First, I want to make clear that I am not here to argue the merits of observing or not observing Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Some businesses are closed, and some are not. I happen to work for one that is, save for a skeleton crew of support staff for those few customers choosing to remain open.
My experience growing up was very different from my son’s. Except for a total of three years that I spent in other towns before moving back to my hometown, I never saw a face in school or anywhere else in town that was not Caucasian. Unless you count the folks who owned the local Chinese restaurant.
I posted the following as my Facebook status on Saturday at 3:12 p.m. Central:
Does anybody have a young child who knows that they are out of school Monday in honor of a man who fought peacefully against racism? How far back do you go in explaining why he needed to do that in the first place? How young is too young? Why?
I received several comments — from my first-grade teacher, others who grew up there, and a young lady I met in one of those other towns. Each had a unique experience regarding attitudes toward race, and I thought it warranted sharing out here.
Before those showed up on my page, however, I discussed it with our 7-year-old son (a second-grader). I went back to Facebook and followed up with my own comment.
I asked him what they learned about MLK, Jr. He said that brown people were not allowed to sit up front, and had to use different bathrooms, and that MLK, Jr.’s parents’ house was bombed.
“Did you know that, Daddy?” he asked, now speaking very softly, as if setting the tone of the conversation.
I fibbed a bit and said I did. “Did you learn why someone bombed their house?” I asked.
“Because they were mad at them,” he said, still gently.
A very simplistic explanation, but accurate. I could tell by his mood that he knew that was no excuse.
“It’s a good thing we don’t treat people like that in the US anymore, isn’t it?” I said.
“It sure is,” he said as he reached for a Hot Wheels car and un-paused a show featuring a “brown” child making ice cream alongside a “white” child.
My first-grade teacher replied:
Very poignant… and growing up like you and I did, I think we can’t have this discussion early enough! You know, all WE ever knew growing up in H was that white people moved here to escape the “brown” people in their cities and neighborhoods – and sadly, that affected the attitudes of many – for a long time, if not forever. I regret that we grew up in such a sheltered – and often bigoted – environment.
I am old enough to remember “whites only” water fountains in downtown Little Rock and more. Yet somehow, I managed not to buy into this picture. Some of my best friends in college – and favorite students in kindergarten – were black… and they could have been purple for all I noticed or cared. My best friend in 5th grade was Leona – a full-blooded Indian girl in Oklahoma. Maybe that’s where my “tolerance” began.
I’m glad someone is teaching Ben about MLK,Jr. – if only in simplistic terms. Maybe that’s enough for now… as long as more information is provided as he matures enough to handle it. I do think we have to educate our children, in an age-appropriate manner, about the mistreatment of all races… and sadly, that we DO still mistreat them in some corners of America. I am not sure if H even recognizes MLK’s birthday – the doors will be open and school will be in session. Hopefully there will be teachers who will pause and give some recognition to the significance of this day… and begin the process of teaching even the white kids of (that) County about tolerance of ALL people… and peaceful coexistence.
Great points, D. I am so glad our son is growing up in a neighborhood and attending a school in which he sees all sorts of faces. People are appalled when I tell them of some of the things that were part of everyday conversation in my hometown. I know a lot more about what he was taught simply from asking him this morning. Their class watched MLK, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” and also read other things about him. We conveniently never made it beyond the Reformation after the Civil War in my history classes back in the day. I have no idea whether that was intentional, but it certainly helped everyone avoid lots of potentially stirring conversations, and conflicts between the school and the parents.
A classmate, here called “R,” who also happens to be a teacher, from one of the other towns I briefly called home:
I touch on it with kindergarten. I know our second graders learn a lot. There is a REALLY good movie they watch where a kid travels back in time and meets MLK at various times in his life. I was watching one of the classes once when they watched it and learned so much myself.
My first-grade teacher:
I think that is wonderful that such things as R describes are happening in some classrooms. We do have a handful of black families living in H now, due mostly to the oil and gas industry… and many Hispanics. But I shudder to think how they may be treated in this town by some. Breaks my heart and embarrasses me to no end. My dad occasionally worked with black men on construction crews, and he always talked about what nice men they were, and that influenced me, I’m sure. But I think part of what bothers me about how we grew up was the fact that a point had to be made about someone’s ethnicity or skin color. It wasn’t enough that Pat, Archie, Elihu and Eunice were my friends… they were my BLACK friends! There was about a 5% black population at my elementary school (if that), and somehow most of those children found their way to MY classroom, which was no problem for me… but other teachers felt differently. Well, I can tell you… they missed out on spending 9 months with some great kids!
I think the saddest part is that intelligent people like us had to become adults – or at least college students – before we really heard much about Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and others – and the even sadder part is that some of our children may have to move away to learn more, as well. It certainly won’t be taught in many classrooms in this part of Arkansas. About the most we can hope is that some of our kids will absorb by osmosis as they watch BET and other cable television channels that air programs where Dr. King is mentioned and respected. (heavy sigh)
My first cousin, J, who grew up in the same town:
Well, it depends on the kid. But I think B would get it. I would go as deep as his comprehension would allow. There are some great videos. Probably can see the speech on you tube. The earlier the better.
Thanks, D. I know what you mean about even feeling the need to mention a person’s skin color or ethnicity when mentioning their positive qualities. Can’t count how many times I heard (and said) “She’s pretty, for a black girl,” lest someone think less of whoever said it. Just ridiculous.
J, they did watch the speech, as I found out later from B.
T, another classmate from my hometown:
Mark, our schools in south AR will be out for MLK Day, and they covered a fair amount of material on the subject for young children. Sam was telling me about Rosa Parks’s (even though he couldn’t quite remember her name) bus ride. One of the classrooms had a great timeline of events on the outside wall.
When I first started substituting in our schools here I was worried how I might react to such a different environment than the one I grew up in in H, but I’ve learned that people are the same everywhere–they either learn to love or they don’t.
T, that is a great point. When I first lived somewhere else (7th grade), I found the same thing to be true, but probably not at the same level of understanding as you did.
Yet another classmate, A, from my hometown chimed in:
We’ve discussed MLK with (our son) and they learned some about his story in school (although not about bombings thank heavens, he really wouldn’t be able to process that). I know I came home from 1st grade and told my Mom some little boy had said the N-word and didn’t seem ashamed when I told him he shouldn’t use that word. She explained racism and why it was wrong and that we never used that word under any circumstances. She and my Dad also told me about the marches, MLK Jr and later about the riots, hoses, bombings, Parks, Orval Faubus (a family friend) and integration. It was interesting to hear their perspective since they lived through all of it. I had friends at camp who were different colors and parents were adamant that we treat everyone with respect until they proved they didn’t deserve it. It did make me feel a bit like an odd duck in H but certainly helped me fit in at my school in KS.
I don’t know exactly why I decided to post this thread. I know that we didn’t suffer the persecution that those of color have experienced, and that these stories aren’t as riveting as personal accounts of racism victims. We often caught glimpses, of the attitudes that allowed such behavior to go unchecked for decades.