Talking with my kids about civil rights issues in this supposedly sometimes post-racial world isn’t exactly easy. For one, my kids are white. Their parents are white. Their grandparents are white. White, white, white. So if you stretch back far enough (and sometimes not that far at all), they are descendants of the perpetrators of injustice, the beneficiaries of that injustice as well.
That’s not an easy story to tell, not because of guilt so much, but because their daily lives demonstrate none of this past history overtly (mercifully!).
There’s also the question of where to start.
Slavery? That’s kind of abstract and maybe a bit of a brutal introduction? Or maybe by starting there it doesn’t sound brutal enough? I don’t know. Of course talking about racism with young ones gets unwieldy. You bring up skin color and suddenly they’re pointing out color gradations to rival a wall of Home Depot paint chips.
But Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Now there’s a starting point! There’s easy-t0-access audio/visual. You can go back and pick random parts of the text.
Every line is a starting point for some discussion, concrete terms as well as metaphors, all of it tied to an event, a habit, a mindset, an injustice. Pick one and start from there.
Why was he giving a big speech in Washington, D.C.?
In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. …
So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
Sure, but was it really so bad? (This made my own kids gasp):
We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Whites Only”.
And all of those references in the “I have a dream …” sequence. Maybe now it’s time to talk about slaves?:
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
And no, no it’s not all behind us just yet. There’s still injustice — the pool of oppressed has simply broadened in ways even MLK hadn’t considered. But don’t lose hope — don’t give up, kids. Some dreams, do, come true. Check this out:
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
A dream of King’s, a reality of my kids’ and maybe yours. Of course, so much further to go.
Here’s the full text of “I Have a Dream,” a link to the awarding winning PBS series “Eyes on the Prize,” which you can watch online or on Netflix. And finally, a video that never gets old: