It’s that time of year, y’all! Time to celebrate the late, very great, Martin Luther King Jr. I love Martin Luther King Day because it’s one day that people in our country remember a leader who stood for our very highest values. Unlike the outdated and, in my opinion, pretty shameful Columbus Day, on Martin Luther King Day we celebrate what’s possible through peaceful means, commitment and love. I am inspired when I revisit MLK’s many accomplishments as a community organizer and leader. I hear something new every time I read his words, or watch his historic speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It’s a grand holiday, all around.
This past week, my kids and I finished the book Jump Into the Sky, by Shelly Pearsall, for a middle grade book club we are in. It’s a fabulous story set in the US during WWII and, even if you don’t have kids of this age, I highly recommend it. At one point in the book the main character, a thirteen year old African American boy named Levi, while shelling peanuts, describes how sometimes he would like to crack his skin open like a shell and take it off, changing it for another color. My son, almost the same age as Levi, stopped reading and said he didn’t believe a kid his age would think like that. He didn’t think it would occur to a kid to wish for such a thing, changing his skin.
If you didn’t know already, we’re white. When I mentioned to T that maybe he hasn’t felt the way Levi feels in the book, because he happens to have been born with white skin in a country that has a history of white privilege, I saw the wheels in his mind turning. As he began to see his own American experience in relation to that of a character he had come to care about, it was like watching a flower open.
It’s possible that the only way he’s ever going to have an inkling of what racial prejudice feels like is through his imagination, since I’m not sure you can reach compassion and understanding any other way. You travel, read books, watch plays, movies, play pretend, and, most importantly, meet people different from yourself. Listening to their stories, you are able to see through someone else’s eyes. You trade your skin for another, if only for a moment.
I was born in Tennessee in 1965. Desegregation was still an open wound for some and race wasn’t talked about in my elementary school. Not much time for it, what with all the Bible stories the teachers would read to us. Later, I attended a private school, where we frolicked around in a liberal pool of denial. “No racism here, people!” Meanwhile, I went to a girls’ camp for several summers during the 70’s, where we were required to stand and sing Dixie every night after dinner. I never knew the history, or what that song represented, so I sang along, clapping and stomping at the end, with all the other white Christian girls. Finally, one summer, no one stood after dessert to sing the song. Just like that, it never happened. And, because we were “young ladies” no one mentioned it. Just like no one talked about why the words to “The Watermelon Song” changed, or Eeny Meeny Miny Mo. The important thing is that those changes happened, of course. Slowly (too slowly) the south moved forward. Inch. By. Inch. But what a missed opportunity to look at where we were coming from, and where we wanted to go.
So maybe that’s why I want to read these stories and listen to these speeches over and over. I want to feel it over and over, and talk about it over and over. I want to imagine what it would be like to have another shade of skin in the army in WWII,
at the lunch counters during the 50’s,
and on the school buses in the 60’s,
I’m forever grateful for the photographers, journalists, authors, actors, artists and storytellers who, through their work, offer us communion. And, of course, today and every day, deep gratitude to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.