This is the opening of my second-grader’s paragraph for MLK Day. I was flipping through her weekly stack of papers the school sends home (Buy a yearbook! Sign up for science camp! Come to a PTA meeting for freaking once you giant sack of slack!) and I found this. Normally I glance at her papers to make sure she passed the spelling test and shovel it all into the Guilt Hole I call the trash can, but I stopped at this one. I had read lots of essays and articles around MLK Day talking about King’s influence and legacy (maybe the best and most moving one here), but nothing had hit me quite like my daughter’s simple, practical way of putting it. Dr. King is good, she says in inimitable seven-year-old narcissism, because he brought people into my life.
When I was in elementary school, maybe third grade or so, I remember my mother laughing with me in the car about something silly a friend of mine had done. This friend of mine was maybe a year or two younger, and she had been telling her mother all year long about Teresa, this amazing, wonderful, oh-so-cool girl in her class, and couldn’t she please please please invite Teresa home one afternoon. So of course her mom said sure. And the afternoon my friend’s mother was supposed to pick them both up, what do you think happened? My friend came bounding out of school, and right behind her came Teresa, BLACK AS THE ACE OF SPADES! That was the first time I’d ever heard that simile. My mother howled and hooted, giggling at the thought of it: her friend’s discomfiture, her nonplussed face, her struggle not to look shocked. What must she have thought??
Probably every white person can tell you the same story: their moments of discomfort when a colleague, a friend, someone you respect, assumes you are on the same page with them and willing to share a raised eyebrow of amusement at black people. It’s rarely so overt as a racist joke; I last heard one of those delivered sincerely in the 70s, about the black waiters at our country club. A racist joke today would just be so tasteless.
My friend and teaching colleague Bill Rothschild, son of the late Rabbi Jacob Rothschild whose aggressive championing of civil rights resulted in the bombing of The Temple in Atlanta, tells the story about the night the Kings came to dinner at his house. Bill was just a young thing, but he remembers it clearly. In those days before GPS and cell phones, the Kings got lost, driving around the neighborhood trying to find the Rothschilds’ house. They ended up arriving almost an hour late for dinner, full of apologies and explaining they had had to stop and ask for directions.
“No no, don’t worry,” Dr. King said. “We didn’t embarrass you with any of the neighbors. We figured out what to do. Coretta just hopped out and went to the side entrance and said she was working at a party here, and could they tell her where the house was.”
Rabbi Rothschild and Dr. King, at the South's first racially integrated banquet in 1965. (from Emory Magazine 2008)
I’ve often wondered about those people who encountered Coretta Scott King at their kitchen door that night. Did they ever figure it out? Did they see anything other than one more black maid, one more nameless, faceless woman there to pass the shrimp plate and refill the water glasses? I wonder if they ever opened a newspaper and looked at her picture and thought, holy shit. . .
I never got the chance my daughter has, to learn about Martin Luther King in elementary school. I didn’t study King in-depth until AP American History, and by then my father had already taught me he was a communist, and black people were fools for being taken in by his demagoguery. Would learning about King from an earlier, more accurate source have made me less of a racist? Maybe. I know I am a racist. I know I have serious issues of disbelief if a white person raised in the South tells me he or she is not a racist. I can’t scrub that way of seeing out of my brain, I can only adjust for it, with shame, repentance, and struggle. I envy those people who don't have to compensate or adjust, who don't have to do any mental acrobatics to arrive at instinctive openness and equity. I envy my daughter, for the world she is being raised in, and the friendships she is forming.
And maybe, just maybe Kimberly and Malaya and Jalin can help her with her spelling. After all, what are friends for?