow. Beautifully written, Keesha. I hate that we live in a world where those conversations have to happen, but I am thankful for all the heroes we have to exemplify the right way to live. My kids aren't in school yet, so MLK is a day like any other, but I do want it to be a day that is more than just a day off. Do you remember the author? I'd like to check it out sometime.

    1. Thank you, Hillary! I know that you will make sure your kids know what MLK Day is all about. On the holiday and the rest of the year.


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