Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Martin Luther King Day

Sarah came out and stayed with us Monday while school was out for the holiday. I asked her what she knew about Martin Luther King. Her distant response made it sound like the poor guy has already been reduced to the corner of history where Abraham Lincoln and George Washington live. A hero, for sure, but a distant hero.

That’s such a sad waste of memories. We are at the time in history right now when the first-hand witnesses to the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s are aging. The grandparents and great grandparents who marched are the ones who can best tell the story. But the sixties happened fifty years ago. Today’s young parents did not witness the struggle. It will do Sarah no good to hear stories from them. They are too young.

It won’t do any good to hear stories from books, they are too dry. It will not do too much good to hear the stories from me. I’m too white.

We’re losing an opportunity. We have limited time for the civil rights veterans to visit elementary schools to tell their stories. And their first-hand stories are so important if we are to understand the full meaning of why we have this holiday.

When our girls were little we lived next to a black couple in a progressively integrating neighborhood. When Beaven tried to worry about this I pointed out our new neighbors were both better educated than us, with two or three graduate degrees between them, including Harvard Law. For a year or two, Carla Ranger and I were stay at home young mothers and found we had a lot in common. Emily was born about a month before her son Marc and we sometimes babysat for each other. We were getting close to being relaxed enough with each other to discuss race when they moved away for better jobs. We made jokes about her leaving the neighborhood instead of my family.

Carla told me of “sitting in” at a restaurant in the sixties. She and a young black man went with a white couple and sat down in a restaurant. That’s all they did. They sat down at a table. Their only crime was to try to buy a meal and eat it in the same room with whites. The owner came to their table and held a gun to Carla’s head and told them to leave his restaurant or he would shoot her.

This story happened. I know the person it happened to. And that’s the closest I ever got to the civil rights movement.

My only brush with the shifting of attitudes was when I was in high school. I went to a weekly Creative Writing class held at the downtown Dallas Public library. The woman who taught the class insisted that it be integrated even though the schools were still segregated at the time. So there were one or two kids in the class who were black. After class one evening I stood at the bus stop talking with Rodney Phillips, a black friend who was part of the class.

We talked while we waited for his bus to take him to “his” part of town and a totally different bus going in a totally different direction to take me to “my” part of town. A white man walked up to us and asked me if that boy was bothering me. I told him no. Years later now, I wish I had had the presence of mind to add that he was a friend. It was my only opportunity to help adjust the mind-set of the sixties and I blew it.

I never marched. I never sang “We Shall Overcome.” I was a witness but not a participant. I risked nothing. I do not get the t-shirt that others earned.

My grandchildren’s attitude toward race is so astonishingly different that I could say they don’t really have an attitude. They don’t have a viewpoint. They have been raised beside children of every race, including bi-racial friends. To them differences in race just don’t exist. I’m not even sure they grasp the concept of race. To them skin color has been relegated to mere identification markers on the level with hair color and height.

My grandmother kept a journal that dates back to the 40’s. It’s a running commentary of what she cooked, how much chicken cost, what the weather was like, what my grandfather planted and other miscellaneous details of their lives. Now, my grandmother was an extremely gracious and genteel woman. She would tell you in a heartbeat that she had never “painted”, which meant used makeup on her face. And that “spirits” had never touched her lips. Ladies did not do those things in her day. But this woman also sprinkled the N word throughout her journal in such a casual way that it’s clear she had no idea that it would be considered hard-core profanity to the little girls who would follow four generations later.

To Grandmother, the word was just a word, while skin color created an un-crossable barrier. To Sarah, skin color is just a color while a certain racial epithet her great-great- grandmother used now announces poor character. Why, you might just as well rouge your cheeks or swill moonshine.

I live within the hinge. Where one solid plank of an old reality meets a totally different plank of the new reality. I have seen both realities, and hold them together and apart at the same time.

In the meantime we still haven’t decided which food best celebrates MLK Day. Thanksgiving has turkey. Easter has ham. Independence Day has hot dogs.

Sarah has voted for ice cream for MLK Day.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My experience was similar when I asked our granddaughter if she knew why they had a day off from school. I didn't have a great way of explaining, and I don't think she really heard what I did say. Most kids that age probably think MLK is the name of a street in their city - remember what a struggle THAT was?
Virginia M.