I was coming down the stairs this morning, a load of laundry in my arms, when I heard my daughter’s excited voice.
“Look, Mom! Our friends are outside playing! Why aren’t they at school?”
With the day’s to-do list scrolling through my head, I was about to murmur a casual “I don’t know” when I remembered going over my calendar before the kids were up. “Oh, it’s a holiday. They don’t have school today because it’s Martin Luther King, Jr. day.”
And even as I kept walking to the laundry room, I heard her little voice again. “Who’s that? Why does he get a holiday?”
I felt the gravity of the moment suddenly demand a pause in the morning. I set the laundry basket down and went into the living room to look at my precious daughter and my precious son, who had stopped playing to come listen. Kids have the uncanniest sense about when something matters.
For just a few moments, I did my best to explain MLK’s legacy to their very tender 5- and 3-year old hearts. We talked about racism and segregation and laws that said certain individuals didn’t even count as an entire human being. We talked about separate schools and separate bathrooms and hate and fear. We talked about a man speaking up and literally laying his life down because this was so important.
I looked at those wide-eyes, and I knew what they were thinking of. Who they were thinking of. Their favorite friend from our former church. The next-door neighbor girl. The three little girls who live behind us who told my daughter she was the first friend they’d made in the neighborhood. (Never mind that none of them seem to be able to remember each other’s names. They just yell, “Hi, friends!” whenever they see each other.)
When I paused in my explanations, my daughter said very emphatically, “That makes no sense. God makes people in all colors. And besides, we’re supposed to treat others how we want to be treated.”
She was so matter of fact, so simple in her understanding of the situation. And unlike other hard things I’ve had to explain to her, where I end up saying, “It’s just complicated. There’s not always an easy answer,” this feels different. It shouldn’t be complicated. It really shouldn’t. I mean, at this point, dismantling the systems and prejudices and hundreds of years of tensions—well, ok, these are daunting undertakings. But they shouldn’t be.
I’ve never been able to wrap my head even a little bit around the concept of racism. I think we all have to work to overcome various biases and prejudices, get over our fear of differences; these are aspects of flawed humanity that are common to all of us. But to actually consider someone less than—less valuable, less worthy, less human—over skin color or accents or different homeland? I can’t make sense of it.
Then she asked the question, the one that shattered me: “But this doesn’t happen anymore, does it? Since the law was changed?”
And I have to look into those innocent, hopeful, compassionate faces and say, “Yes, it still happens.”
I don’t dismiss the progress. I don’t dismiss the years of efforts, the laws changed, the reconciliation fought for. But I see my own thoughts and frustrations mirrored in their little eyes: mere progress doesn’t seem like enough when people’s value and humanity are on the line.
I became painfully aware of my own lack of knowledge and understanding of this issue, even of MLK’s incredible legacy, as I talked with my children. I realize I have a lot more research and learning and listening to do. I want to know more so that I can do more.
Our conversation finally dwindled down, but as my daughter walked away, she said with all the sass and stubbornness she could muster (which, in this girl, is quite a bit), “Well, I’m just going to love everybody” and did her little “so there” flip of the head.
Well then, sweet girl, you’re miles ahead of so much of the world already. And I think that’s an excellent starting point.