I have a five-year-old daughter, and while inequity and empathy have been a topic of conversation in our home since she was old enough to hear me speak, this is the first January of her life that we had an honest conversation about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. On Thursday evening, I sat with her at dinner and played King’s speech from the 1963 March on Washington, and we talked about his work, his life, and the fact that he was murdered by a man who felt threatened by King’s pursuit of equality for black Americans (and all Americans). What stuck out the most for my daughter, who lost her own father two and a half years ago, was that King was taken away from his children forever by someone whose heart was filled with hate.
This is a difficult holiday for a lot of Americans, and over the decades since his death one important issue to keep in mind is the co-opting and dilution of King’s message to appeal to the white masses. His pursuit of freedom, which was no more gentle than the hoses turned on teenager protesters in Alabama the same year as the March on Washington, has been whittled down to account for only his message of non-violence – which is valid and true, but such a small portion of his overall work that there is a constant unmissable feeling of misrepresentation.
I am biracial – my father was deeply involved in the civil rights movement and was himself at the March on Washington with his parents at age ten. One of my earliest grammar school book reports was on the Autobiography of Malcolm X; a completely neglected historical figure in my school’s curriculum, but at home he loomed authoritatively on a postcard portrait in my dad’s office, and as a child my father would perennially play a cassette tape recording of The Ballot or the Bullet speech for my brother and me. Malcolm X was such a central figure of our home teachings about civil rights that I have intrinsically passed this down to my daughter, who has recognized his likeness since she was in preschool. (Conversely, she only saw a picture of Donald Trump for the first time a few months ago.)
On Thursday evening, when I played King’s 1963 I Have A Dream speech for her, we discussed one of the most popular excerpts, which we all know goes:
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
She repeated this a few times and we talked about what it means, enough that she has been able to repeat it back to me over the last few days when something related has come up. Truly, deeply, with all of my soul, I hope that this small child continues to see people in the world as the sums of their actions and effects, and not by their appearances or intentions.
24 hours later my newsfeed was flooded with disgusting video of a teenage boy and his MAGA classmates taunting Native American elder and Vietnam veteran Nathan Phillips in Washington, D.C., an incident so disgraceful and familiar that even a screen still of the boy’s face turned my stomach. The instant this video was shared, what sprang to mind was white teenagers dumping milkshakes on black teenagers heads as they sat-in at a “white” diner, grown adults terrorizing six-year-old Ruby Bridges as she helped desegregate a Louisiana elementary school, or any image you’ve ever seen of The Little Rock Nine. And these are just instances where no one was gravely injured.
And as the news unfolded and this pathetic sniveling teen released a public statement framed as an “apology”, much of the audience bearing witness to the events unfolding on the internet seemed satisfied enough with a return to peace. The little twerp was seen to have been repentive. “Give him a break, he’s a kid!” And then, inevitably, flooded to mind all of the kids who were not given the benefit of the doubt simply because of the color of their skin. Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Kendrick Johnson, and so many more young boys whose lives were deemed disposable in a way that we would never project on a young Brett Kavanaugh or Brock Turner or this dipshit Nick Sandmann in his MAGA hat.
That slogan… Make America Great Again. At what hour was America great? What makes this country great is the collective belief that with enough hard work, it could one day be great for our children.
The gravity of speaking with my daughter about civil rights in America comes from a desire to contradict what most academic and conversational discussions will insinuate, which is the fallacy that this struggle is an issue of the past. Yes, progress has been made, yes, we should acknowledge the steps forward, but a great part of the history of civil rights in America is discussing the ways in which we have failed the movement, stopped fighting, given up pushing for equality for all, brushed the criminal and violent injustice committed by those in positions of power under the rug in the name of Peace, but really in the name of white comfort.
The other fact weighing heavily on my mind is that my daughter is unmistakably white. I have the privilege as a parent of knowing that, when she goes out into the world, she will not be persecuted or judged for the color of her skin because of the color of her skin. Just as part of my personal journey as a biracial woman is constantly recognizing the privileges afforded to me by the color of my skin, and in turn recognizing the responsibility that comes with the power white supremacy puts in my hands, I feel the same responsibility for the future woman I am sending out into the world. Will she use her power to help others? Will she know when to be silent in order to amplify the voices that need to be heard? Will she recognize injustice, and when she does, what will she do about it?
We spoke about this on Thursday evening, and when I asked her, “Matilda, if you saw someone being treated differently because of the way they look, what would you do?”
And out of the tiny girl with big earnest eyes came: “Mama, I would fight for them.”