I had the opportunity to take my 8-year-old nephew to the citywide parade honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., yesterday. And as we drove on the way to the parade, I asked him if he knew who Dr. King was, to which he of course replied yes and told me “he died”. Mmmmkay… So I asked him if he knew what he did BEFORE he died, and not surprisingly he did not.
Then I started thinking…many of us adults don’t really know what Dr. King did before he died. We just enjoy the day off…IF our jobs are among the few that actually take off to honor the day set aside to do so. But how would I explain this to my nephew? How would I share this important part of American history with him, and share with him what it means to live and lead a life of significance? It wasn’t quite as easy as I thought it would be.
How do I teach an 8-year-old concepts of freedom, justice, and equality that we as adults still don’t seem to really understand or follow? We still discriminate not only against other ethnicities outside of our own, but WITHIN it…especially within the African-American community. From skin hue to hair texture to facial structure, on up to the more widespread separators of education and financial status.
How do I drive home the idea that we are “finally free” when, at 8, he sees a police car and already has learned to be anxious about whether we might get pulled over and there be an adverse outcome affecting that freedom? I won’t start lying by making up statistics on African-American arrest and incarceration rates, but we know it’s significantly higher than any other ethnicity in this country…multiplied a few times. And yes, there are other factors that affect these rates, but generally speaking it’s still almost as if being born black is a sexually transmitted disease and predisposes those affected by it to certain socioeconomic conditions…even if nothing more than being forced to overcome the “basic” negative stereotypes.
Why is it such an “achievement” for a black man to go to actually graduate high school, go on to graduate college, find and work in his passion, create a family in his own time, and live his life…WITHOUT having done a stint in jail, or have 8 kids by 7 different women…whereas this is just “normal” for his white counterpart? Why is the average rite of passage for the black male some kind of tragedy (jail, getting shot, knocking up his 8th or 9th grade piece of ass – because that’s how he’s been taught to view her, up to that point – or the death of a loved one)?
We’ve come a long way, but we still have so far to go. So what DID Dr. King do? Because this was NOT the dream he had in mind. He took a stand. He spoke out, but in a way that was so full of conviction, passion, and certainty that it inspired others to stand (or sit or march) for what they knew was right. He wasn’t content “just getting by” with what he was told he was allowed to have during that time. He didn’t conform to his allotted corner and just hope for the best. He honored what was RIGHT, not just what would let him live a “safe” life. Because truth be told, even if he HADN’T taken the stand that he did, his life still wouldn’t have been safe and certainly not comfortable.
Perhaps that’s part of the “stagnation limitation” that we’re experiencing as a nation now. All of the tension, turmoil, turbulence, and friction that it took to get us to this point was actually what was called for in order for it to be so uncomfortable and obviously unreasonable that something HAD to happen. Today, much of the blatant discrimination and ideologies have faded into the background and they’re much more subtle. So subtle that it’s difficult to call it outright injustice. And the mentalities have seeped so deep and settled into generation after generation that we almost don’t even recognize them or know any better, and we’re perpetuating our own demise.
So where do we even start? We start by telling what we know. We know that “once upon a time”, racial injustice wouldn’t even have allowed us the freedom of having the conversation. Once, the little black kids and the little white kids wouldn’t have been allowed to learn, play, or eat together. Once, multi-racial homes and neighborhoods were illegal. Once, not only did children have a curfew but even black adults had to be in before the sun went down and the street lights came on…or they risked not only their freedom but their very lives. These only seem “basic” to us right now because they fought so hard for them back then.
Today, we’re confronted with a far more dangerous type of injustice…because today’s injustices don’t hang a sign that say “back to the trees, boogies”. No memo on the job application that indicates “black folks make 25% less than their white counterparts”. There’s no demarcated neighborhood that says “these kids will grow up knowing only impoverished thinking and habits”. No written rule that notes “black girls make the easiest targets for teenage pregnancy, promiscuity, and domestic violence”. Nah…this is an enemy that has partnered with an internal champion. No march on this one. No bus to ride on this one. This sly alliance is likely why Dr. King died the death that he did.
So what did I tell my nephew? I told him what I knew. That Martin Luther King was a man of vision, and that he saw some very special things. He saw how special EVERYONE is, and that everyone should be treated fairly. That we all deserve to be allowed to be our best…no matter how we are born, or how we look. That it’s wrong to be mean to someone just because they are different from us. And I told him that we all need to make sure we do what we know is right, no matter how hard it may seem at the time. That not everyone will like us for it, but that by doing the right thing we live the life we are meant to live.
I doubt he understood most of what I said, but that is where leading by example comes in. I can show him better than I can tell him. And you best believe I intend to show him everything I know for as long as I’m able…and pray that he has something far more powerful grow within him. It starts with one seed…