A day like today, of all the myriad days we celebrate and people and things that we honor, as Americans, is hard to quantify or even qualify in terms of its value. There is a day when we honor the achievements of a man (the guy with three ships) who has been proven a mass murderer, or at least the instigator of mass murder. We celebrate his “discovery” rather than the discovery made by the first people to cross over a land bridge from Asia,thousands of years before. As hard as it was to sail across an ocean, imagine the challenge in migrating by foot across arctic lands, through gaps between glaciers, and spreading out to people two continents. (For the sake of brevity, I’ll skip the other migration theories. They’d have been tough, too.)
But today, someone got it right. MLK was not and is not the only civil rights leader (not to mention pacifist) worthy of celebration, but that’s the point. I suspect that MLK himself would argue that this day is not about him alone but about the values and the principles and the dreams for which he fought. It takes courage to fight violence with nonviolence. It takes grit to speak your mind when everyone keeps telling you to sit down and shut up. It takes vision and faith to build a wall of arms linked together, marching in tandem across vast distances of land and thought, with voices raised in song, rather than a wall of brick and mortar and barbed wire and cement blocks, mounted with a very different kind of arms.
When I taught creative writing years ago, this was my favorite day/week/month, because it was the time when I could best bring together two passions–history and literature. My students had to write and submit a poetry or prose piece for the local MLK writing contest. Each year, when I introduced the project, I got a lot of moans and groans and rolled eyes, from a class full of students that was predominantly Black and 95% marginalized in one way or another. White males were a distinct minority in my classes. I was stunned and humbled each time that a group comprising students who had or would suffer higher levels of discrimination and perhaps even persecution could roll their eyes at discussing civil rights. Apparently, when I wasn’t looking, the civil rights movement had become cliche. My students, born circa 2000, were too distant from it perhaps, or had become too mired in the complacency and distraction of our age. (Pause: I know some of my former students might read this. I know it wasn’t every student so don’t bite my head off. Ahem.)
THAT reality, the eye rolls, the tendency to twitch a wrist over a smartphone beneath the desk (yeah, I noticed) rather than to listen up to what might save your life or what at least has helped shape it and what work you have left to do, is why today matters. It’s why today is one of the MOST American, one of the GREATEST, things we can pause to recognize. It’s why today must be more than a day but a way of life, a call to action, an ongoing movement that never becomes the stuff of moralistic idioms to be dispensed like chewing gum and spit out.
Seven years ago, I walked with my students, some other students and teachers, and a few parent volunteers from our school to the Dayton Peace Museum. The museum staff did a lovely job helping us break into groups and tour the exhibits and do writing activities to prepare for the writing assignment. We explored not only civil rights but the broader concept of human rights. I still remember some of the faces as we sat in the nuclear holocaust room, looking at images from Hiroshima. Paragraph anecdotes in textbooks had not done the stories and the very real people behind them justice. (As one who writes those books, I know better than most.) At any rate, the most important lesson of that day came not from the museum or from the student or from me or my fellow teachers. On the way there, one of my students, a young Black man, paused to pick up a rock. He was tossing it up and down in his hand, just passing the time as he walked. He wore a hoodie. I looked over my shoulder and saw flashing lights. The student had fallen perhaps ten paces behind, and a cop pulled over, suspecting that he was up to no good, perhaps planning to break a window with the rock or pelt another student. The student was shaken the rest of the day, as were his parents when I called to explain to them what had happened. Though we can’t really prove it, most of us doubted that if one of my white blonde students in a polo shirt had been dragging his feet and tossing a small rock in his hand casually, he or she would have been stopped. (Note: The kid in the hoodie actually had a polo on underneath his hoodie, too. He almost always wore nice jeans and khakis with a button shirt of some variety. But clothing shouldn’t matter, right?) We spent a lot of time in class talking about that experience, and as the Black Lives Matter movement has grown and the reports of police shootings have spread and gained more attention, I often wonder how many students think about that day–and other days like it. About how quickly things can go so terribly wrong, and why.
Why is why today matters. No more eye rolls. Be grateful if you are alive, if you have never experienced harassment or discrimination or persecution. In a way, I wish more people had, so that they might better appreciate how systemic discrimination and bigotry can be. Recently, I watched a video about the different between non-racist and anti-racist. Non- makes it possible, too. Non- can make you complicit. We all most be more than non-, and I’m guessing again, if MLK were alive today, he might change non-violence to anti-violence. After all, being antiviolent, antiracist, antinationalist, antixenophobic, antiwarmongering, antisexist, antiagist, antibigotry, being a pacifist, being a snowflake, being disobedient in a civic-minded way, dissenting, challenging, questioning, empathizing, these things are not weaknesses. They do not mean being inactive. Often, they are the strongest, smartest, most important actions we can take. When you want to know why, ask a young person. If he or she gives you an intelligent, well thought answer, awesome! That’s why. If he or she rolls the eyes, well, that’s exponentially why.
Write. Speak. March. Sing.
Listen. Learn. Connect.