Today we celebrate, honor and remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is certainly a far different world than it was when he died in 1968. Some may be unaware that he left us a troubled man, worried about our future as a human race. He saw war and greed becoming the new religion; he all but predicted the current issues of some of the wealthiest among us climbing the backs of the working poor, and the dark desire to keep much of the populace ignorant and out of reach of life’s dreams. He personified the truth that sometimes it takes just one person to stand and say “no more” and cause the earth to shake and try to right itself. There are still, shockingly, many people who think that Martin Luther King Jr. was on a mission to help only those of color improve their lives. To those people I say: Martin Luther King Jr. was a big-picture man; he saw that righting wrongs was good and necessary for all of humanity and not just one group.
As a child of holocaust refugees and survivors, I have lived the effects of racism; born into a family that lost nearly all of its members, as well as all of its worldly goods, due to its membership in a religion. My father was anxious to the point of paranoia that we should fit in our adopted country by speaking only English at home; he made it known to us that he did not want racial slurs thrown at his family. In a way, we were lucky because our light skin and hair and our blue and green eyes were a good camouflage, even in our working class neighborhood mostly filled with immigrants from around the world.
It did not work so well for me, when in 1971 I was sent to an” experimental” school that I later found out was an attempt to integrate poor black kids from Jamaica with working class white kids from Forest Hills. What did I know as an unaware ten year old, other than that I was going to make new friends and try new types of learning? The answer to that question is nothing at all, until the day that I was accosted by the girls from Jamaica and told to get my white ass out of their school. I clearly remember looking at my own pale arm and placing it next to my best friend Diedre’s arm and noticing for the first time that they were different colors. And I clearly remember her getting up and backing away from me with a look of fear in her eyes. I began to cry hysterically because of that; but the administration and my mother both thought it was because of the racist bullying and asked me why I had never told anyone that I was the last white kid in the school. Truth is, I had no idea. Tough way to learn about racism, but it has given me a perspective that others do not have.
When I teach my kindergartners about Martin Luther King Jr., I try to be very, very careful. I do not want to introduce oblivious five-year-olds to the idea of treating people different based on the way they look (although I have heard some racist remarks from a variety of kids at this age that are learned at home). So I actually begin in September to talk about, in five-year-old language, judging and treating someone based on the content of their character. I talk about how wonderful it is that each of us is unique in every way- the things we like to eat, the things we are good at, the types of families we come from, the way we look. I talk about how important it is to treat others with respect no matter who they are; and that their opinions, different than our own, can help us learn something new if we just listen. The week of MLK’s birthday, I show them the Dr. Seuss video The Sneetches, his politically charged and very pointed jab at treating people different just because they have “no stars upon thars.” At this young age, they seem to get it; and I hope with every fiber of my being that this understanding sticks in the face of their future experiences. I know that most of them will face discrimination or be part of a group that is discriminating, and I dream that some part of their baby memories will kick in and they will wind up being agents of change. A teacher can dream…
One side-diatribe that I have to throw in here: there is a phrase that irks me that is commonly used- reverse discrimination. In general, white people use this when they are the victims, and it is generally understood to mean just that. I say that the phrase itself perpetuates racism. There is no such thing as reverse discrimination by definition. From Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary- discrimination: the practice of unfairly treating a person or group of people differently from other people or groups of people. Nowhere does it say that this is directed at one specific group of people. So please, if you get anything out of my rant today, take this phrase out of your vocabulary.
The title of this blog comes from a song, written in 1954 and recorded in 1956 by Pete Seeger, 1957 by Sammy Davis Jr and popularized in 1972 by Three Dog Night. It was originally penned to honor the court decision destroying segregation in schools and its words tell the story of wonder at this very first, hard-won move towards equality in our country:
The ink is black, the page is white
Together we learn to read and write
A child is black, a child is white
The whole world looks upon the sight, a beautiful sight
And now a child can understand
That this is the law of all the land, all the land
The world is black, the world is white
It turns by day and then by night
A child is black, a child is white
Together they grow to see the light, to see the light
I hope that today, in honor of this visionary lost way too early, we take a few minutes to see the light.