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So daughter number one (Thing One or T-One) complained to me the other day that she had to do yet another paper on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She then went on to explain how she’ll have to do a paper a year all the way up through middle school. Still being of single digit age, I doubt my daughter has any real understanding of King’s significance, especially in the Obama era.
I asked her what was wrong with writing a paper a year on King. She responded that she was running out of things to say. Mind you, each paper so far has been a one paragraph essay. She went on to explain, “All he did was help end segregation!” (As if that’s some small feat.)
My mother (The Duchess), who was in earshot, gasped. “All he did?” My mother grew up in the segregated south, participated in sit-ins and marched on Washington in ’63. So to her saying that s all King did was, well, a little disappointing. But my mom wasn’t so disappointed in my daughter. She was disappointed in me. Somehow I had dropped the ball in making my daughter aware of her history. Where we had been as people of color in this country and how far we had come.
“That little girl needs to know!”
Immediately I began to cull together some things on the internet about and by King. The goal was to gather and compile material to convey to my daughter the greater significance of King’s life beyond what he did in fighting segregation. My first stop was his “Letter From A Birmingham Jail” in which King wrote to his fellow clergyman after being jailed for civil discord. The letter is famous for explaining why we could not wait for justice. In it he explained the difference between just and unjust laws.
A couple of weeks ago I had had a conversation with T-One about rules and why some should be followed, some can be bent and others should be broken. King was basically having the same conversation with the clergymen. I felt in good company. As I was reading the letter for my daughter (and re-reading for myself) I was struck by King’s examples.
“Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait’. But… when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality… when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’ then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”
King was talking about the immediate effects of a terrible institution. But I wonder if he anticipated or could even fathom the long term effects. My parents always told me I could be anything. But if I am to be completely honest, something deep in me did not allow me to believe them fully. Although I have never lived during the time of segregation, the “history” I had been taught told me my parents weren’t quite telling me the truth, unintentionally or not. America was against me I thought. Self-doubt was in me.
This isn’t a unique feeling. Doubts run rampant. No matter how confident each of us as dark brown people (we are all some shade of brown) in America feel there is a nagging doubt that we can have it all. One of the most asked questions of prominent dark brown people the days leading to Obama’s inauguration was, “Did you think you’d ever see?” To a person they all said no. That includes Oprah, Jesse Jackson, Colin Powell, Whoopi Goldberg, John Lewis and Mya Angelou and anyone else you could name. Although most of these people lived during the segregation era, many others including Will Smith, did not. But Smith felt the same doubt. On Oprah’s show Smith exclaimed that he always believed in the American ideal that anyone can do anything in this country. But, he didn’t really believe it until Obama was elected president. This cat makes $80 million a year! And he had doubts!?
So here I am wondering how much my daughter should be told about her, our “history”. I would not want the simple knowledge of where we’ve been as a country and how she would have been treated because she’s a little too brown to become ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky. Or for her to feel even on a microscopic level the need to fight a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”. I’m thinking her ignorance is a blessing. At least for now, and hopefully forever, there is nothing in her mind that would tell her a dark brown person (thanks Barack!) or a woman (thanks Hillary!) can’t be the thing she wants. I don’t want to put those thoughts in her mind by trying to teach “history”.
Does that little girl need to know? Maybe. But maybe some things are better left unsaid.