This past Monday night, we listened to an excerpt of Martin Luther King Jr.’s profound and poetic “I Have a Dream” speech, read in a raspy Batman-like rumble. (DJ has a cold.)
Most of it went right over the kids’ heads (although Bookgirl probably caught a lot of it this time around). I’m glad that DJ makes a point to read it every year anyway. He and I need to hear it and understand where we’ve come from.
As I’ve said before, I grew up in South Mississippi. We were a lower middle-class white family, somewhere between belle and redneck. The “desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression” that King references in his speech wasn’t the Mississippi I knew. I was vaguely aware that things had been bad “back then,” but it wasn’t anything I recognized in my world. The white community didn’t teach its next generation hate and anger.
It taught us oblivion.
We — my white friends and I — didn’t understand how recently segregation had been the order of the day. It simply wasn’t discussed. Martin Luther King, Jr. was dismissed with a slight shrug of distaste. I didn’t know anything about Rosa Parks until my sixth grade English teacher, a black woman, dedicated a day of class to her. Thanks to Norman Rockwell’s painting, I knew about Ruby Bridges and integration, but not the seething hate that surrounded her. I was married before I learned about the Detroit race riots (thank you, Dreamgirls). It was last year while researching for a story that I looked up “race relations 1972” and discovered that things were still really nasty in Boston and Washington, D.C.
Of course, as a child, I didn’t understand a lot of things. And as I got older, none of these facts were concealed from me. The white community simply didn’t bring them up.
Later in the evening of MLK Day, I got myself some ice cream and sat down with what I consider leisure reading — a 1963 issue of Better Homes and Gardens. At first the significance of the publication year didn’t occur to me. But I began reading an article about how families could make the most of their money, and King’s words came back to me.
I read, “It’s sad but true that a great many homes in America today are below the standard of what their owners should have and can afford.” And a thought crept in, You don’t mean the “the negro’s basic mobility from a smaller ghetto to a larger one,” do you?
I read, “A packaged weekend ski trip that includes bus transportation, four meals and two night’s lodging, rental of ski equipment and tow charges, costs only $37 per person…” Assuming you aren’t denied those meals and lodging.
I read, “Traveling by car offers the advantage of convenience and savings on transportation costs for a large family… Motels and hotels charge about $9.50 a night for two…” Two WHITE PEOPLE. The words were a roar in my head.
This magazine, a “family magazine” for “Americans today,” was written only for white people. And I’d never really thought much about it, because I’m part of the club, so it’s easy to assume that everybody gets the same benefit.
Outright black oppression at the hands of white supremacy isn’t really history. It’s still living memory. It’s a charred field barely covered over with new growth. More and more I realize that we can’t expect our nation to “move on” from a catastrophe that’s still hot to the touch.
I want healing. I want to see things change. And I’m trying to start with myself. I never singled out other races for hate and disgust. I’ve worked hard to shed some toxic ingrained attitudes of white supremacy.
But I can honestly say that what I’m mostly guilty of is something that’s harder to see in the first place. I’m guilty of oblivion.
So this year especially, I’m grateful for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I’m glad that we still have his words that make us stop and acknowledge the truth we’d been taught to ignore. May oblivion not blind us to the plight of our neighbors and fellow humans.