Monday was Martin Luther King Day in the States, so I’ve been working on that subject with my students.
and here I am in my white skin, privileged, and bouncing from hemisphere to hemisphere thinking “where would I like to be today? where can I find peace and safety? do they even exist anymore?” if they do, I think every human spirit deserves to live under those conditions. Ember Swift, “Sucker Punched”
It’s been an interesting experience, trying to get the significance of Martin Luther King across to my preteen students, who frankly, couldn’t care less. Learning about a political figure in a foreign country who died 40 years ago isn’t the most riveting of lessons. They’d rather talk about Eminem and 50 Cent. So I tried to jazz it up a bit with music; I’ve been playing Sweet Honey in the Rock’s “Ballad of the Sit-ins”, trying to expose them to traditional African-American music and the history of nonviolent protest in the U.S.
It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important. MLK.
They get the concept of segregation, they understand about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott, they know about the speech and the march on Washington in ’63, they know he was asassinated. But I can’t show them the beauty and passion of the “I Have a Dream” speech, because their language skills aren’t up to that level. I can’t get across his significance to Americans; do the French have an equivalent to MLK? I have no idea.
It’s been an unexpectedly moving experience, personally, observing MLK Day in a foreign country. Trying to look at it from the outside. It gives me perspective. It forces me to think about things that usually I’d rather not think about. MLK has always been, essentially, a day off from school. It’s nice to mark some important historical event, like the signing of the Declaration, but that was about it. Of course King was a great man, and a visionary, etc, but has MLK Day ever really meant anything to me personally? Unfortunately, until now, it hasn’t. What did MLK have to do with me? I was raised in a racist country, in a rigidly self-segregated city, I’ve heard “the n-word” tossed around once or twice by people in my family. I went to white suburban Catholic schools; I can count on one hand the number of black kids I went to school with in 12 years. MLK, like Patrick Henry, was one of those great men with no relevance in my daily life.
If physical death is the price that I must pay to free my white brothers and sisters from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive. MLK.
I remember vividly the one time I went to the black women’s organization, to talk about working with FMLA, and how I realized it was the first time in my life I was in a room where I was the racial minority. And how wierd that felt. And how I suddenly realized that while I have several black friends, I was used to dealing with them on my terms, in my comfortable world. How many black authors have I read? How many black musicians do I listen to? How often do I see black people in the magazines I read, the shows I watch? If I have trouble finding reflections of myself in my world, how much more difficult is it for black dykes, and latina queers, and Asian lesbians? It was one of those excruciating moments when you’re forced to confront your own priviledge–I don’t have to think about race if I don’t choose to.
And now I’m in a country dealing with it’s own racial tensions, trying to teach them something about how Americans have handled the same thing. The reason I didn’t say anything about the French rioting at the time was because I didn’t feel qualified to comment. Although I will say that the French like to think that just because they’ve never had institutionalized-separate-drinking-fountain racism like the States, somehow it doesn’t exist. I got several “OMIGOD ARE YOU OKAY??” emails from family members, but the riots never touched us here. Verdun’s minority population pretty much consists of 2 black people and a boarded-up synagogue. I have about a dozen classes of an average of 20 students, and there’s only one black kid. But I have several students of Middle Eastern descent. The French see banning the hijab in public schools as some sort of church/state separation thing; I see it as the forced assimilation of a minority population. Identitiy politics are very different here. How dare you go out in public with your strange religion and strange clothes and shove your blatant un-Frenchness in our faces. Conform, dammit!
This post is wandering all over the place, but what I’m trying to get at is that by teaching my students (not entirely successfully), I wound up teaching myself. I’d always admired MLK intellectually, of course, but now I’m genuinely moved emotionally by him and his words. Seeing the French burn cars and throw rocks at the police in rage and frustration, and then seeing pictures of those 18 year old kids who started the first sit-in, sparking an entire movement of peaceful resistance, knowing that they won that particular fight without having to throw rocks and smash windows, not only do they inspire me, they make me proud. This is my country and my culture at its best; this is a heritage I can claim.
It makes me frustrated too, though. Those kids are my parent’s generation, and sometimes I shake my head in disbelief at the Baby Boomers. What happened to those idealists? Those crowds of blacks and whites marching together for change, the second wave feminists who made so many huge strides so quickly, the hippies protesting for peace? What the hell happened to you? Did you get too comfortable in your middle-class suburbs? Drop too much acid in the 70s? Become too anxiously aware of your own mortality? How could you do this to us? Because it’s their generation who elected Reagan and the Bushes; my generation voted for Kerry, but when our votes weren’t defrauded, we were outnumbered by our parents (and grandparents). You all lived through Vietnam, you saw it happen on tv and in the papers, back when the media still made an effort at doing it’s job. How could you get us into another one?
Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor in America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours. Martin Luther King, Jr., The Trumpet of Conscience, 1967.
That quote should be poignantly out of date. It shouldn’t still be relevant.
Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted. Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, 1963.
The ironic part is my parents, classic Baby Boomers, totally missed the 60s. They went to school, got married, had children. Except for my dad joining the Marines and getting himself shot in ‘Nam. I get my political idealism from him; my mom’s a pragmatist, my dad was something of a dreamer when he was a kid. He’s not anymore. He was going to save the world from godless commies; me, I’m going to save the world from godbag capitalist patriarchs.
I don’t really know where to end this post, so I guess I’ll end it here. Here are some good MLK quotes for a more positive note. I’m going to go to Paris this weekend and buy more magazines.