It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as I am sure you know. Throughout the day, I have heard various clips of speeches by Dr. King that I had never heard before. I usually tend to think of the “I Have a Dream” speech and leave it there. But I was thankful that several of the NPR shows dug a little deeper today.
One speech I heard today was one that no one had listened to, at least not for years. Recently, a tape was found of the speech Dr. King made at Temple Israel of Hollywood in 1965. I’m listening to it now as I write. What a treasure. Dr. King talks about the slavery of Israel in Egypt, and the response of the Israelites after they were free. I haven’t listened to the whole speech yet, but the similarities are obvious.
I also learned more about the cause that drew Dr. King to Memphis, a garbage collector’s strike, and the events that ultimately cost him his life. I don’t want to suggest that Dr. King went knowing he would die, but he certainly knew the costs of going to that city and fighting for that cost. Many had cautioned him against going.
As I have been considering this day, which Dr. King’s widow, the late Coretta Scott King, said should be a “day on” not a “day off,” my mind has landed on a few events from my life that have shaped my “diversity sensibilities,” and hopefully are pushing me forward and not backward. Though some of these are deeply personal and a bit embarrassing, I thought I might share them in the interest of bringing the discussions of this day down to the level where most of us live.
— Jackie Robinson’s baseball career, George Washington Carver’s experiments with peanuts, Booker T. Washington’s higher education, and Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad were some of my first interactions with race. “Black History Month” was an important event each year at my elementary school, and I chose a different black hero to focus on each February. For our project, we did research, made posters and gave speeches about these important men and women who pushed our country away from the ignorance of slavery, racism, and oppression. Unfortunately, these projects made race more a matter of history than current events, however. I thought very little about race on a day to day basis.
— My first black friend was a boy in my 2nd grade elementary school. His family was the only black family in our school district, and “Matt” and I had a similar competitive spirit when it came to academics. Not only was he my first black friend, he actually was my only black friend all the way through high school. I haven’t seem him for years now, but I just googled him. He’s now an engineer with a solid career. Being the only black kid in our class had to have been hard, and yet because of Matt, I shed a lot of the prejudice of my rural community pretty early on.
— There was one particular time, however, when I was the perpetrator of racism, and when I was called on it, it changed my life. I won’t go into the details, but I made an insensitive racial joke in front of a few friends, and while some of them laughed, one boy said, “I can’t believe you said that. What if Matt had been here?” I was cut to the heart. At that moment, I realized that racism was not a philosophy, it was hatred for real people.
— When I lived and worked in Atlanta, Ga., I worked with as many black people as white people, and I began to see that racism is not simply a result of innocent ignorance or a matter of not knowing people of another race. It often is a choice to believe lies and to remain ignorant. In the break room, I often ate lunch with a black woman name Francine. I first began to sit with her purposefully because she was black, knowing I needed to intentionally cross barriers. I continued to sit with her because we had a lot in common and I liked being with her. Beyond our interracial eating, though, most of the other employees sat in groups according to their own race.
— When I was a teaching assistant during my time in graduate school, I taught an English 101 class and often had to talk with both black and white students (there were no students of other races in my classes) about their writing. Though I offered praise and criticism to all the students, I felt a certain awkwardness about relating to my black students. I didn’t want to be too hard or too easy on them. I wanted to treat them fairly. But I found myself wondering what “fair” meant. I ultimately realized that “fair” for any of my students meant more than treating them like everyone else. Being fair also meant treating them with respect for who they are.
— I now have several friends who are black, and occasionally, we have a moment of openness that allows us to talk about racial differences, to acknowledge what’s still wrong in our country and in our own lives. I often don’t think of these friends according to their color anymore, but I think that approach is too simplistic. To be completely color blind in these relationships may fail to acknowledge areas of life that are challenging or hard for them.
— Over the past couple of years, I have been listening to a radio show, News and Notes, on our local public radio station that deals exclusively with issues of interest to people of color, primarily blacks and African-Americans. I have to admit that some days it’s hard for me to listen, and it’s probably because I’m white. (In fact, this show is not created for me, so it’s probably ok that my “whiteness” interferes with my listening.) In the past few months, I’ve been hearing a lot about “white privilege” on this show, and at first, I resisted the implications. Does racism and prejudice against black people imply a certain preference for white people? How would my black friends answer?
As I write these vignettes, I realize that I am not nearly as enlightened in my thinking as I would like to be. I still see the issues too simplistically; I still feel a little more threatened when I see a black man walking in front of my house than when I see a white man; I still make certain assumptions about life, faith, and country that my black friends don’t feel they can make. But as a Christian, I also know that Jesus wants me to grow in my love for others, whatever their color, whatever their income, whatever their differences, and I want to take the truth of where I am, and ask Jesus to redeem it for something better.
Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day.