She was very excited about the thought of both her classmate and MLK Jr. having a birthday in the same week.
But it didn’t end there. I was happy to hear that she is getting an earful about MLK at school, but wondered what they had taught her.
“So, baby, what did they tell you about Martin Luther King Jr.?” I asked.
“Well, he made it so I can go to school with insert-names-of-white-classmates-here.” And if he didn’t do that, I’d go to school with insert-names-of-brown-classmates-here.”
I was a little surprised at how matter of fact she was about it, not seeming to be bothered that if not for MLK Jr. she wouldn’t be able to go to school with some of her best friends.
So I decided that now was the time to mention that if not for the Civil Rights Movement, not only would she be going to a different school, she would also have been the product of an illegal union.
Then this morning when we woke up, as she usually does on days off, wanted to watch some cartoons, which I usually allow if we are having a lazy day. I said yes, but then immediately switched gears and told her she could watch her cartoons in a minute, but first, I wanted to show her something.
I didn’t want her to just listen to the speech, but to see the sea of brown skinned people. I kept stopping the video to explain things to her, like when he talks about the emancipation proclamation, and the video cuts to the statue of Abraham Lincoln, I paused to tell her what a few of his terms meant.
I told her that there was time, not that long ago in our country, when there were people called slaves.
“Do you know what a slave is?” I asked.
She nodded yes. “It’s someone who does all the work.”
Yes, I told her, they did all the work, but even worse, they were owned by other people. They were owned by white people and the slaves were all people who had brown skin, like her and her dad. They could be sold and most of the time they were treated like animals, made to sleep in terrible conditions and given the worst food to eat. Sometimes, they were hit by their owners.
Her jaw dropped when I told her these things.
We watched some more and then when MLK Jr. talked about segregation, we paused again. This time she told me about how the librarian at school had read them a storybook about segregation and there were “Whites Only” signs on a lot of things.
We talked about how it would be horrible if we went to the library and she wasn’t allowed to go in.
“But you’d be allowed in, Mama,” she says, “because you’re white.” This made her even sadder. But then I told her that I would not likely be allowed in either because they wouldn’t like that I have a brown-skinned daughter.
Then we finished out the video and she immediately wanted to watch My Little Pony.
It was a good start. I know that we will have many discussions like this over her childhood.
Over the past couple of years, as Annika has gone to preschool, and now elementary, I have been bothered by the way Martin Luther Jr. is presented.
At her last school, they had a day of singing songs where they sang a song about how the greatness of MLK Jr. Part of the chorus went something like, “Martin Luther King was a mighty, mighty man, and a might man was he.” It goes on to talk about equality and it’s a very happy and uplifting song.
Even though I could tell that the children loved it and the educators at our school had the best of intentions, that song always bugged me.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind uplifting and happy songs. At the time I told myself that there was nothing wrong with downplaying the horrible oppression of the time for 3 and 4 year-olds. After all, they have plenty of time to learn about the atrocities of our country. Even at home, I was not willing to have these discussions with my child. They were just not age appropriate. So, I appreciated that the school brought the discussion up at all.
What worries me is that this discussion will overpower the more important topics.
Why was Martin Luther King Jr. making this speech? What was he speaking against? It seems like so much of the conversation goes like this, “MLK Jr. was great. Slavery was bad. Everyone is equal now.”
Those are all good and important parts of the conversation but there is so much more.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a great man. But he did not make the world equal. He is a great starting point to the conversation about the Civil Rights Movement and the history of racism in our country. But he is just a piece of the pie, not the beginning, middle and end.