Going a little “off Clearing topic” today. I recently posted on Facebook about President Obama’s very moving eulogy for Senator and Reverend Clementa Pinckney. Here is part of what I posted (if you already read it on FB, skip to below):
“Had the first chance to listen to President Obama’s eulogy for the Senator and Reverend Pinckney today. Eric and I were both brought to tears. I am sure there are those who find things to criticize about the eulogy. I would say that criticism is expected, and is the polar opposite of the message sent: Forgiveness. Acceptance. Grace. AMAZING grace. Yes.
All I could think about during the speech was my mother. Ahead of her time, she fought for civil rights. In spite of family adversity and all the controversy of the the 50s and 60s, she stuck to her guns. She loved JFK and MLKJ. She was devastated when they were killed. This would have made her realize her efforts were not in vain. Her part and her passion mattered. I thank her for raising me to understand that prejudice (of any kind) is wrong…”
Eric, and one of my friends on FB suggested I blog about this topic. An anecdotal essay I wrote about eighteen years ago, after a conversation with my five-year-old daughter Kylie, came immediately to mind.
Out of the mouths of babes…
Will the Real Martin Luther King Please Stand Up?
My mother was born in the twenties into an era of racial bigotry. The youngest of twelve children, she was the only one in her family to put herself through college, and the only one in her family to believe that racism is wrong. Perhaps it was through her education that she was able to understand and rise above the hatred that surrounded her, but I prefer to believe that she was simply born with that knowledge in her heart.
She was passionate about it. From the time I can remember, she taught my sister and me that all human beings were created equal. Words like “nigger” and “colored” were extremely cruel and hurtful, and bigotry was a grave sin. I assumed this to be a universal belief, until I reached my early teens and found that my mother was really the exception. She became active in the fight for Civil Rights, and my dad was forced to drive her to rallies in the “bad parts of town” because if he refused, she would go by herself, and he was afraid for her safety among throngs of “those kind.” Her entire family thought she was crazy. But even still, she did what she knew was right.
Eventually, though, her ideals would crumble. When I was fourteen, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed. I came home from school to find her crying in the living room. After the blow of losing the president that she so admired, John F. Kennedy, this loss was too much for her. The fight seemed insurmountable. Coupled with several personal losses she faced over the next few years, her disillusionment with the world eventually led to a severe depression. When I was eighteen, she committed suicide.
After many years of struggle with my own depression and disillusionment, I finally married and, at thirty-seven, had my first daughter, Kylie Dawn. From the start she was special. As soon as she learned to talk, she wanted to discuss everything, to figure it out, to determine what was true and right. I have learned so much from her. I wanted to be able to pass on to her the gift my mother had given me – the understanding of what it means to share the world, and the strength to live it. But Kylie was growing up in a completely different environment. Her neighborhood and classroom were a rich mix of cultures, and she regarded their physical differences as casually as differences in eye color or height. She was completely unaware that anything like racial bigotry existed.
Then one day she asked me how a girl gets to be a princess. I told her the girl would have to be born to a king or queen. She asked how someone gets to be a king or queen.
“Some countries have royal families,” I said, “and the kings and queens are the leaders of the country.”
“Does our country have a king?” she asked.
“No,” I told her, “the president is the leader of our country.” She considered this for a moment.
“So, was Martin Luther King a president, or a king?” she asked. They had been studying about him in her Kindergarten class.
“Well, neither,” I smiled. “Martin Luther King was a great leader, whose last name happened to be ‘King.’ He had a dream for all people to treat each other with respect and live together in peace.”
“Then why would someone shoot him, Mom?” she asked.
I explained to her that there are people in the world who don’t like other people because of their beliefs and sometimes just because of the way they look. Martin Luther King had brown skin, I told her, and there are people who hate other people for that reason alone. She looked at me in utter bewilderment.
“But Chelsea [next door neighbor] has brown skin and we love her!”
“Yes, we do. And God made us look different from each other so we could tell each other apart. Wouldn’t it be boring if we all looked alike?”
“Yes, Mom, it would. Having brown skin is beautiful. Or any color, Mom, even green – that would be beautiful, too. It’s great that we all look different. God had a good idea. And anyway, if we all looked the same, it would be, like, ‘Hey, is that Martin Luther King? Is that my mom? Who IS that?’”
I started to laugh. It was then that I knew there was nothing I needed to teach my young daughter about my mother’s dream, for it was already there. I imagined my mother somewhere, smiling down at the little girl who had inherited her heart.
My hopeful, idealistic mother, at 24
My mother and me, circa 1958