Celebrating Dr. KingWritten by Shannon Szyperski | | firstname.lastname@example.org
I was quite pleased when my six-year-old approached me about throwing a Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration on his Monday off of school honoring the civil rights leader. We invited a few classmates over, decorated some cupcakes and prepared the computer to play King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. I was more than ready to formally introduce Jack and his friends to the significance of the civil rights movement and the importance of racial equality.
Not surprisingly, my still-quite-young son had never seemed to take much interest in the holiday nor its meaning before, despite my yearly requests for a full recap of what he had learned about Dr. King in school. His answers to my “Why do we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.?” line of questioning usually ranged from “I don’t know” to “I think he helped some people.” Likely wanting to finally end my inquisition and prove his knowledge about the obviously important historical figure, he excitedly came to me just before party time and informed me that he had, in fact, learned in school why we celebrate Dr. King.
“I know why Martin Luther King is famous, Mom,” he said. “Because he was a black man!”
He went on to explain the injustice that had befallen fellow Americans based solely on the color of their skin and Dr. King’s triumphant role in helping end it, all to the best of his first-grade ability. Still, such an odd feeling came over me. It was the first time he had ever differentiated anyone in such a manner.
Somehow skin color as a topic of conversation had just never come up these past six years. It is certainly not something that we have ever mentioned to our children. And, despite friends, classmates and public figures coming in all various shades, our children have never asked.
I grew up with conflicting instructions about how to approach our nation’s diversity. My elementary school years were filled with the theory of the United States as a melting pot held up in high esteem, with all differences left at our borders in order to create one big stew of amalgamation. By junior high, however, the melting pot was slowly giving way to the idea of America as a salad bowl, a cohesive whole made up of various, unique parts. By high school, the salad bowl had again given way to the demand for a celebration of diversity, a plea to take greater notice of our differences more so than our commonalities.
I dependably took my seat on each of the proverbial bandwagons and followed the politically correct movement of the time. When it came to raising my children, however, I decided that their most impressionable years should be filled with the idea that everyone is created absolutely equal. Giving color blinders to the youngest opinion-formers among us doesn’t seem like a bad idea when attempting to fulfill Dr. King’s dream. It is hard to judge someone on a characteristic that you don’t deem characteristic.
Apparently, six years old is when things get to be a bit tricky. As important as it is to establish the insignificance of race in the way we wish our children to view those around them, explaining the significance it did play in the past is still an eventual necessity. Assuming that those who do not learn history are, in fact, doomed to repeat it, passing along the lessons our nation has learned from its embarrassing years of inequality is an absolute must.
Still, there is a complicated line we must walk in continuing to make Dr. King’s vision of the United States a reality. For one, we have changed. I found that what has become an inappropriate word to the ears of most the past forty or so years was strongly peppered throughout even Dr. King’s most memorable of speeches without the slightest hint of his own unease about it. What has recently become a point of contention for its use in an official U.S. capacity was once sung out with pride and conviction by Dr. King himself. There is no doubt occasional confusion when it comes to the promotion of human equality.
Shannon and her husband Michael are raising three children in Sylvania. Visit her blog at www.whatswithwomen.com.